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Volume 698: debated on Thursday 8 July 2021

With permission, I will make a statement on the UK’s policy towards Afghanistan. Twenty years ago, Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership had turned Afghanistan into the epicentre of global terrorism, where, in the words of the author Ahmed Rashid:

“everything was available—training, funding, communications and inspiration.”

It was in the mountain ranges of this sanctuary that al-Qaeda operated a formidable network of terrorist training camps, drilling and indoctrinating thousands of recruits. The terrorists who acquired their murderous skills in Afghanistan or who were organised from its soil dispersed across the world, inflicting bloodshed and tragedy on three continents. They detonated truck bombs in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, killing 224 people. They attacked the USS Cole in Aden in 2000, killing 17 people, and then they perpetrated their most heinous atrocity, claiming almost 3,000 lives in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington on 11 September 2001.

Today, thankfully, the situation is very different. The training camps have been destroyed. What remains of al-Qaeda’s leadership no longer resides in Afghanistan and no terrorist attacks against western targets have been mounted from Afghan soil since 2001. We should never lose sight of those essential facts.

On the morning after 11 September, few would have predicted that no more terrorist attacks on that scale would be launched from Afghanistan in the next 20 years. Those gains were achieved by an American-led military intervention mounted with overwhelming international support, including troops from dozens of countries, and the first and only invoking of NATO’s article 5 security guarantee. We can take pride that Britain was part of that effort from the beginning.

Over the past two decades, 150,000 members of our armed forces have served in Afghanistan, mainly in Helmand province, which was, from 2006 onwards, a focus of our operation. In the unforgiving desert of some of the world’s harshest terrain, and shoulder to shoulder with the Afghan security forces, our servicemen and women sought to bring development and stability. The House will join me in commending their achievements and paying heartfelt tribute to the 457 British service personnel who laid down their lives in Afghanistan to keep us safe.

We always acted in the closest partnership with the Government and the people of Afghanistan, and we owe an immense debt to the translators and other locally employed staff who risked their lives alongside British forces. We have already helped more than 1,500 former Afghan staff and their families to begin new lives here in the UK. This year, we adopted a new policy offering priority relocation to the UK to any current or former locally employed staff assessed to be under serious threat to their lives, together with their close families.

British diplomats and development experts worked alongside our allies to rebuild the country, opening schools and clinics where there had been none and bringing safe water and electricity to millions of people for the first time. No one who lives in comfort, as we do, should underestimate the importance of their advances.

In Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, virtually no girls attended school. They were, as a matter of declared policy, driven from the classroom and forbidden from returning. Today, 3.6 million girls are going to school in Afghanistan, seizing their chance to escape from illiteracy and poverty. The Girls’ Education Challenge fund, established by the British Government, has helped more than a quarter of a million Afghan girls into the classroom.

Our priority now must be to work alongside our Afghan and other partners to preserve those vital gains and the legacy of what has been achieved. Under the Taliban, women were excluded from governance. Today, women hold more than a quarter of the seats in Afghanistan’s Parliament. Since 2002, more than 5 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan under the UN’s voluntary repatriation programme, aided by the fact that Britain, the UN and our Afghan and international partners have together cleared more than 8.4 million landmines or other unexploded munitions, restoring 340,000 acres of land for productive use. In 2018, Herat province was declared clear of mines after 10 years of painstaking work by the HALO Trust, based in Dumfriesshire, in a UK-funded programme.

No one should doubt the gains of the past 20 years, but nor can we shrink from the hard reality of the situation today. The international military presence in Afghanistan was never intended to be permanent. We and our NATO allies were always going to withdraw our forces. The only question was when, and there could never be a perfect moment. As long ago as 2014, the UK ceased all combat operations and brought the great majority of our troops home, reorienting our role and our involvement. About 750 service personnel stayed in Afghanistan under NATO’s mission to train and assist the country’s security forces. Last year, the US decided to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, while the Taliban undertook to prevent

“any group or individual, including al-Qaeda, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies”.

President Biden announced in April that all American forces would leave by September at the latest, and the NATO summit declared last month that the alliance’s military operations in Afghanistan were “coming to an end”. As a result, all British troops assigned to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan are now returning home. For obvious reasons, I will not disclose the timetable of our departure, but I can tell the House that most of our personnel have already left.

I hope that no one will leap to the false conclusion that the withdrawal of our forces somehow means the end of Britain’s commitment to Afghanistan. We are not about to turn away, nor are we under any illusions about the perils of today’s situation and what may lie ahead. We always knew that supporting Afghanistan would be a generational undertaking, and we were equally clear that the instruments in our hands would change over time. Now we shall use every diplomatic and humanitarian lever to support Afghanistan’s development and stability. We will back the Afghan state with more than £100 million of development assistance this year and £58 million for the Afghan national security and defence forces.

We will of course continue to work alongside our Afghan partners against the terrorist threat. Our diplomats are doing everything they can to support a lasting peace settlement within Afghanistan, and they are working for regional stability, particularly by promoting better relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here I commend General Carter, the Chief of the Defence Staff, for his steadfast efforts.

I spoke to President Ghani on 17 June to assure him of the UK’s commitment, and I was moved once again to hear his tribute to the British soldiers who strove so hard to give the Afghan people better lives. We must be realistic about our ability alone to influence the course of events. It will take combined efforts of many nations, including Afghanistan’s neighbours, to help the Afghan people to build their future, but the threat that brought us to Afghanistan in the first place has been greatly diminished by the valour and by the sacrifice of the armed forces of Britain and many other countries. We are safer because of everything they did. Now, we must persevere alongside our friends for the same goal of a stable Afghanistan, but with different tools in our hands. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement. First, may I give my apologies on behalf of the Leader of the Opposition, who is on a long-planned visit to meet political leaders in Northern Ireland? May I also associate myself with the Prime Minister’s comments regarding British service personnel and the collective efforts of our partners in NATO?

This is a profound moment for the more than 150,000 UK personnel who have served in Afghanistan during the past 20 years, including my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) and many more Members across this House. My own brother served in the British armed forces during that period, too, so I know how it feels to say goodbye to a loved one before a tour of duty. Thankfully, I do not know how it feels not to see your loved one come home again, and the pain that those families have gone through is unimaginable. Hundreds of British men and women lost their lives in the service of our country. Many more were wounded or injured and still suffer the physical and emotional scars. They have shown extraordinary bravery, skill and courage so today, to everyone who served in Afghanistan and to all who loved them and supported them, we say a huge thank you.

There have been moments of huge difficulty in the past two decades, and the situation on the ground in Afghanistan today is more concerning than it has been at any point in many years. That must not take away from the many positives our engagement has brought to Afghanistan and the real difference our services and development sector have made in a country that has suffered so much. We have supported improvements in security, governance, economic development and, as the Prime Minister said, advancing the rights of women and education for girls. Yet these gains have not been secured; the Taliban are making gains on the ground, and serious questions remain about the future stability of Afghanistan.

A security threat remains to the wider world, including to the UK. Nobody wants to see British troops permanently stationed in Afghanistan, but we simply cannot wash our hands or walk away. It is hard to see a future without bloodier conflict and wider Taliban control. Already, they are on the brink of gaining control of provincial capitals, and Afghan security forces are at risk of being overwhelmed. This spells jeopardy for the Afghan people, particularly for Afghan women and girls—and for all the things the Prime Minister talked about earlier—who in a just world would have had the same rights as women everywhere deserve.

In the words of the Prime Minister, this is a situation fraught with risk, and I understand that. So can he tell us whether he argued for or against the withdrawal by the US Government and NATO, and what other steps he proposed? Our British troops made enormous sacrifices and we believe, as a nation, that we have a responsibility to our veterans. Can the Prime Minister really tell them that our work as a nation in Afghanistan is done and that their efforts will not be in vain? On their behalf, I ask the Prime Minister: what plans are now in place to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a failed state and a breeding ground for those who wish to oppress their own citizens and threaten ours? What additional threat does our country now face? What diplomatic plans will be in place in the region to support the peace process? Are the UK Government engaging with the Government of Pakistan about their role? Will the UK embassy in Kabul remain? How will we keep our UK staff there safe?

Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world, yet our aid funding to that country is being cut by more than £100 million—the Prime Minister referred to this today. The UK funded a project involving 6,000 women that has already been cancelled. When he visited Kabul as the Foreign Secretary he said that girls’ education was our “crowning achievement”, so can he tell the House what impact his cuts to the aid budget will have on programmes there? Will he not rethink those cuts?

I reiterate that we all want to see an end to UK military operations in Afghanistan, but if we leave without putting a plan in place to ensure that Afghanistan does not go back to the conflict and violence of the past, we will have failed those who have given so much over the past 20 years. Building and maintaining the peace and prosperity of Afghanistan, protecting women and girls, and in turn protecting our own nation, should always be our priority. To honour the legacy of those who have served and the lives that were lost, let us make sure, Prime Minister, that we get this right.

I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady for what she said and particularly the spirit in which she said it, so let me try to address some of her points. It is clear that what is happening now is a follow-up to what was very largely the withdrawal—the end of military operations—in 2014. The presence since then has been much smaller, but a great deal of good work has continued to be done by British aid workers, the British armed forces and British diplomats.

The right hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the work of educating girls and young women. The whole country can be proud of what has been achieved. I reassure her by saying that this country will not only continue to fund education in Afghanistan and continue to support Afghanistan to the tune of £100 million, but we will also increase our funding for the Global Partnership for Education. We will be making further announcements about that later this month, when the Global Partnership for Education summit takes place here in London.

The right hon. Lady asks the most important question that I think veterans of the Afghan conflict will want to have answered, which is whether we think that the threat from Afghanistan has now been reduced. The answer is yes, we do think the threat from al-Qaeda is very substantially lower than it was in 2001. There remain threats from Islamic State Khorasan and the Haqqani network—of course there remain terrorist threats from Afghanistan—but the answer is to have a peaceful and a negotiated solution and that is what our diplomats will continue to work for.

I would just say to the Taliban that they have made the commitment that I read out to the House, in their negotiations with General Khalilzad. They must abide by that commitment. I am sure they will be aware that there is no military path to victory for the Taliban. There must be a peaceful and a negotiated settlement for the political crisis in Afghanistan, and the UK will continue to work to ensure that that takes place. I believe that can happen—I do not believe that the Taliban are guaranteed the kind of victory that we sometimes read about.

The UK will continue to exert all its diplomatic and political efforts to ensure that there is a better future for the people of Afghanistan, for the women of Afghanistan and for the young people growing up in Afghanistan, and to ensure that the legacy of the 150,000 British serving men and women who went through Afghanistan and, above all, the 457 who laid down their lives, is properly honoured.

May I first say thank you to the Prime Minister for coming and giving this statement himself? This is an enormously personal issue for me. I did not meet the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) here or in any of the clubs or think-tanks around Westminster—I met him about 20 miles to the west of Garmsir in the desert, as we were fighting side by side against the enemies the Prime Minister has just listed. The achievements he listed were won with the blood of my friends. I can point him to the graves where they now lay.

That legacy is now in real doubt—we know that and we know that it is not just the Prime Minister’s decision and that the US decision to withdraw forces was fundamental here. But can he explain to me how Britain’s foreign policy works in a country like Afghanistan? If persistence is not persistent, if endurance does not endure, how can people trust us as an ally? How can people look at us as a friend?

The situation reminds me not of Vietnam, but of Germany in 1950, at a time when we could have walked away. We could have said, “It is too expensive; it is too difficult to rebuild. Let’s let Stalin have it and see what happens.” But we did not. We stayed and, in doing so, we liberated the whole of Europe peacefully.

Now I understand that it is hard to do that and I understand it demands a lot. The integrated review set out a really impressive strategy and it was not just summarised with the three words, “God bless America”.

I am sure that the whole House will want to thank my hon. Friend for his service in Afghanistan and for all the good that he did with his fellow serving men and women in Afghanistan, but as I think he conceded in his question, what the UK has been able to do in Afghanistan has not been possible through our efforts alone. We have to work with others, and of course the United States plays a massive role in these considerations.

I wish to reassure my hon. Friend and the House that we are not walking away; I made that point absolutely clear to President Ghani on 17 June. I say to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner)—I should have answered this point—that we are keeping our embassy in Kabul. We will continue to work with our friends and allies, and particularly with the Government of Pakistan, to try to bring a settlement and to try to ensure that the Taliban understand that there can be no military path to victory. There must be a negotiated solution. That is what the British Government will continue to do, and that is very largely what we have been doing since 2014.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). We should listen very carefully to what he had to say on behalf of himself, other Members of this House who have served in Afghanistan, and indeed those all through these islands who went to that country—those who sadly lost their lives, those who were injured in the conflict and the many who were maimed for the rest of their life.

Let me thank the Prime Minister for coming to the House and for advance sight of his statement. It is an important statement and, of course, it is largely about national security. Let me state that I think that there is an obligation on all of us on the Opposition Benches to work constructively and to be a critical support to what we are seeking to achieve. In that spirit, I commend the Prime Minister and his office for agreeing to Privy Council meetings for the Leader of the Opposition and for us, because it is important that we are as informed as we should be in order that we can play our role in scrutinising the Government but supporting them where appropriate.

While there would have been no question of the UK realistically maintaining a presence unilaterally in Afghanistan, there is no point in pretending that the vacuum created by the accelerated withdrawal of US and allied forces has done anything but create instability. We know that the departure of the remaining western forces from Afghanistan has emboldened Taliban insurgents. In recent days, the Taliban have seized several districts, and they have made it clear that they expect any western forces left behind—even those guarding Kabul airport or embassies—to be a violation of the Doha deal.

It is the stability of the country and the humanitarian interests of Afghanis that should be foremost in the mind of the leaders who have had operations in that country. A situation in which violent extremism and fundamentalism return to the heart of political life in Afghanistan would be dire for Afghanis, as well as for our allies in the region and beyond.

In the past hours, we have seen the fightback intensify, both from Afghani Government troops and from civilians. In a stark reminder of what is at stake, thousands of women have protested in the streets for the freedoms that they know the Taliban will deny them. All they want is what we want: a more open Afghanistan that is a better place for women for its future, instead of going back to the senseless cruelty of the past. For those reasons, it is utterly inexplicable that we have cut aid spending in this country. That hinders any progress in rooting out extremism and abuses against women or in protecting human rights.

May I ask the Prime Minister what general assessment has been made as to any potential security implications of the developments in Afghanistan? What are the implications of any threats from al-Qaeda and Islamic State? What measures will be taken by the UK Government to protect the UK’s diplomatic presence in Kabul?

Finally, I would like to take the opportunity to pay respects on behalf of my party to the families of the 457 British troops whose lives were lost in Afghanistan. I am sure that many of them will be following the proceedings in this House and the actions taken by the Government. They will be asking questions to make sure that there is a lasting legacy to the sacrifices that were made by so many.

Again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the spirit and the content of his remarks. On the substance of his questions to me, our assessment is that the threat from Afghanistan to this country has very substantially diminished as a result of the actions by the UK and our friends over the last 20 years, although clearly a threat remains, and the extent of that threat will now depend on exactly what happens. To come to his points about the Taliban, their intentions and the progress that they are making, I think it is true that the Taliban are making rapid progress in rural areas, but that does not mean that they are guaranteed a victory in the whole of Afghanistan or across the urban areas of Afghanistan, where, as he points out, there is lively resistance to what they have to offer and their view of the way things should be. That is why this Government, through all our agencies—diplomatic, political, development and otherwise—will continue to work for a negotiated settlement, particularly with regional actors such as Pakistan. I believe that is the best way forward for Afghanistan. There must be a settlement and it will have to—I think we must be realistic about this—include the Taliban.

Decisions do not come any bigger for a Prime Minister than to send our armed forces to war, but when an overseas operation lasts two decades, costs hundreds of British lives, billions of pounds to the taxpayer and ends in retreat, it would be a dereliction of duty not to ask what went so wrong. We now abandon the country to the fate of the very insurgent organisation we went in to defeat in the first place. I say to the Prime Minister that, if we do not learn the lessons of failing to appreciate Afghan history, the folly of imposing western solutions, the delays in training Afghan security forces and denying the Taliban a place at the table back in December 2001, we are likely to repeat similar mistakes. I ask the Prime Minister: please conduct a formal inquiry.

I must caution my right hon. Friend that I do not think that is the right way forward at this stage. He calls this a retreat. This was never intended, at any stage, to be an open-ended commitment or engagement by UK armed services in Afghanistan. There was no intention for us to remain there forever. As the House knows, Operation Herrick concluded in 2014. At that stage, the Army conducted a thorough internal review of the lessons that needed to be learned. Those were incorporated into the integrated review of our security and defence strategy that was published earlier this year. Given the length of such inquiries—I think the Chilcot inquiry went on for seven years and cost many millions of pounds—I do not think that this is necessary at this stage. I think that the Government should rather focus our efforts on ensuring that we do everything we can to secure the prosperity, the peace and the stability of the people of Afghanistan and that is what we will do.

Can I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the role our armed forces have played in Afghanistan, and especially remember the 450 men and women who laid down their lives and the many more who sustained lifelong injuries? We are grateful to them, and remember them and their families.

The Prime Minister rightly says that our country retains a responsibility to the people of Afghanistan, so with Afghan soldiers trained by allied forces surrendering all too frequently, with some analysts predicting that the Taliban are probably only months away from taking Kabul, with a new era of injustice, inequality and brutality facing the women and girls of Afghanistan, and with the potential for a new vector of international terrorism forming across Afghanistan, can the Prime Minister explain with far more substance how the British Government plan to work with our international partners to fulfil the responsibility he accepts we still have to the Afghan people?

Yes. We are going to continue to support the Afghan national security and defence forces, as I pledged to President Ghani, with at least another £58 million. We are working with the regional actors, particularly Pakistan. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the Pakistan security services have a very considerable influence in Afghanistan. We are working with the Pakistani Government and with the Taliban to ensure that there is progress towards a negotiated solution. As I am sure he knows, in Kabul, there are many actors and there is a very fractured political scene. The UK Government know all those actors well. It is essential that they work together for a negotiated settlement and for the long-term future of Afghanistan, and that is what we will do.

I thank the Prime Minister for coming to the House to make this statement. I agree that we clearly owe a debt of honour to the members of our armed forces, many of whom have lost their lives or been badly maimed, who have done their country proud in what they have delivered: education for women; clinics and healthcare; and freedoms that were not there before under the Taliban. He said in his statement, however:

“I hope that no one will leap to the false conclusion that the withdrawal of our forces somehow means the end of Britain’s commitment to Afghanistan”.

So I have a very simple question for him: how far does that commitment extend? If the Taliban take over and take away the women’s rights to education, do we intervene? If they take away the rights and freedoms that we gave them, do we intervene? If they end up killing and maiming more people in Afghanistan and allowing terrorist organisations in, do we intervene? As one veteran said to me literally 48 hours ago, this begins to look a little bit like the last days of Vietnam, an unprecedented and hurried exit with no commitment. Are we committed?

Yes, as I said in my answers to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne and other Members who have effectively asked the same question, the circumstances in 2001 when this country went into Afghanistan were quite exceptional. NATO’s article 5 of mutual appeal for defence was invoked by our American friends. That is why we went in and it was a quite exceptional moment.

Since then, in the last 20 years, we have achieved a very great deal—an increase in life expectancy in Afghanistan, from 56 to 64 years, and the education of women, as has been mentioned—and we will continue through development assistance and by other means to do whatever we can for the long-term future of Afghanistan. But, as my right hon. Friend knows, the fundamental military decision to cease Operation Herrick was the turning point. What we are going to do now is use our best endeavours, our best efforts, all our political engagement, to produce a negotiated settlement and to produce a stable future for Afghanistan.

This has to be a day of reflection. We have spent billions of pounds in the war in Afghanistan, 450 British troops have lost their lives, thousands of Americans and other troops have lost their lives, many, many thousands of Afghan people have lost their lives and many more have been forced to be refugees in exile all around the region as well as in western Europe. Surely we need to think about this very carefully. It is disappointing that the Prime Minister appeared to reject calls for an inquiry at the Liaison Committee yesterday and appeared to reject the request for an inquiry made by the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) today. May I ask him to think again about that? Surely we need an inquiry into how such a decision came around to go into Afghanistan in the first place, and now the withdrawal from Afghanistan and of course the chaos that is being left behind.

The Prime Minister will have noted that some talks are going on, which have been cautiously welcomed by the United States, in Tehran between the Afghan Government and the Taliban. He will also have noted that there are large numbers of Afghan refugees now in Tajikistan as well as in Pakistan.

What efforts will the Prime Minister be making to try to ensure that there is not a descent into civil war but some kind of diplomatic initiative at least to bring about security for the people of Afghanistan, and obviously that includes the entire population, particularly those children who have suffered so much and those women who have been so grievously discriminated against in that country?

While Britain is withdrawing, surely we need to recognise that when we make hasty foreign policy decisions to go to war, the consequences go on for a very long time. In this case, it is now the 20th anniversary of such a decision.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. I am of course aware of what is happening in Tehran and the contacts that are taking place, and the role of the UK Government is to promote dialogue. I have said what I have said about the Taliban and the reality of the situation that Afghanistan finds itself in. I do not think that the Taliban are capable of victory by military means, a point I have made several times. The UK will work, principally through our friends in Pakistan but also with other actors on the ground in Kabul, to try to bring about a settlement that works for Afghanistan.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s question about an inquiry, I repeat what I have said to several colleagues. I do not think that another Chilcot-style inquiry is called for at this stage, particularly given that the fundamental decision to end Op Herrick was taken in 2014, which is now a long time ago. What I think the House can always consider is whether the Defence Committee, for instance, wishes to investigate it themselves.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Having been in Afghanistan many times, I add my very sincere tribute to our armed forces, the civilian support, the non-governmental organisations and all those who risked, and sometimes sacrificed, life and limb to give the people of Afghanistan a better future. What discussions has he had with our international partners, particularly the United States, on how we will monitor and react if the hard-won gains that we made, including on the rights of women, roll backwards under the brutal, mediaeval influence of the Taliban, and perhaps even—God forbid—the re-emergence of a terrorist threat?

I thank my right hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about Afghanistan and the problems it faces. Of course, we have raised repeatedly with our American friends and other NATO colleagues the legacy that we wish to preserve in Afghanistan, particularly the gains made for women, and they understand that. In all candour, I must be honest and say that I do not think that the military options open to us are very great, and I think that people need to recognise that, to return to the point I made to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). But we will do whatever we can diplomatically and politically to get a realistic lasting solution for Afghanistan.

Yesterday the Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee that he was apprehensive about the future of Afghanistan and that the situation was fraught with risks—a sentiment shared by many Afghans, who fear that the gains of which he has spoken so eloquently today, such as girls’ education and democracy, may be lost. After two decades and the sacrifice of so many British lives, whose loss we mourn today and always, why is he so confident that the Taliban will never again allow any part of Afghanistan—because they control some parts already—to be used by terrorist forces, including ISIS, as a base from which to attack this country and others of our allies?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Obviously, the Taliban have for several years now controlled a considerable part of Afghanistan, as he knows, and it is during that period that we have not seen terrorist operations launched against the wider world. What may weigh on the Taliban’s minds as they think about whether to allow the Khorasan province group, the Haqqani network or al-Qaeda to return and re-form in the way that they were there in the past, and to act outside Afghanistan, is that they should remember what happened last time.

It sounds from that as if the Prime Minister is saying that if those groups go down that route again, there could be another military intervention. Does he accept that a fanatical brand of Islamist terrorism, sheltered and supported by the Taliban extremists, has not only attacked the west before but is highly likely to do so again? He mentioned that the military operations route is not great, but rather than veering from occupation to evacuation and back again in a few years’ time, will he now commission a study of an alternative containment strategy involving selective strikes with allies from strategic bases, to prevent a total terrorist takeover of Afghanistan?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. Afghanistan was never occupied, and nor is this an evacuation. What we will certainly look at—I think this is the point he was getting at—in addition to working with our friends and partners in the region is to what extent counter-terrorist activity can be conducted from outside Afghanistan on an outside-in basis.

I thank the Prime Minister very much for coming and making this difficult and important statement to the House today. I thank him also for what he said about the contribution that has been made by the girls’ education challenge fund, which we set up in 2010 and which has been responsible for the education of millions of girls in Afghanistan. It seems to me that his statement eloquently makes clear the limits of hard power and the importance of soft power. I take it that that was one of the things he was referring to at the end of his statement when he spoke about the different tools for the future. It is soft power that will now help the Afghan state to survive and hopefully deliver for its people, so I hope he will not think it unreasonable of me to ask him to look again at the recent extraordinary decision to cut our development spending in Afghanistan by £200 million.

I thank my right hon. Friend. I know that this is a subject that he has returned to many times in this House, and I understand how deeply he feels about it and how much he understands it. It is still the case that we were the third biggest bilateral donor to Afghanistan last year. We are committing a further £100 million per year to the people of Afghanistan, plus the military and logistical support for the Afghan national security and defence forces. I think most people in this country understand that, after giving £3.2 billion in development assistance to Afghanistan over the past 10 years, we are in tough financial times here in the UK, and that it remains a remarkable thing and a matter of pride that the UK is able to continue to support the people of Afghanistan in the way that we are.

I would like to thank the Prime Minister for recognising the amazing work that aid workers have done to date in Afghanistan. I would like to quote from the Government’s own development tracker website, which today states:

“Almost 40 years of conflict has left Afghanistan one of the poorest and most fragile countries in the world. Creating a more stable environment will help reduce poverty and make progress towards the Global Goals. It will also reduce threats to the UK from violence and extremism, and discourage illegal migration.”

Our funding for aid to Afghanistan has fallen dramatically. In 2019-20, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spent £244 million and the conflict, stability and security fund spent an additional £48 million. Last year, we spent over £170 million, and this year £100 million has been committed. At the very moment that we are withdrawing troops, therefore, we are also cutting the aid that helps maintain stability in the country. How does this keep us safe or, indeed, build on the investment we have already made through our development work?

This country remains, as I have just told the House, one of the biggest bilateral donors of aid to Afghanistan in the world. The people of this country should take great pride in that. A statistic I did not mention earlier, to get back to the hon. Lady’s earlier point, is that, partly thanks to the work of UK aid and the whole NATO mission, mortality for women and children in Afghanistan has fallen faster than in any other low-income country.

First, I pay tribute to and thank all those who served in Afghanistan so professionally and courageously. May I press my right hon. Friend on the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) by asking him how we, the UK and our allies, can now physically stop Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for international terrorism? Let us not be naïve: the Taliban are back and all the horrors associated with them.

A couple of quick points. It is important for my hon. Friends not to exaggerate our ability, by military might alone, to stop parts of Afghanistan already being used for terrorist purposes if that were what the Taliban desired to do, given that they already possess substantial portions of that country. It is also the case that there are many other parts of the world that can be used as a base for international terrorism. What we propose to do is continue to work with our friends to look at an outside-in approach to counterterrorism, and to work with regional actors to ensure we have a solution in Kabul that prevents that country lurching back into becoming a haven for terrorism in the way that he describes. As I have told the House, I do not think that that will necessarily be easy, but it is by no means impossible and the hope is certainly there.

I thank the Prime Minister for coming to the Chamber to make a statement. He noted the importance of the Afghanistan nation, with which we have worked so hard together to create real change. In 2012, I had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan on behalf of my party. At that time, I was able to meet some of the Irish Guards and the Royal Irish Regiment. Some who served were my constituents. Some gave their lives and some were injured as a result—the sacrifice of many of our brave service personnel in lives lost and injuries. I have a photograph in my office taken at that time of Afghan national army recruits at their training college. I was very impressed by their courage and bravery. There is a real fear that Afghanistan will feel our loss too deeply. What discussions have taken place with the USA and other interested allies to ensure that there are enough munitions, physical support, help, advice and guidance required for the future of our friends, all citizens and allies in Afghanistan?

I thank the hon. Gentleman and join him in paying tribute to the sacrifice of all serving men and women of the Irish Guards, the Royal Irish Regiment, as well as all those who sacrificed their lives in Afghanistan, and everything they did to protect the people of that country. As he knows, the UK helped to train about 5,500 officers in the Afghan security and defence forces. We will continue to invest in them, with £58 million a year in the way that I described. We will, of course, be doing that in concert with our American friends and allies.

Three years ago I had the privilege of visiting Afghanistan and seeing the Welsh Guards in action. It is fair to say that the threats they faced and the risks they overcame were simply humbling. Their efforts helped many who otherwise would not have done so to receive an education, and the makings of a civic society were brought together. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to them? Does he agree that the best way to do that is to continue our diplomatic and political focus, as well as continuing to use our generous overseas aid budget in seeking to pay a significant legacy in that part of the world?

I share completely the feelings of my right hon. Friend and join him in thanking the men and women of the Welsh Guards and all other armed forces who did so much in so many ways in terms of sanitation, electricity and generally improving the life chances of the people of Afghanistan. We will do whatever we can from now on—diplomatically, politically and with our development budgets—to make sure that we protect the legacy of their achievement.

Now, with over a quarter of a million civilian lives lost, 457 British soldiers dead on Afghanistan’s plains, and thousands more at home maimed in body and mind, will the Prime Minister, unlike some of his predecessors, please give me his frank assessment: is the terrorist threat really eliminated, will the Taliban not just reverse the progressive gains of the past 20 years, and were those lives lost and ruined in vain?

No, I absolutely do not believe that the sacrifice of British troops over the past 20 years has been in vain. I believe that they are leaving a lasting legacy in Afghanistan. In 20 years, they have helped substantially to reduce the threat of terrorism. As I have told the House candidly, of course that threat has not gone away. We must do everything that we can to ensure that the Taliban stick to their promises—stick to what they have said—but we must also work to ensure that there is a settlement in Afghanistan that is propitious to a new approach and a new settlement for its people, so that there is not the temptation to use that country as a harbour for terrorist operations.

Given the high likelihood that China will now exploit the opportunity presented by the US departure by extending the belt and road initiative, buying off the Taliban and muting their opposition to abuses in Xinjiang, what approach will my right hon. Friend take, with our allies, to the resulting greatly strengthened Beijing-Tehran axis, with all its grisly potential impact on security, prosperity and human rights?

The Chinese are not as yet a very major player in Afghanistan, but my right hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is vital that the people of Afghanistan should determine their own future.

The armed forces covenant states:

“Those injured in Service, whether physically or mentally, should be cared for in a way which reflects the Nation’s moral obligation to them”.

In the north-east we are proud of and grateful to our servicemen and women, but local charities such as Anxious Minds and Forward Assist tell me that mental health support is wholly inadequate. How does the Prime Minister propose to support the mental wellbeing of those returning from service in Afghanistan? Why do his Government not even collect data on how many veterans have committed suicide or experienced post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental problems?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to draw attention to the problems that veterans of conflicts have experienced, particularly the health and mental health problems. Last year we put another £16 million into veterans’ health—mental health, in particular—and this year the number has gone up to £17 million. We also want to make sure that we are clear with people signing up for our armed forces that we will respect their service throughout their lives. That is why we instituted the railcard for veterans and the national insurance holiday for employers who take on veterans, we prioritise veterans for social housing, we have set up lotteries for veterans, and we have a Minister for veterans in the form of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty).

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the armed forces who have served in Afghanistan. On behalf of my constituents in Wealden, I also pay respect to the 457 lives lost.

I know that the Prime Minister is very dedicated to supporting women and girls. I was in Afghanistan post 9/11, and women and girls are telling me now that under the Taliban, regardless of any peace settlement, they are lambs to the slaughter—schools and clinics will be closed. I believe that President Biden is due to make an announcement and provide safe passage to 2,000 vulnerable women, but with those women leaving I would argue that that will leave a further vacuum of women who are able to carry out education and any medical treatment, which will mean more female lives lost in Afghanistan. What support are we going to give the embassy when the Taliban arrive in Kabul? With the growth of the Taliban and, in their wings, Daesh, there will also be an export of violent extremism, so what strategies are in place to protect our children here who may be brainwashed by violent extremism?

I thank my hon. Friend for her service in Afghanistan for the BBC World Service. I know that she knows and cares deeply about that that country. We will of course work with the Americans and all our NATO allies to achieve the objectives that she sets out, particularly protecting this country against terrorist threats, but also making sure that any settlement that we are able to encourage protects the rights and freedoms of women that have been won partly through the efforts and sacrifice of the British armed services.

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement, and join him in thanking all those who have served in Afghanistan and those who have lost their lives.

The Prime Minister was very clear that the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan does not mean that we are not committed to the future of Afghanistan, but, like the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), I just want to be clear about what that commitment is. The Prime Minister says that he wants to negotiate a settlement. I agree with him; everyone does—but over the next few days and months, Afghan security forces are going to come under attack, so will they get access to the logistic, intelligence and air support that they are going to need? I accept that that will not just be delivered by the United Kingdom—it will be a coalition agreement—but we need to have some clarity on that, if we are not going to see the collapse of some of those forces very quickly.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman understands the situation very well. It is not open, I do not think, to the Taliban to enforce a military solution, but neither is it open to us—to NATO—to have a military solution. I am sure that he will accept that. What we want is a negotiated settlement; I think that is in the best interests of all parties.

The Prime Minister has been given a hard time today and I have a lot of sympathy for him because, given that we have to follow in the wake of the Americans, we have very few cards to play. I give him credit for coming here and taking it on the chin, but this is a catastrophic defeat for the west. It is a very sad day for tens of thousands of British personnel whose life’s work may now lie in ruins, and an abandonment of all our friends in Afghanistan. Let us be honest, the Taliban will probably take over large tracts of the country and the rest may be taken over by a warlord, so it is a desperate situation.

Given that we have spent all this money on overseas aid—more than £825 million, I think, in the last four years—and given that we know from our Syrian experience that there is no point in dispensing aid in a completely war-torn country, as it just leads to corruption and disaster, is the Prime Minister prepared to work with our NATO allies to ensure not only that our embassy is protected, but that aid workers are protected and that there is some minimum military force? Otherwise, there is no point in disbursing this aid to Afghanistan; it will just go up in flames.

We will do whatever we can to ensure that we protect our diplomatic and development assistance, obviously, but I just do not accept the characterisation that my right hon. Friend has given of what is happening today. After all, the main strategic decision to end Op Herrick took place in 2014. I believe, actually, that the legacy of UK involvement in Afghanistan is a proud one and will be a lasting one: millions of children educated who would not otherwise have been educated; millions of girls in school who would not otherwise have been in school; the reduction in the terrorist threat for that country for decades; and still the chance, I think, of a political, negotiated settlement involving the Taliban, which is really the only realistic prospect for that country.

It is right today that we remember the sacrifices of our troops in Afghanistan. In his statement, the Prime Minister said that 3.6 million girls are now going to school in Afghanistan and that the Girls’ Education Challenge fund has helped more than a quarter of a million Afghan girls into the classroom. He said that our priority must be to work alongside our Afghan and other partners to preserve what has already been achieved. In response to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), he said that there would be an increase in funding for the Global Partnership for Education this year. Will he therefore tell us whether that increase will cover the more than 25% reduction for education for girls in Afghanistan that has already taken place on his watch?

I cannot give the hon. Lady the answer to exactly how the increment in the Global Partnership for Education funding will be dispensed around the world, but clearly Afghanistan is a very important recipient country. It is where we can achieve a huge amount and have already achieved a huge amount. We are committing a further £100 million, and we remain the third biggest bilateral donor. Those are facts of which people in this country should be very proud.

When Tony Blair shamefully led my party into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, dutifully following Washington, he was fully backed by the Tories, but dissenting voices in this place and millions on the street foresaw the disasters that the wars would unleash. Twenty years on, it is clear that the dissenting voices were right and the British establishment was wrong. The wars took the lives of 50,000 Afghan civilians, more than 1 million Iraqis and 636 British soldiers. They destabilised a whole region, undermined democracy at home and made us all unsafe, and now the Taliban are set to regain power in Afghanistan. Does the Prime Minister agree that those catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq show the need for a new foreign policy—one that is based on restraint and diplomacy, not military aggression?

As I said earlier, the circumstances in Afghanistan in 2001 demanded action. It was clear that the US had been under attack and article 5 of the NATO treaty was invoked. I believe it was right to take action against that brutal and ruthless terrorist cell that was incubated in Afghanistan. The hon. Lady advocates democracy, but the Taliban had no democracy then and nor did they educate girls in school. If she refuses to see what the soldiers, the men and women of this country, the diplomats and the development officers have done in helping young girls and women in Afghan—if she refuses to see their achievement—I really think she is blind to the facts.

Didcot in my constituency is the proud home of the 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal and Search Regiment, which played a vital role in our operations in Afghanistan, and sadly lost members along the way. I have other constituents who also lost loved ones during the conflict, so this is doubtless a difficult time for all of them. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the bravery and sacrifice of my constituents and others in our operations in Afghanistan?

I do; I pay tribute to their bravery and sacrifice. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), I have been to that cemetery in Kabul, as I am sure many colleagues in this House have, and I have seen the memorials to British soldiers going back decades—the more than 100 years that this country has been involved in trying to bring stability to Afghanistan. I thank the regiment based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) for what they have done, and I simply want to repeat the burden of my point to the House today: I do not believe that their efforts and sacrifice have been in vain.

The Hazara community in Afghanistan is an extremely vulnerable religious minority, millions of whom already live in constant fear and jeopardy as victims of targeted attacks. Only last month, the Hazara girls school in Kabul was bombed. What are the Government doing to ensure that the Hazaras are provided with adequate protection now that international troops are leaving Afghanistan?

I understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has. He will understand the limits of what we can do by way of practical direct military action, but that has been the case, as he knows, for several years now. What we can try to do is ensure that there is a settlement in Kabul that protects the rights of all minorities, including the religious minorities that he describes.

I join the Prime Minister and others in paying tribute to our armed forces who have served in Afghanistan.

My right hon. Friend will be well aware that the primary source of income for the Afghan farmers is the poppy crop. Our allies in the United States took the view of torching the poppy crop because it supplies the illegal drugs trade. Will my right hon. Friend consider that we should instead purchase the poppy crop and use it for beneficial pharmaceutical purposes, rather than allowing it to continue to supply the illegal drugs trade?

I thank my hon. Friend for his imaginative suggestion; it is one that I actually considered many years ago and researched quite deeply. Unfortunately, the reality is that we would not achieve the result that he suggests. All that would happen is that the farmers in Afghanistan—the Taliban-controlled farmers in particular —would grow not only legal opium for medicinal use but illegal crops, so we would simply have a double market.

Good afternoon, Madam Deputy Speaker; greetings from the far north of Scotland.

The Prime Minister has referred to diplomatic and political efforts and to different tools, and, to my delight, he has just referred to the BBC World Service. Does he agree that the BBC World Service is a national treasure and one of the strongest arms of soft power that this country can wield, and that it should be enhanced and used to maximum effect to give succour to our friends in Afghanistan and all over the world?

I associate myself completely with the hon. Gentleman’s views. I can tell him that that is why we are providing, through the FCDO, almost £95 million more to the BBC World Service this year.

I place on the record the same thanks as others have for the service and sacrifice of our armed forces who have served in Afghanistan.

As my right hon. Friend said in his statement, we owe the translators and locally employed staff in Afghanistan an enormous debt of gratitude for all the work that they have done in supporting UK armed forces personnel. Does he agree that it is right that we repay those people and help them to begin new lives here, in recognition of everything that they have done in support of our country?

My hon. Friend is completely right, and I know that his views are echoed in every corner of this House. We owe those people a huge debt for their bravery, their sacrifice and the risks they have run not just to their own lives, but to the lives of their families. That is why the Afghan relocations and assistance policy addresses those risks and I am proud that, already, 1,500 have been allowed to come safely to this country. I thank everybody involved for the speed and efficiency with which they have been handling those cases.