Boris Johnson has said he would work with the Taliban insurgency if necessary to “find a solution” for Afghanistan, as the government navigates “formidable” challenges in evacuating people from Kabul.
The prime minister also sought to defend Dominic Raab, the under-fire foreign secretary who has faced a litany of questions over his handling of the crisis, insisting he “absolutely” had confidence in the cabinet minister.
Following a fourth emergency session of Cobra, Mr Johnson said he wanted to assure people that “political and diplomatic efforts to find a solution for Afghanistan” will continue, including “working with the Taliban, of course, if necessary”.
It comes as leading human rights charity Amnesty International claimed militants had tortured and killed several members of an ethnic minority group – raising concerns of a return to its repressive regime of the late 1990s.
Witnesses told Amnesty that the Taliban had carried out a massacre of the Hazara minority in early July in Ghanzi — about 60 miles southwest of Kabul, where the rapid evacuation of foreign nationals is currently underway.
The brutality of the killings was “a reminder of the Taliban’s past record and a horrifying indicator of what Taliban rule may bring”, said Agnes Callamard, the head of the rights group.
A separate group that provides intelligence to the UN also suggested the Taliban was going door-to-door searching for people who worked for Nato forces or the previous Afghan government.
The reports contradict claims made by the group – via a press conference earlier this week – that the Taliban had changed since it was last in power, and would not seek “revenge” against former opponents.
Pressed on whether he believed suggestions from the Taliban spokespeople that it will be more moderate in the future, Mr Johnson reiterated on Friday: “I think it’s very important that we take people at face value.”
He added: “We hope they mean what they say. But again, as I said in the House of Commons, and I think that this is the position of everybody from the president of the United States, president Macron of France, Angela Merkel, everybody that I talked to – everybody is agreed that we will judge them on their actions, and that is the important thing.”
In his address to the Commons on Wednesday during an emergency debate on the deteriorating situation, Mr Johnson also stressed it would be a “mistake” for any country to recognise “any new regime in Kabul prematurely or bilaterally”.
“Instead, those countries that care about Afghanistan’s future should work towards common conditions about the conduct of the new regime before deciding, together, whether to recognise it and on what terms,” he added.
Speaking last month Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, also suggested the government would engage with the Taliban if it seized control, but warned: “Just like other governments around the world, if they behave in a way that is seriously against human rights, we will review that relationship.”
In an update on the evacuation, Mr Johnson told reporters on Friday evening the logistical challenges surrounding the evacuation were “formidable”, but said there had been a “stabilisation” at the Hamid Karzai international airport in the Afghan capital.
On Thursday, Mr Johnson said around 1,000 people were airlifted out of the country, with another 1,000 anticipated throughout today.
“A lot of those, obviously, UK-eligible persons coming back to this country, and a lot of them are people coming back under the Afghanistan Resettlement and Assistance Programme, the ARAP, and those are the people, the interpreters, others, to whom we owe debts of gratitude and honour.”
Insisting that Britain’s commitment to Afghanistan was “lasting”, he also stressed: “It’s a mistake to think the end of this month or the beginning of September as being a cut-off point for our involvement and our willingness to help”.
Quizzed on whether he had confidence in the foreign secretary Mr Raab after reports emerged that he failed to make a key call to his Afghan counterpart while on holiday on the Greek island of Crete, Mr Johnson defied mounting calls for his resignation, saying: “Absolutely.
“I can tell you that the whole of the government has been working virtually around the clock, hitting the phones to do what we can to sort it out, to deal with the situation that has been long in gestation, and to make sure that we get as many people as back as possible”.
He added: “It’s worth repeating that at the end of a 20-year cycle of engagement there is a huge record to be proud of in Afghanistan.
“It bears repeating that the UK armed forces, UK diplomats, aid workers, did help to change the lives of literally millions of people in Afghanistan, to help educate millions of women and young girls who would otherwise not have been educated, and to stop terrorism from coming into this country.”