UK FM Raab meets Qatar Emir on Afghanistan, Kabul airport

UK FM Raab meets with Qatar emir, FM on Afghanistan, Kabul airport
5 min read
02 September, 2021
Raab has been under huge criticism for his handling of the UK evacuation from Kabul.
Raab's time in Qatar follows intense scrutiny on his Afghanistan response at home [Getty]

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has travelled to Doha to speak with Qatari leaders, as criticism over his handling of the Afghanistan crisis grows.

Raab will meet Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Al-Thani on Thursday to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.

After meeting his Qatari counterpart, Raab said there is a need to engage with the Taliban but that the UK has no immediate plans to recognise their rule over Afghanistan.

The Taliban took over the country last month leading to the hasty departure of Western countries from Kabul.

Qatar has been housing Afghan refugees evacuated from Afghanistan, many of whom worked with US and NATO forces, and could have faced threats to their lives under Taliban rule.

Raab has already spoken to Qatar's Emir, the BBC has reported.

Sheikh Mohammed said Qatar was talking with the Taliban and working with Turkey for potential technical support to restart operations at Kabul Airport.

"We are engaging with them [the Taliban], engaging also with Turkey if they can provide any technical assistance on that front. Hopefully in the next few days there will be some good news," he explained.

"There is no clear indication when [the airport] is going to be fully operational yet...We remain hopeful that we will be able to operate it as soon as possible."

The hardline Islamist militant Taliban seized control of the Afghan capital, Kabul, last month, but have yet to name an administration.

Raab said he had discussed with Qatari officials to ensure Afghanistan does not become a haven for terrorism under Taliban rule. He also spoke on how to prevent a humanitarian crisis, preserve regional stability, and tp hold the Taliban to account on their public pledge to build an inclusive government.

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"Our commitment on the part of the United Kingdom to Afghanistan remains. We need to adjust to the new reality," Raab told reporters.

"Our immediate priority is to secure the safe passage of those remaining British nationals, and also the Afghans who worked for the United Kingdom, and others who may be at the most risk," he said, adding that he would talk to regional leaders about securing safe passage through third countries.

An earlier Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) release, announcing Raab's visit, said that top UK concerns for Afghanistan include safeguarding rights, particularly those of girls and women, who suffered oppression the last time the Taliban ruled the country.

This statement also said: "The decision to visit Doha first on a trip to the region reflects the high profile [sic] role the Qataris have played with regard to Afghanistan in recent years."

The FCDO mentioned the Taliban's political office, which has been based in Qatar since 2013.

Despite Raab's efforts on the Afghanistan crisis, Nicholas Kay, the UK's ex-Afghan envoy, gave some cause for concern when discussing an escape by land.

Talking to Today on BBC Radio 4, he explained there is no visa process in place to permit citizens of Afghanistan to enter next-door nations for "onward travel to the UK" even if they're able to demonstrate the UK has approved their arrival, though this "is under discussion".

Despite saying developments are happening quickly at this point, and highlighting the significance of Raab being in the Middle East, Kay acknowledged that "[t]here is not any time to lose, and to some extent, yes, we are playing catch-up".

It was not clear when Kay made his comments, though The Guardian article was released on Thursday.

Raab had previously on Wednesday said he was to travel to Afghanistan's neighbours.

During nearly two hours of at times gruelling questions from lawmakers, the foreign secretary insisted that the UK had prepared for all eventualities ahead of last month's Taliban takeover and would continue trying to help those fleeing the new regime in Kabul.

Ahead of visiting these countries, whose names went unspecified on Wednesday, to discuss allowing vulnerable Afghans entry and onward travel to the UK, Raab said the FCDO was dispatching 15-person "rapid deployment teams" to continue London's evacuation efforts.

The UK has opened talks with the Taliban over the safe passage of its remaining nationals and allies out of Afghanistan and dispatched senior civil servant Simon Gass to meet with Taliban representatives in Doha.

The UK has "temporarily relocated" its Afghan embassy to Doha since the Taliban takeover.

Afghanistan evacuations by country
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Gass will bring Raab up to date regarding these discussions while he is in Qatar, the FCDO said on Thursday.

It is the first publicly disclosed diplomacy between London and the Taliban since the UK joined the US in the mammoth airlift of more than 100,000 people out of the country after the Afghan military's capitulation to the Taliban.

"I'm going to the region tonight to test the accessibility of these arrangements," Raab told the cross-party panel of MPs from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee grilling him at a special watchdog hearing on Wednesday.

"We've got to keep those borders open. And I think part of that is giving those third countries arrangements that they can feel confident in, perhaps support as well."

'Challenging'

Britain's top diplomat has faced calls to resign after going on holiday ahead of the mid-August Taliban takeover.

"No, I considered getting on with the job," Raab said, when asked if he had considering resigning over the crisis.

Raab staunchly defended both his and the government's conduct during the chaotic evacuations of British nationals and vulnerable Afghans.

More than 8,000 people potentially eligible to leave have been left stranded after the last UK military flight left Afghanistan on Saturday.

However, current and former officials have condemned the government, suggesting many more could have been rescued in recent months and hit out at faulty phone and email systems set up to process evacuation applicants.

Lisa Nandy, the opposition Labour Party's counterpart to Raab, slammed the FCDO as being the "weakest link in the chain", alleging a failure to get ready for the rescue effort when compared to nations like France, the BBC reported.

However, during his time in front of MPs on Wednesday, Raab called it "the most challenging evacuation of its kind in memory" and noted more than 15,000 people had been taken out of Afghanistan during the last two weeks.

That included 287 journalists, 65 women's rights activists, 37 "extremely vulnerable" individuals and dozens of former officials.

Raab said the government began planning earlier this summer to shift embassy operations to Kabul Airport if required and to speed up the relocation of former Afghan staff.

"We started planning in June for the contingency of an evacuation and the full drawdown of the embassy," Raab said, as he faced accusations of incompetence and criticism for taking an August luxury holiday in Crete.

(The New Arab, AFP, Reuters)