Dominic Raab has said the UK will not recognise the Taliban in the “foreseeable future” during a diplomatic mission to ensure the safe passage of the Britons and Afghans left behind.
But the Foreign Secretary said during a visit to Qatar on Thursday that there is an “important scope for engagement and dialogue” with the group that seized power as foreign forces left Afghanistan.
Mr Raab was attempting to build a regional coalition to “exert the maximum moderating influence” on the Taliban as they “adjust to the new reality” of the Taliban in power.
At a press conference in Doha after meeting the Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Foreign Secretary said a “direct engagement” is required with the Taliban.
“The reality is we will not be recognising the Taliban any time in the foreseeable future but I think there is an important scope for engagement and dialogue,” he said.
At Mr Raab’s side, Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said he is “hopeful” that Kabul airport will reopen soon, with the Gulf state seen as key to progress as it has maintained close relations with the Taliban.
The reopening of Hamid Karzai International Airport would allow for a greater scale of evacuations from Afghanistan, with those trying to flee the Taliban currently being told to cross into neighbouring countries.
“There is no clear indication when it is going to be fully operational yet but we are working very hard and also engaging with the Taliban to identify what are the gaps and the risks for having the airport back up and running,” the minister said.
“We will remain hopeful that we will be able to operate it as soon as possible.”
During the trip, Mr Raab is also expected to visit Pakistan, which crucially shares a land border with Afghanistan.
The Foreign Secretary said Qatar was a “lynchpin” in dealing with the crisis going forward as he seeks to get “wider buy-in” to the diplomatic efforts.
“I think above all we need to put a grouping together that can exert the maximum moderating influence on what the Taliban does next and we will certainly be judging them, yes on their words, but more importantly what they do to live up to the assurances they’ve made,” he added.
Sir Simon Gass, the Prime Minister’s special representative for Afghan transition, had already travelled to Qatar for talks with “senior Taliban representatives” about allowing people to leave Afghanistan.
Thousands of Afghans who helped British efforts in the nation and their relatives are feared to have been left behind when the RAF departed Kabul ahead of the US’s end of August deadline for withdrawal.
Mr Raab remained under fire over his handling of the crisis, after telling MPs intelligence was to blame for the UK being caught out by the speed of the Taliban takeover last month.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace struck back at Mr Raab’s assertion, telling the Spectator magazine “it’s not about failure of intelligence, it’s about the limits of intelligence”.
Mr Wallace also said he was arguing in July that “the game is up” and Britain should be accelerating efforts in Afghanistan as areas historically resistant to the Taliban fell.
“I remember back in July arguing that whatever we think, the game is up and we have to do what we can to accelerate whatever we’re doing,” he said in the interview.
Despite those apparent warnings, Mr Raab holidayed in Crete as Afghanistan was being recaptured by the Taliban last month.
The Foreign Secretary told MPs the “most likely” outcome foreseen by the Joint Intelligence Committee “and the military” after the withdrawal of foreign troops was “a steady deterioration from that point and it was unlikely Kabul would fall this year”.
But at the emergency meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, he was also confronted with a principal risk register warning on July 22 that Afghanistan could fall to the Taliban much sooner than predicted.
“Peace talks are stalled and US Nato withdrawal is resulting in rapid Taliban advances. This could lead to: fall of cities, collapse of security forces, Taliban return to power, mass displacement and significant humanitarian need. The embassy may need to close if security deteriorates,” the document warned.
But a Foreign Office spokesman said it was “wrong and misleading” to suggest the department’s document was “at odds with our detailed assessments of the situation in Afghanistan or our public position throughout the crisis”.
Mr Raab has been unable to say how many Afghans were left behind, but estimated the number of UK nationals in Afghanistan to be in the “low hundreds”.
Mr Wallace previously estimated that up to 1,100 Afghans who had been deemed eligible would not be evacuated before the exit of foreign forces.
As Mr Raab visited Doha, Foreign Office minister Lord Ahmad was to travel to Tajikistan as part of the diplomatic efforts to secure safe passages.