Afghanistan: Why can't the UK hold Kabul airport without the US?

By Daniel Kraemer
BBC News

  • Published
UK and US troops talkingImage source, MOD

The evacuation from Kabul airport is in its final stages, after the UK failed to persuade the US to extend its 31 August deadline for leaving.

Two explosions hit the airport on Thursday, killing 90 people, but Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the UK's withdrawal "wasn't hastened by the attack".

Why can't the UK keep Kabul airport open without the US?

The US has provided the bulk of the troops to keep the airport secure and is running many of its facilities - including air traffic control.

It has also provided intelligence and surveillance for the operation.

Protection from US fighter jets and helicopters has also been vital, according to Nick Reynolds of the Royal United Services Institute think tank.

And the RAF's limited number of transport aircraft, means the UK does not have the capability "to conduct an effective evacuation by itself", he said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said "only the United States could organize and execute a mission of this scale and this complexity".

Who has had troops at Kabul airport?

The US has had around 6,000 troops at Hamid Karzai International Airport during the evacuation mission.

There have been American jets patrolling the skies, as well as attack helicopters present.

The UK has had more than 1,000 at the airport, including the Army's 16 Air Assault Brigade.

Smaller contingents from Nato members including France, Germany and Turkey have also been present.

As the evacuation draws to a close, these numbers have been declining.

What does the UK want?

The UK wanted the US to postpone its withdrawal beyond 31 August, but the deadline remained.

On Friday, the UK confirmed it had entered the final stages of its evacuation and said no more people would be called to the airport to leave.

It said more than 13,000 people had been evacuated. This includes nearly 8,000 Afghans under the UK's relocation scheme for former staff and vulnerable individuals, as well as 4,000 British passport holders.

But Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said "not everyone has been able to be evacuated during this process", including around 800 to 1,100 eligible Afghans

He said to maximise the number of people evacuated, limits on passenger numbers had been loosened. Some military equipment will be left behind to make extra space.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he hopes for a "second phase", during which the Taliban understands "there has got to be a reasonable approach to people who still want to leave".

Image source, MOD

What has the US said?

US President Joe Biden has stood by his decision to leave by 31 August.

But he has faced questions over depending on the Taliban to secure the perimeter of the airport.

He said: "We're just counting on their self-interest to continue to generate their activities. And it's in their self-interest that we leave when we said and that we get as many people out as we can."

The total number of evacuees since the Taliban took over on 14 August is about 105,000, the White House said on Friday.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there was "no deadline" for helping US citizens who want to leave the country, along with Afghans "who have stood by us over these many years".

What is the Taliban doing?

Although many of the people evacuated are fleeing the new regime, the Taliban has largely cooperated, according to the US.

On Tuesday, the Taliban said there was enough time to get foreign nationals out before the deadline, but it was "not in favour" of allowing Afghans to leave.

It has described the 31 August deadline as a "red line" and said staying longer would mean extending Afghanistan's occupation. The Taliban warned of consequences if that were to happen.