RAF airlifts 12,000 out of Afghanistan as departure deadline looms

The RAF has so far airlifted more than 12,000 people out of Afghanistan in the race against time to help those fleeing the Taliban before the deadline for foreign forces to depart.

But there are fears hundreds could be left behind, with a terror threat at Kabul airport heaping pressure on the evacuation effort during its final stages.

US president Joe Biden rejected calls from allies including Boris Johnson to extend his deadline for withdrawing US troops past Tuesday August 31 in order to prolong the humanitarian mission to airlift people to safety.

Citing security reasons, ministers have not set out the deadline for the departure of British troops but they are expected to have to pack up and leave ahead of the Americans, who are providing security at Hamid Karzai International Airport.

Armed forces minister James Heappey said on Thursday that the UK has helped 12,279 people escape Afghanistan since August 13, when the Taliban was on its march back to power after the US drew down its troops.

That included 1,988 people on eight RAF flights in the past 24 hours, while 11 more were scheduled out of Kabul on Thursday as part of Operation Pitting, which began on August 13.

Boris Johnson said later in the day that 15,000 people have been airlifted to Britain during the mission, but it was then clarified that he was referring to wider evacuations.

The Prime Minister told broadcasters that although the “lion’s share” of eligible Afghans has now been evacuated from the country, “there will be people who still need help”.

He added: “In the time we have left, which may be – as I’m sure everybody can appreciate – quite short, we’ll do everything we can to get everybody else.”

On Wednesday, it was believed nearly 2,000 people assessed as eligible under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap) remained on the ground.

But Mr Heappey said the number outstanding has now dropped to “potentially half” of the previous estimate.

Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan
Passengers disembark an RAF Voyager after arriving at RAF Brize Norton from the Middle East (SAC Samantha Holden RAF/PA)

Arap is designed to allow those Afghans, such as interpreters, who helped the UK forces and are there at a heightened risk of persecution by the Taliban.

Embassy staff and British nationals are also being evacuated, as are some from allied countries.

An unidentified number of “special cases” may be eligible for evacuation, such as LGBTQ advocates, judges and human rights activists.

The Ministry of Defence is yet to update the figure for the number of Afghan individuals and their families who have been evacuated, but on Wednesday put the figure at 7,000.

The number of British citizens who still need evacuating, as well as those who hold dual citizenship, also remained unclear.

The vast majority of people airlifted out of Kabul by the RAF will return to the UK, but a small proportion from third countries will be destined for elsewhere.

In the US, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said evacuations can continue until the end of August but conceded that they will have to prioritise the removal of US military capability in the “last couple of days”.

British ministers have conceded that they will not be able to help everyone flee before UK troops leave Kabul.

They hope that Afghan citizens may be able to depart at a later date, despite the Taliban having said “we are not in favour of allowing Afghans to leave”.

Mr Heappey told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he expects that Kabul’s airport will be able to reopen for civilian flights because the “Taliban don’t want to be an international pariah”.