Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 20 April.
“Following the shocking attacks of September 11 2001, NATO allies invoked Article 5 of the Washington treaty. An attack on one was an attack on us all. In Afghanistan over the two decades since, NATO has shown extraordinary resolve in a country where the soldiering is tough and operational success is very hard won. Some 150,610 UK service personnel have served in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. Hundreds of our troops have suffered life-changing injuries, and 457 of our young men and women have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country. I pay tribute to their service and their sacrifice. They will not be forgotten.
I served in Afghanistan on two tours—the first, to Kabul in 2005, and the second, to Sangin, in 2009. My battalion lost 13 men on that second tour, with many more killed in our wider battlegroup. I have friends who will walk on prosthetic limbs for the rest of their lives, and I know people who suffered severe mental pain that tragically caused them to subsequently take their own lives. Like every other Afghanistan veteran, when I heard NATO’s decision last week, I could not help but ask myself whether it was all worth it.
We went into Afghanistan to disrupt a global terrorist threat and to deny al-Qaeda the opportunity to use that nation as a base for mounting further international attacks. In that mission, we were successful. By fighting the insurgency in its heartlands in the south and east of the country, NATO created space for the machinery of the Afghan government to be established and strengthened. Afghan civil society flourished. Schools reopened and girls enjoyed education just as boys did. There is a vibrant and free media. Women are not only valued and respected but are working in Afghan academia, healthcare and politics. Over 20 years we have developed and then partnered the brave men and women of the Afghan national security forces. They are now a proud army with the capacity to keep the peace in Afghanistan if empowered to do so by future Governments in Kabul.
Those of us who have served very rarely get to reflect on an absolute victory; only in the most binary of state-on-state wars can the military instrument alone be decisive. But two generations of Afghan children have now grown up with access to education. The Afghan people have tasted freedom and democracy, and they have an expectation of what life in their country should be like in the future. The Taliban, apparently, have no appetite to be an international pariah like they were in the late 1990s. Our endeavours over the past two decades have created those conditions and have given Afghanistan every chance of maintaining peace within its own borders. We will continue to support the Afghan Government in delivering that, but our military could not stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, and so we will leave, in line with NATO allies, by September. Nothing in the future of Afghanistan is guaranteed, but the bravery, determination and sacrifice of so many British soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen has given Afghanistan every possible chance of success.”
My Lords, I join Ministers in paying tribute to the British Armed Forces who have served in Afghanistan, and especially to the 454 personnel who have lost their lives. We honour their service and their sacrifice. With the full withdrawal of NATO troops, it is hard to see a future without bloodier conflict, wider Taliban control and greater jeopardy for former interpreters and women. The Chief of the Defence Staff said that this was
“not a decision we had hoped for”.
Did the UK try to stop the US taking this decision? What steps will NATO allies now take to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a breeding ground for terrorism, and what ongoing support will the Government provide to personnel and veterans who have been injured in Afghanistan?
I thank the noble Lord for his tribute to our Armed Forces and particularly for his acknowledgement of those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. I entirely endorse his welcome and kind remarks. In response to his question, the United Kingdom has regular conversations with US counterparts on a range of issues, and we consult closely. As the noble Lord is aware, this is a NATO mission in Afghanistan and we were always clear that we would proceed in concert with our NATO allies and partners, which we have done. Regarding the noble Lord’s apprehensions, our support of the NATO mission has brought Afghanistan to a much better place than it was in 2001.
My Lords, I too pay tribute to our service personnel who have served in Afghanistan, particularly those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. In his Answer, the Secretary of State said that we could not stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, but are there ways in which the MoD would envisage supporting the Afghan national security forces going forward, perhaps in the sense of training or other forms of co-operation?
We are looking at the start of a new chapter for Afghanistan. We look forward to consulting closely our NATO allies and partners on the way forward. Afghanistan is now shifting the focus to the political process, which is an important component in its journey forwards, hopefully towards peace.
My Lords, I too pay tribute to the brave contribution and sacrifices made by our British forces in Afghanistan. I would question the evidence of the Taliban changing its stance. One has only to consider the escalating violence in the country in recent months, and in areas where it holds control, girls’ schools are already closing. How will we ensure that human rights, and particularly women’s rights, are protected? If we do not, all those women who have stepped forward to take part in public life will be left at risk.
We will continue to stand with the people of Afghanistan to support a more stable, peaceful future for the country, and we wholeheartedly support the United States-led efforts to energise the peace process. We have been clear that the Taliban must engage meaningfully in a dialogue with the Afghan Government. We have been equally clear that, in going forward, the Afghan Government must respect and protect the advances which have been made in respect of women and children.
My Lords, troop withdrawal is guaranteed to exacerbate the danger to Afghan interpreters who have helped our Armed Forces. The new relocation and assistance policy is welcome, but can the Minister reassure the House that the embassy staff administering it will proactively identify interpreters needing protection who could be in danger if they approach the embassy for help? Can she also confirm that the new scheme covers family members and that it will absolutely not be contracted out to a private company?
The noble Baroness makes a very important point. I have paid tribute before and do so again to her enduring interest in this issue. The relocations and assistance policy, which as she knows was updated last year and launched at the beginning of this month, is open to all our current and former locally employed staff in Afghanistan, irrespective of date, role or length of service. As she is aware, they must satisfy certain criteria, but it is important that any of these staff feeling anxious should contact the embassy in Kabul however they can. I also assure her that eligible locally employed staff can bring certain family members with them to the UK.
My Lords, I salute the efforts of our Armed Forces and of those development and humanitarian workers who have been injured or have lost their lives doing dangerous work in Afghanistan over these past 20 years. That work will become even more vital as NATO troops leave the country. How then can the Government justify the reduction in overseas development assistance? By how much will programmes in Afghanistan be cut and what analysis has been carried out to support the decision to reduce such programmes at this critical time?
I thank the noble Lord for his welcome tribute to humanitarian relief workers, who have indeed made huge sacrifices. I am sure that the Chamber would absolutely endorse his remarks. As I indicated earlier, what is currently happening in Afghanistan is predicated on a wider NATO allies and partners collaboration to assess the situation and to look to the future. We are committed to continuing to work together in NATO to support Afghanistan during and beyond withdrawal. The noble Lord is correct that much of the UK’s support for sustaining the Afghan national security forces is provided as ODA. Ministers are currently finalising the allocation of ODA for 2021-22, so decisions on individual budget allocations have not yet been taken. I think that he will acknowledge that much excellent work has been achieved by the United Kingdom in concert with our other NATO partners.
Like many who served in Afghanistan, it is impossible not to have mixed feelings about this week’s news. However, it is nearly seven years since UK forces engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan. I feel that their departure is less of a question than the sustainability of the legacy of the institutions that we have tried to build there. On paper—I emphasise, on paper—the Afghan national army is 185,000 strong and funded almost entirely to date by the US. Is my noble friend confident that the structure, size and capability of the Afghan national army are sustainable in the long run?
As I indicated earlier, this is the start of a new chapter. The focus now will be on the political process within Afghanistan. The responsibility to take all necessary decisions to support the journey towards peace will rest with the Afghan Government, including whatever decisions they feel they need to take in relation to their defence and security measures.
My Lords, President Biden inherited a decision to reduce US forces in theatre. Either that process had to continue or force levels had to be increased with no end date in sight. Would sustaining increased force levels indefinitely in theatre have been a viable option for the UK, given our other overseas commitments and the decision to reduce the current combat strength of our Armed Forces?
The United Kingdom was always clear that we went into Afghanistan alongside our NATO allies. We have adjusted together, and now we will leave together. This has not been a unilateral United Kingdom decision. As I said to my noble friend Lord Lancaster, alongside our NATO allies and partners, we shall consult closely on the way forward as the focus turns to Afghanistan itself, the Afghan Government and the political journey forwards.
My Lords, I join my noble friends in paying tribute to our Armed Forces and remembering those who paid the ultimate price. My noble friend said that the Taliban have no appetite to be an international pariah, yet in the past year they have waged a campaign of targeted assassinations against journalists, judges, doctors and health workers and have targeted women in public life in particular. Do we not see that as the act of pariahs? Do these killings not warn against any idea that we can rely on the Taliban to keep its promises and not roll back human rights or maintain links with terrorist organisations?
The Taliban, if it seeks to realise its political goals, has to play a political role in a more stable and secure Afghanistan. It must meaningfully engage in that process. It seeks international recognition, and the only way it can achieve that is through following through on its commitment to engage with peace. That is what we shall look to it to do and hold it to account on.
My Lords, the time allowed for this question has now passed. My apologies to the noble Lords, Lord West and Lord Loomba. We will take a moment to allow the pieces on the board to be reshuffled.