Foreign secretary’s comments in Doha come as he remains under fire over his handling of the crisis.
The United Kingdom will not recognise the Taliban but sees scope for dialogue, the British foreign secretary has said, adding that he is monitoring closely whether the hardline group lives up to its promises to maintain peace.
During a diplomatic mission to Qatar to ensure the safe passage of the Britons and Afghans left behind, Dominic Raab said on Thursday that he 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 group in power.
The Taliban shocked Western leaders and observers with its rapid advance ahead of the American pullout on August 31.
Within hours of taking control of Afghanistan on August 15, a chaotic race began among global powers to evacuate foreigners and Afghan collaborators as many feared the Taliban would not honour pledges that it would not seek retribution.
At a press conference in the Qatari capital, Doha, after meeting the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Raab said a “direct engagement” was 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.
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 United States’s end of August deadline for withdrawal.
At Raab’s side, Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said he was “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, Raab is also expected to visit Pakistan, which crucially shares a land border with Afghanistan and is home to more than a million Afghan refugees. Thousands are crossing into Pakistan each day, following the Taliban’s takeover.
Raab said Qatar was a “linchpin” 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.
But Raab remains 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”.
Wallace also said he was arguing back in July that “the game is up” and Britain should be accelerating its efforts in Afghanistan.
“It was a bit of a shock when Herat fell. Some of these big places had historically been resistant to the Taliban. When they fell, literally without a fight, I think the game was up,” he said in the interview.
“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.”
Despite those apparent warnings, Raab holidayed in Crete as Afghanistan was being recaptured by the Taliban last month.