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Taliban and IS/Daesh Attacks: Afghanistan

Volume 635: debated on Monday 29 January 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on recent Taliban and Daesh attacks on civilians and humanitarian workers in Afghanistan and on the UK Government’s response.

I think that Members on both sides of the House will wish to join me in expressing our deepest condolences to all victims of the recent terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and to their families.

As the Foreign Secretary and I have made clear over the weekend, we have been appalled and deeply saddened by the series of ghastly and cowardly outrages over the past 10 days. The UK Government condemn in the strongest possible terms all forms of terrorism, including the recent attacks claimed by both the Taliban and Daesh. To target humanitarian workers and use ambulances to hide explosives is especially heinous, demonstrating the very lowest disregard for humanity. It is unacceptable that the Afghan people continue to suffer such brutal acts of terror. I pay tribute to the brave work of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, and the Afghan emergency services. They deserve our recognition for their swift and professional response in the face of these terrorist outrages.

As I said at the UN Security Council in New York just 10 days ago, the UK continues, and will continue, to stand resolute in its support for Afghanistan against terrorism, and supports those responsible being brought to justice. The UK remains committed to working with the Government of Afghanistan and our international partners to bring peace, security and prosperity to the Afghan people.

I need not remind the House that security remains an ongoing challenge in Afghanistan. The Taliban continue to carry out routine attacks across the country. The Daesh affiliate, largely based in the eastern Nangarhar province, has come under sustained pressure from the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, with support from the US. The UK is playing its part diplomatically and militarily in tackling this real threat. The UK military, working with NATO allies as part of the Resolute Support Mission, will continue to focus its support on the ongoing development and capacity-building of the ANDSF. I saw for myself the hard work we are doing as part of the mission on my visit to Afghanistan last October. Only last week, I discussed the challenging task facing the NATO mission with its charismatic and committed commander, General John Nicholson, when he was in London.

Our support is not just military. At the Brussels conference in 2016, the UK pledged up to £750 million for development in Afghanistan for the period 2017 to 2020. This is aimed at supporting improving health systems and private sector-led growth, boosting education and taking steps to tackle corruption.

Ultimately, however, a political solution to the conflict is the only way to achieve lasting stability in Afghanistan and the wider region. The UK Government strongly support the efforts being made towards this goal by the Afghan Government and look forward to further progress at next month’s meeting of the Kabul Process for Peace and Security Co-operation. Along with the US, we recognise that our ongoing involvement in Afghanistan must be conditions-based rather than time-limited. The long-suffering people of Afghanistan deserve peace, but also our support and assistance.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for the strength of his statement, the support he has given to the Afghan security services, and his condemnations of these heinous attacks, as he put it. I totally agree.

We used to have regular updates in this House on Afghanistan, yet the last major debate we had was in March last year, and we have had very few statements, particularly in the past year. Since then, as the Minister pointed out, the Taliban, Daesh and others have carried out a series of horrific attacks killing many civilians, Afghan security personnel, and, in the particularly heinous act last week, deliberately attacking humanitarian workers from Save the Children and civilians in Jalalabad, resulting in seven deaths. Our thoughts and prayers must surely be with all those who have lost their lives or been injured.

UK and global attention to events in Afghanistan has significantly waned in the past year despite the significant ongoing UK military presence, with over 500 troops stationed, plus an additional 85 recently added, as well as our diplomatic, development and non-governmental organisation involvement. The recent horrific events suggest that the situation is becoming increasingly violent and volatile. NGO members of ACBAR—the Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief and Development—report to me that over the past year there have been 156 attacks on aid workers, resulting in the deaths of 17 aid workers who have been killed while providing this crucial humanitarian assistance. Only today, 11 Afghan soldiers were killed in Kabul. This week, over 100 people were killed and hundreds more injured when an ambulance filled with explosives was detonated in Kabul. Last week, 22 civilians were murdered by the Taliban in an attack on a hotel. We know that 2017 was a record year for civilian casualties. The Taliban are gaining increasing momentum. Nine million people still need humanitarian assistance. Pakistan has been accused by some of a deliberate campaign to force out 600,000 Afghan refugees. There was a litany of serious and horrific attacks during the course of last year.

What will the Government do about the growing culture of impunity for those breaking international humanitarian law that we see not just in Afghanistan but in so many conflicts across the world? What assessment have the Government made of the involvement of elements from Pakistan, Iran and Russia, in differing ways, in the growing unrest, including very serious allegations of arming the Taliban and/or facilitating attacks? What assessment has the Minister made of the strength of the Taliban and Daesh? What steps are we taking at the United Nations Security Council? What consideration have we given to increasing our military, diplomatic and development contributions? What discussions have we had with our NATO and other allied partners?

In the last written statement on Afghanistan, the then Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), who I see in the Chamber, said:

“The UK will never forget the sacrifice made by the 456 members of the armed forces who died during operations there. They helped protect our country…and, through our continued support to the mission, we are working to protect their legacy.”—[Official Report, 29 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 19WS.]

I agree. It is completely vital that that that legacy of bravery and sacrifice is protected, for our own and regional security and for the safety and security of the Afghan people.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. He has made a very worthwhile contribution. I very much agree; we have to recognise not only that we work collectively in the region but that the international counter-terrorism network is now so extensive that for us simply to leave Afghanistan is not an option.

While the insurgency remains persistent—the hon. Gentleman catalogued some of the dreadful events of the past 10 days—the Government of Afghanistan remain determined to build a better future for Afghanistan, and there have been some notable successes by the security forces against Taliban forces over the past year. The attacks in Kabul that we have seen over the past 10 days garner, I fear, more international publicity than they would if they were in other parts of the country and reflect the manner in which the ANDSF has depleted the insurgents’ capabilities outside the capital city.

I work closely with international partners, not least in the United Nations, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out. I also believe that regional partnerships are crucial to achieving long-term peace and security. As I say, I spoke 10 days ago in a debate that was initiated by the Kazakhs, who have the presidency this month of the UN Security Council. It was in their interests to talk about the way in which central Asian states can make some genuine and sustainable progress. I welcome the efforts to improve links between Afghanistan and its regional partners in south and central Asia. There is a tendency for us to look upon Afghanistan alongside either Pakistan or Iran without recognising that there are other near neighbours, many of which can play an essential part in improving the long-term future for all Afghanis.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the tragic severity of these attacks underlines the threat that these terrorist groups continue to pose to the state of Afghanistan? There would be huge implications for western Europe, and indeed for us, if that very fragile democracy, which we have done so much to sustain, were allowed to collapse, and therefore however grim these attacks are, it is all the more important that Britain and NATO stay the course.

My right hon. Friend has a particular knowledge of not only Afghanistan but Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, and he recognises the interlinked network of criminality and terrorism that is involved. There is no doubt—I very much agree with him—that security remains an ongoing challenge in Afghanistan. The ungoverned space for terrorist groups remains persistent. The Taliban, I fear, remain capable of attack across the country, and in Helmand province they remain the single biggest challenge for the security forces.

My right hon. Friend touches on the issue of democracy. We are very keen to see both presidential and parliamentary elections take place over the next 18 months or so in Afghanistan. It is important we have a Government in Afghanistan that is legitimate and widely regarded as such. However, those elections and that progress must be Afghan-led, and we very much hope to see progress towards democracy continuing. As I said, there will be yet another peace conference in Kabul on this issue, which will bring neighbours from the region together. I very much hope we will see steps forward that will take some attention away from the rather woeful headlines of recent days.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing it.

Saturday’s attack on Kabul’s Chicken Street area was one of horrific savagery and soullessness. To use an ambulance as a weapon of terror against innocent civilians shows—not for the first time—that there are no depths of depravity and evil to which the jihadis will not sink. It is part of a calculated strategy to show that even the best-guarded areas of the country are not safe and to worsen the political instability already gripping Kabul.

In the space of the last week, we have seen similar deadly attacks on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, the Save the Children office in Jalalabad and the Marshal Fahim military academy, otherwise known as “Sandhurst in the sand”. At least 142 innocent people have been killed in total and hundreds more injured. We send our deepest sympathies to all those victims and their families, and we send our solidarity to all the people of Afghanistan.

Let me ask the Minister three questions. First, what are the Government doing to urge President Ghani to reach a settlement with his political opponents, so that all the country’s democratic forces can present a united front and stable defences against those who want to destroy this fledgling democracy? Secondly, amid reports that humanitarian agencies are having to review their presence in the country, given the increased threat to their staff, what are the Government doing to support the British aid agencies working in Afghanistan, particularly in improving their security?

Finally, the Minister knows the concern felt all across this House about the Afghan interpreters who have worked with our forces and who face a constant threat from the jihadis. Last month, the Government said that not a single interpreter had been relocated to Britain under the so-called intimidation scheme, and they also said that

“the changing security position…is kept under careful review.”—[Official Report, 12 December 2017; Vol. 633, c. 11WS.]

Given the rapid deterioration of the security position since then, will the Minister advise us what plans he has to bring more of our former interpreters to safety here in Britain?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her thoughtful comments. We obviously very much hope that next month’s Kabul peace process will be part of bringing all sides together, with democracy in mind, in Afghanistan. Having met President Ghani, I have to say that I have been impressed by his resilience in the face of great difficulties. As the right hon. Lady will know, with a national unity Government, there are inevitably ups and downs. Broadly speaking, however, things have held together, and that is to the great credit not just of Ghani, but of all the people who have been playing their part and recognising the importance of this process.

The UK Government remain very committed to a diplomatic presence in Kabul, to support the Afghan Government in their efforts to secure peace and stability. The support the UK provides to the Afghan Government, along with our NATO allies and partners, in improving security, development and governance is in my view crucial to ensuring stability and reducing the terrorist threat to the UK.

If I may, I would like to pay—I am sure the right hon. Lady would join me in paying—the warmest possible tribute to all our courageous staff on the ground in Kabul. As I said, I was there in October, and I realised the great difficulties and the very challenging conditions under which they work. It is very dangerous not just to leave the green zone, but even to live within it. The esprit de corps of our embassy in Kabul—this applies to other high-profile places such as Mogadishu—is something of which all of us here can be incredibly proud.

On the issue of the interpreters, the right hon. Lady will appreciate that I cannot comment on the individual cases that have made it into the press, but I am very happy to say a few words. Our local staff policies were developed having regard to the then Afghan Government’s concern to retain their brightest and best citizens to help build a more stable and secure Afghanistan. Afghan local staff who are eligible for the ex gratia scheme but not for relocation are entitled to appeal such a decision, and MOD staff will assist individuals where the Department holds the relevant evidence. If the right hon. Lady or other Members have specific cases that they would like to bring to my attention, my door remains open and I am very happy to take up such cases.

Rightly, this country takes very seriously the cases of those who are putting themselves at grave risk—as grave as, if not more grave than, the risk to our embassy staff abroad—and they should be properly protected. I would obviously be very disturbed to hear if that were not the case. The right hon. Lady will recognise that there is a procedure and a protocol that needs to be gone through on such matters, but if there are specific issues to be raised, I hope she will do so.

I note the Minister’s remarks about the threat in and outside Kabul, but what should one make of current reports that the Taliban control 40% to 50% of Afghanistan’s 400 districts, which is the most since the NATO intervention in 2001? Will the Minister give us his assessment of the rather surprising resilience of both the Taliban and ISIS in the face of everything we are trying to do to assist the force in Afghanistan in taking them on, and will he also give us his assessment of the resilience of Afghanistan’s armed forces in the face of this threat?

Others will have observed that, as I have said, the solution for long-term peace and stability lies not just with the military, but in a broader peace process. Although my hon. Friend is right to identify the fact that the Taliban have clearly not gone away, equally they have not been able to take any major cities during the past two or three years. That means that large, relatively ungoverned parts and open spaces of Afghanistan may well be under Taliban control, for want of a better phrase, but most of the larger towns and cities are assuredly not.

I can appreciate the concern of my hon. Friend, who has great experience in these matters, that perhaps our efforts in Helmand are perceived as wasted. It is certainly an argument put by some—I am not trying to put words into his mouth, but that is an increasing concern. Without doubt, UK personnel served with great commitment in Afghanistan, and our forces could play an important ongoing role in training the Afghan security forces to help to create the conditions for a more viable state moving forward. My assessment is that Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, but I am optimistic for its longer-term future. It is the view of the UK and our NATO allies that we have to look upon our presence as conditions-based rather than time-based.

We are appalled to witness the surge in deadly attacks in Kabul. Such indiscriminate attacks against civilians are a complete violation of human rights and humanitarian laws, and we strongly condemn them. Our thoughts are with all those who are affected. As we have heard, at least 11 soldiers have been killed today in the attack on an army post in Kabul, and just two days ago an ambulance packed with explosives killed more than 100 people in a busy shopping area. Last Wednesday, an attack on the Save the Children office in Jalalabad killed at least five people, while 22 people were killed in a Kabul hotel on 20 January.

Can the Minister set out how precisely the UK Government’s counter-Daesh strategy is addressing the situation in Afghanistan? What steps is the UK taking to bring an end to the attacks? Will he tell us what more the UK Government can do to provide humanitarian assistance to those affected? Lastly, what have the UK Government done to provide assistance to humanitarian workers who were affected by the horrific attack on Save the Children?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Let me touch on the issue he raised last, that of humanitarian aid and the NGOs on the ground doing incredibly important work in difficult circumstances. Although the UK Government do not pass on information on threats to NGOs or other project partners directly—due to our security rules, we can pass on only what is on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel page, although he will appreciate that in many districts there will also be an opportunity for ongoing dialogue—we do require NGOs receiving official development assistance to manage their security, and an assurance process is required as part of that due diligence. He will therefore appreciate that there is a lot of ongoing dialogue, and we remain open to providing assistance to any humanitarian organisation on the ground there that has UK connections or may have UK employees. However, I appreciate that the parents and other relatives of those working out in such difficult circumstances must be increasingly alarmed by what they have seen in the headlines over the past 10 days.

From the UK’s perspective, we feel broadly speaking that progress is being made. It is sometimes very slow and painstaking progress, and when such events happen, particularly in quick succession, one is inclined to think that the Taliban and others have suddenly decided to do what they are doing in part because of the peace process conference taking place in February.

If I may respond to a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) made earlier, it is our understanding that, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, only 13 districts are under Taliban control. Although that is still 13 too many, I hope the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) will recognise that that provides some evidence of progress. However, some of that progress is slow and painstaking, and we have to be patient.

Is the insurgency in part being reinforced and supplied from outside Afghanistan? What action are the Government and their allies taking to try to tackle that aspect of the crisis?

While I agree that there is clearly some of that taking place from outside groups, my right hon. Friend will recognise that a lot of it is subject to close intelligence that I would not wish to comment on at this stage. He is right to say that we are doing our level best to try to ensure that any assistance to terrorist groups from outsiders is kept to a minimum. However, he will also recognise that, as I have said, there are now, I am afraid, global networks of terrorist groups. The Taliban have received co-operation not just from the Pakistan side but from other sides of the Afghanistan border, and Daesh or so-called Islamic State are a global network and can utilise help from beyond the Afghan borders.

I join the Minister and others in condemning these senseless attacks, particularly the attack on Save the Children, which has been active in Afghanistan for 42 years. Will he take this opportunity to confirm that the UK will maintain its spending on overseas aid and will not allow it to be diverted to military activities?

As the right hon. Gentleman is well aware—not least because it was his party that, as part of the coalition Government, put this into statute—there are already strict rules about where overseas aid can be utilised through the OECD, and our own legislation makes the whole issue of official development assistance even more complicated. However, I hope that he will recognise that where projects can involve UK aid through the Department for International Development alongside the military, it makes sense to do so. There are strict rules in UK and international legislation that prevent vast sums of money being transferred away from aid, but the reality of the situation, as we all know, is that the proper resurrection of a state such as Afghanistan requires development work on a tremendous scale, much of which will require making the country more secure, and that means co-operation with the military.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that we have a long way to go to build a better future for Afghanistan given that the vast majority of Afghan refugees who return home have to flee violence again very shortly afterwards?

I very much agree. None of us is under any illusions; there is a long way to go before Afghanistan’s Government and people achieve their goal of building a more stable and prosperous country. But we will continue to play our part, and not just in terms of expenditure. One of the most important things that our non-combat troops are doing on the ground is working closely to help train some 3,000 Afghan cadets, who are Afghanistan’s military leaders of the future.

What is the Government’s estimate of the number of Daesh operatives who have transferred into Afghanistan from Iraq and Syria, and of those how many do they estimate are British?

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that these are sensitive issues. I will try to reply to him in writing, in as transparent a way as I can. Clearly there is a concern that the porous borders on all sides of Afghanistan are open to Daesh or so-called Islamic State, and obviously there is a risk that some of the many hundreds of UK nationals who have been fighting in Syria and Iraq might find their way to Afghanistan.

My thoughts are very much with the people of Afghanistan. The Minister talked about Pakistan. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on Pakistan. Can he confirm that Pakistan has lost 40,000 civilians and 5,000 military personnel to acts of terrorism by the Taliban? Pakistan has put in place effective border management controls on its side, but it needs co-operation from Afghanistan so that everyone can see where the problem is coming from—from which country to which country. What steps are being taken to work with groups such as the quadrilateral co-ordination group and the tri-ministerial group to help achieve that?

It is entirely fair to point out, not just as a friend of Pakistan, which I regard myself to be, that a huge price has been paid by the Pakistani civilians who have died. However, what has traditionally been a porous border along the Durand line has often been open for terrorist groups to co-operate—I do not think that anyone would deny that. It is also fair to say that the Pakistani authorities are not only aware of that but continue to do their level best to try to ensure that the porous border is corrected.

Let me just clarify, in answer to an earlier question from my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), that we believe some 13% of Afghan territory is currently under Taliban control.

Although there was universal approval in the House for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, by 2006 we had lost five British soldiers in battle and a decision was taken on the firm promise by the Government that no shot would be fired. We went into Helmand and the result was the deaths of 450 of our brave British soldiers. Do we not have to challenge the idea that force always produces peaceful results and have an inquiry into why we went into Helmand in 2006? If we do not understand our past mistakes, are we not in danger of repeating them?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that essentially, there has only to be a political and diplomatic solution. The military cannot be enough and we recognise that in our relations with Afghanistan. In fairness, he slightly misquoted Lord Reid in talking about the idea of not firing a shot. That was felt to be an ideal, but we all recognised that by going into Afghanistan we would be in a dangerous place. Anyone who is as keen a student of history as the hon. Gentleman is will recognise that Afghanistan has been a difficult place for—I was going to say for a couple of hundred years, but I suspect that it is rather longer than that.

The United Kingdom has an enduring commitment to Afghanistan. We will continue to support the defence forces there to help to prevent it from becoming a safe haven for terror and to keep space open for a politically negotiated solution to the conflict. In truth, whether we like it or not, a safer Afghanistan is the only guarantee of a safer United Kingdom. A peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan is crucial for wider regional stability and the dismantling of global terrorist networks.

There have been attacks on foreigners in hotels, attacks on aid workers and bombs in ambulances. None of that is new, but perhaps the recent attacks in Kabul have taken this to a new level. To what extent should we be concerned that Afghanistan is an incubator for new terrorist techniques that then disseminate around the world’s trouble spots?

To be honest, I think it would be somewhat premature to suggest that Afghanistan is somehow an incubator for new terrorist events. Unfortunately, as has been pointed out, humanitarian workers have been targeted, not just in Afghanistan, but in many other parts of the world. We keep an eye open and have as much intelligence on the ground as we can to determine whether there are new terror techniques. Although we all very much hope that my hon. Friend’s somewhat apocalyptic claims about new terror are incorrect, we will keep an eagle eye on progress on the ground. When I speak to my counterparts in Afghanistan, I am always struck by the fact that a lot of very good people who have other options, who have spent much of their lives living elsewhere, have returned to Afghanistan because they have a strong commitment to that country. That gives the best possible push not only for peace, but for prosperity and stability in that country.

I thank the Minister for his statement. Although it is probably right that our commitment in Afghanistan should be conditions-based and not time-based, it cannot be left to go on forever. Mercifully, no British troops are in combat missions there, and therefore, we shall not add to the 450 combat troops who died when we were engaged in our role there, but evidence from the past few days—13 provinces, or 13% of the territory—shows that the Taliban are still a very potent force. The only solution in the end must come from the Afghans reaching some sort of political accommodation. Is the Minister sure that we will always indefinitely contribute to that?

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that there is a very complex tribal history in Afghanistan. We want the entire process of moving towards democracy and more stability to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. He is right: in the long term, the ideal would be that we will not have to have large numbers of troops there. However, as we saw in the past, putting a date on that simply allowed the Taliban and others to go to ground, as they did for a period of time essentially waiting for the clock to run down. That clearly was not a sensible or viable strategy for Afghanistan or for the safety of us here in the UK. We are a P5 nation in the UN and have a proud record of playing our role on the humanitarian stage, and part of that role is to ensure that we leave a safer Afghanistan going forward. As much as we would all like to think that that moment will come sooner rather than later, even to speculate as to a date would be unwise at this stage.

The current US strategy seems to be based on ramping up troop numbers and bombing the insurgents to the negotiating table. What can the British Government do to encourage a more comprehensive strategy based on nation building, including in respect of some of the very valid points the Minister himself has made today?

I am sorry the hon. Gentleman feels that that is the current NATO or US strategy; it simply is not. As I say, the process in Kabul taking place in the coming weeks will try to bring all parties together. There is a sense of commitment to a democratic Afghanistan, with full parliamentary and presidential elections coming in over the next couple of years. All these things do, I fear, take time, though, and we have to be patient. He is right, however, to this very limited extent: clearly, those who would do harm to that process—those who are set on terrorism—are being eliminated, not just by NATO forces but by Afghan security forces. We have seen the dreadful impact on the civilian population in the past 10 days, which makes it very clear that there needs to be an opportunity at least to hold those people properly to account on the battlefield, if they choose to carry out military work. As I say, I am not of the view that we are there simply for a military solution. If there was ever a military solution to Afghanistan, the lessons of history—even relatively recent history—have made it clear that nowadays we need an approach that is very much focused on nation building, and that has to be an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process.