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Afghanistan: Withdrawal of UK Forces

Volume 696: debated on Monday 24 May 2021

NATO Foreign and Defence Ministers confirmed on 14 April that an orderly and co-ordinated withdrawal of NATO forces would start on 1 May, and we have met that timeline. The withdrawal of Resolute Support Mission forces from Afghanistan will be complete within a few months. The UK’s Operation Toral forms part of the RSM and, as such, we will draw it down in line with what our NATO allies and partners are doing.

The Afghan forces have been fully responsible for the security of Afghanistan since 2015, and I want to place on record my admiration for their remarkable resilience and courage in meeting the challenges they face. The UK has an enduring commitment to Afghanistan. We plan to continue to provide financial sustainment support until at least 2024. It is in all our interests that the state of Afghanistan transitions through the peace deal as the state we envisage it to be, and I will explore all options, whether from inside the country or outside it, to continue to support those forces one way or the other.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Let me begin by wishing the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier battle group all the very best on her maiden voyage.

Operation Telic, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, cost the taxpayer £8 billion and the lives of 179 UK military personnel, and there was a full independent inquiry. Operation Herrick, the invasion of Afghanistan, cost the taxpayer £28 billion and resulted in some 450 UK military deaths, but to date the Government have not announced an inquiry. We now withdraw from Afghanistan just as the Taliban are on the ascent and another civil war looms. That cannot be the exit strategy that we ever envisaged, and we must understand what went wrong. For example, why did Donald Rumsfeld exclude the Taliban from the first peace talks in December 2001? If we do not understand and learn from the strategic errors of the past, this House will be hesitant to vote in favour of deploying our hard power in the future. Please, let us have that inquiry.

I hear my right hon. Friend’s requests—I know he has recently written a letter to the Prime Minister making that request. First, there is a stark difference between Iraq and Afghanistan; the article 5 triggering of that deployment and the causes behind it were not in doubt. Secondly, as our former Speaker would have said, part of my right hon. Friend’s salvation is in his own hands: as Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, he obviously has significant capabilities and powers to bring forward an inquiry, if that is what he wishes. At present, the Government are reflecting on his letter and do not think there is a need for the same type of inquiry that we saw into what happened in Iraq. Of course, we do learn lessons; there have been a considerable amount of internal looks by military professionals at what is going on.

On Donald Rumsfeld and the United States Administration, that is a matter for the US Administration and not for me. I am not able to ask what lay behind their motives as to decisions they have made over the past 20 years and I cannot therefore venture into that space.

I hope we are not so naive as to believe that the Taliban will stick to any peace deal unless they recognise adverse consequences for breaking it. So will the Government take steps, in conjunction with the US and other NATO allies, to find a new strategy, possibly based on a strategic base in the region, to deter the Taliban and protect Afghanistan from a total Islamist takeover after our land forces have totally been withdrawn?

My right hon. Friend makes a very pertinent point and a very real suggestion. The US, in that peace agreement, chose not to make it conditions-based at the end. That was a regret for most of the NATO allies, as we thought that that was important. However, a lot of people have lost their lives in that conflict and sacrificed a lot, and I do not intend that to be for nothing. As I said, we will explore all options that we can to make sure that we protect not only Britain’s interests and citizens, but her allies.

We are also protected by international law in doing what we need to do to defend ourselves if a threat emanates from that country or any other around the globe, and we have the capabilities to do that. Allies will continue to talk, and our support for and funding to the Afghan Government will continue to at least 2024. The one thing I would say to the Taliban is that they will remember what happened the last time they played host to al-Qaeda.