Hundreds of paratroopers are being sent back to Afghanistan to bring home Britons, the Defence Secretary has announced, as the Taliban continues to make rapid advances through the country.
Ben Wallace said that about 600 soldiers drawn from 16 Air Assault Brigade, which is deemed the unit in the British Army that can be deployed most quickly, would be sent to Afghanistan in the coming days.
As well as assisting with the evacuation of British nationals from the country, the troops will help to bring interpreters and other Afghan staff to the UK, in an acceleration of the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy.
The Ministry of Defence admitted the additional deployment was “in light of the increasing violence and rapidly deteriorating security environment in the country”.
On Thursday, the US warned its citizens to leave Afghanistan immediately as it confirmed it was sending additional troops to help evacuate personnel from the embassy in Kabul.
Meanwhile, Germany and the Netherlands announced that they had stopped forced repatriations of Afghan migrants.
Less than a week ago, the Government told all British nationals to make their own arrangements to leave Afghanistan because of the “worsening security situation”.
While forces will continue to use commercial aircraft to fly civilians back to the UK, it is understood that if any are stranded they could be rescued by troops.
The British evacuations will be complete by Sept 11, the symbolic date chosen by the US as the end of their military involvement in Afghanistan. Defence sources stressed that they hoped the operation would be completed sooner.
It comes after Boris Johnson announced last month that British forces had withdrawn from the war-torn country after 20 years in which 457 British military personnel were killed.
He made the statement to the Commons after the Union flag at Hamid Karzai International Airport was lowered, in a ceremony marking the end of British military presence in the country.
On Thursday, Taliban insurgents continued to accelerate their advance across Afghanistan as the western city of Herat fell. Heavy fighting continued in Kandahar, only hours after the militants took control of the city of Ghazni, putting them within 100 miles of Kabul.
The Taliban’s recent gains mean that Ashraf Ghani’s government has lost nearly a third of its provincial capitals in less than a week.
Mr Wallace also announced that the British Embassy in Kabul would be relocated from the outskirts of the fortified Green Zone to a more secure location. The number of staff working there has been reduced to a core team led by Sir Laurie Bristow, the UK’s ambassador.
The embassy will focus on providing consular and visa services for those needing to leave the country.
Mr Wallace said: “The security of British nationals, British military personnel and former Afghan staff is our first priority. We must do everything we can to ensure their safety.”
Mr Wallace stressed that the need to “put troops in” was a “perfectly normal thing to do”.
However, General Lord Dannatt, the former head of the Army, told The Telegraph that while it was clear the MoD and Permanent Joint Headquarters would have had a contingency plan for all eventualities, it was “very disappointing that we’ve got to this situation that it has had to be executed”.
He said: “I’m afraid Joe Biden has triggered this because while the much reduced US-led Nato force was still in Afghanistan we were putting the backbone into the Afghan National Army and they were holding off the Taliban. Because he has decided to cut and run effectively it’s triggered this situation. It’s very sad.”
Another senior military source said it was no accident that the Government had chosen to send the paratroopers, who were renowned for being held at high readiness, into Afghanistan.
He said: “They’ve made a decision that if things go badly south they need to have troops who can protect themselves and the people they’ve been sent to protect. These are combat troops. This isn’t for sitting back. If they have to fight they’ll fight.”
The source added that as Kandahar and Herat were stormed by militants only hours after the Taliban had also taken control of the city of Ghazni, that it was inevitable “it will come to Kabul and the UK will want to extract their entitled personnel as soon as possible”.
“There’s bound to have been contingency plans for what happens when things go to rats – but I’m sure this wasn’t planned,” he added.
Mr Wallace confirmed that medics, logistics and movement personnel would be included within troop numbers to “ensure the force is properly protected”. The number being sent was around the size of a battalion.