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Volume 813: debated on Monday 12 July 2021


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday 8 July.

“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 service men 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.”

My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House would like to pay tribute to the more than 150,000 UK personnel who have served in Afghanistan during the past 20 years. Their bravery and professionalism have denied terrorists a safe haven and helped Afghanistan build its institutions; they have trained and advised Afghan forces and supported the advancement of the rights of women and education for girls.

Those crucial advances were made with huge sacrifices: 457 UK service men and women lost their lives, and many thousands more and their families continue to endure physical and mental injuries. More than 70,000 Afghan civilians lost their lives, and while progress has been made, there remain huge challenges. We owe a debt of gratitude to our Armed Forces and they should be proud of their work and achievements.

In his Statement—which I unfortunately did not get to hear under our current arrangements—although the Prime Minister confirmed that our presence in Afghanistan as part of the international military effort was never intended to be permanent, he rightly conceded that we cannot

“shrink from the hard reality of the situation today.”

Progress made is not necessarily the same as those gains being secured and irreversible. Given the sacrifices made, the Government need to be clear about their ongoing commitment to Afghanistan.

Most of the UK personnel have already left, following the decision of the US Government in April that all US forces would leave in September, when, according to the NATO summit decision, operations were coming to an end. Can the Leader of the House explain the engagement the UK Government had with the US prior to that decision being taken? Did the Prime Minister suggest a different course of action? Did he offer a different timescale, or did he discuss how we could contribute to a lasting settlement?

Many in your Lordships’ House with direct experience of military action engagement have concerns about what happens next. We share those concerns, both for the stability of Afghanistan and for the remaining potential security threat to the wider world, including the UK. It would be helpful if the Minister could say something about the Government’s assessment of the possible return of al-Qaeda. There is evidence that the Taliban is making gains on the ground, and hostile states are now exploring options to fill any military and diplomatic vacuum. Serious questions therefore remain about the future stability of the country. The Prime Minister said in his Statement, which we have not heard:

“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.”

Therefore, when the Prime Minister says that he will use

“every diplomatic and humanitarian lever to support Afghanistan’s development and stability”,

what does that actually mean in practice on the ground?

Nobody wants to see British troops permanently stationed in Afghanistan, but we cannot simply just walk away without seeking to ensure that it will not lead to bloodier conflict and wider Taliban control. I do not know if the Minister heard the same BBC interview as I did, in which General Sir Nick Carter outlined three possible, credible outcomes from withdrawal. The first is that the Afghan Government remain in power, supported by what is now a well-trained army. The second, and the most worrying, is that the country fractures and the Government collapse, which would lead to the Taliban and others making advances. The third outcome, which he described as the most hopeful, is a political compromise, with talks, which chimes with the Government’s statement that there must be a peaceful and negotiated political settlement. How are our diplomats supporting that process?

Also, how are we supporting the Afghan Government? Actions have to follow words, and, as we withdraw troops, we are also withdrawing financial support—unlike the US, which is determined to boost development and military aid. We have to ask why. Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world, but our aid fund to the country is being cut by more than £100 million. Why are we out of step with our allies on this? Have the Government assessed the security impact, as well as the social impact, of those cuts?

I am sure that many in this House were relieved to hear the Prime Minister say that we owe an immense debt to the translators and other locally employed staff who risked their lives alongside British forces. The Minister will have heard that issue raised in your Lordships’ House many times over the past few years. The risk to those staff and translators does not disappear when we leave: the likelihood is that it increases. Some staff have already been forced to flee to neighbouring countries, and some have ended up in refugee camps.

Last week, an FT editorial commented: “It is a matter of days, not months, that are critical for the interpreters and their families. The UK has opened up relocation schemes, but it is not enough.” Since the Government launched the new Afghan relocation assistance policy in April, how many applications have they received and how many have now been processed? Will she give a commitment that that will be kept under review and updated if the situation on the ground changes?

The recent NATO summit communique said:

“Withdrawing our troops does not mean ending our relationship with Afghanistan. We will now open a new chapter.”

I have commented previously from this Dispatch Box that we want the UK to be a moral force for good in the world. What we do next in relation to Afghanistan will be a test of the Government’s commitment to that.

My Lords, when the UK first committed troops to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the mission was clear. It was to destroy al-Qaeda’s ability to mount any further international terrorist attacks from the country. As the Statement makes clear, in this crucial respect the mission has been a success. However, while this is undoubtedly correct, it does not begin to give a balanced picture of the state of Afghanistan as the final British troops leave.

While the original mission was limited to destroying al-Qaeda, it rapidly became something more ambitious: to replace the Taliban regime with one which more closely fitted western norms of behaviour, not least in respect of the treatment of women and girls. At one level, this too has been a success: there has been a series of democratically elected Governments; there has been the education of millions of girls, and there has been a degree of economic development, particularly in and around Kabul, but there has not been stability. The Taliban never went away, and it is now rapidly filling the vacuum left by the departed NATO forces. However depressing this situation is, the Statement is undoubtedly correct that the UK on its own is not in a position to fill the void created as American troops return home. For the United Kingdom, the Statement reflects harsh reality.

Anyone who has heard recent testament of young professional women in Afghanistan who now fear for not only their livelihoods but their lives or who sees the pathetic attempts of thousands in Afghanistan to sell what little they have to leave the country before the Taliban returns cannot avoid the conclusion that the broader aims of the international intervention in the country are under real threat. The Statement says that the UK will not turn away from Afghanistan and that we will use

“every diplomatic and humanitarian lever”

to support the country. If true, this would be very welcome, but what is the commitment likely to mean in practice?

Let us start with aid. The Government are dramatically cutting the amount of development aid they are giving the country, including a 70% reduction in programmes for women and girls. This is harsh and perverse. Will they now reverse these cuts, or are they in reality breaking their promise to maximise their humanitarian response?

After much dither and delay, the Government have recently allowed Afghan interpreters who have worked with British forces to relocate directly to the UK. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, pointed out, and as we heard in Questions in your Lordships’ House last week, they are not automatically doing so for such interpreters currently in third countries. Will they now agree to do so not just as a matter of course but as a matter of conscience?

American intelligence currently believes that, as things stand, Kabul could fall to the Taliban within six months. Do the Government share this assessment, and are there any circumstances in which they would consider renewed military intervention to prevent it? The Taliban has claimed that it has changed and become less harsh, not least in its attitude towards women and girls, but such statements are widely mistrusted and not borne out by recent evidence. What diplomatic pressure is the UK seeking to bring to bear in association with its international allies and through the UN to ensure that the Taliban keeps to its commitments?

Today’s Statement reflects the fact that liberal interventionism, as expressed after the twin tower bombings, cannot succeed unless there is a broad consensus in the country where the intervention takes place to follow the norms set by western liberal democracies, but in countries where there is no history of democracy and where there remain deep tribal and regional fissures, and where no such consensus emerges, it is bound ultimately to fall short or fail.

The challenge now is to support those in Afghanistan who seek to promote democracy and tolerance and to put as much pressure as possible short of military intervention on the Taliban to moderate its policies. This will not be easy, but we owe it to the 457 British military personnel who have died in Afghanistan, to the thousands who still carry physical and mental scars and to those thousands of young Afghans, men and women, who are desperate for a brighter, tolerant future for their country to do whatever we can to prevent a return to the horrors of the past.

I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments, and I wholeheartedly endorse their tributes to our brave personnel who served in Afghanistan, to our NATO allies and, of course, to the people of Afghanistan. I also align myself with the comments made by both about the need to make sure that we do not lose the gains. I completely accept that there are many challenges ahead, but progress, particularly in relation to civil society and helping the development of the Afghan Government, cannot be lost. I hope to cover some of those issues as I go through my remarks.

The noble Baroness asked about discussions around the decision. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to US Secretary Blinken before the NATO announcement, and he has had numerous meetings since, as has the Defence Secretary, who met his counterparts from the US, France and Germany, and, of course, the Prime Minister discussed Afghanistan directly with President Biden on 10 June and at the NATO summit. There was also a lot of discussion about it at the summit.

The noble Baroness asked about the threat of al-Qaeda. We assess that al-Qaeda is now less active in Afghanistan than before 2001, but the group has not ceased to exist and remains a threat to both Afghanistan and the international community, so Afghanistan remains a counterterrorism priority. That is why we are working closely with the US and NATO allies to ensure that we are able to protect our shared interest in tackling terrorism, and we will continue to do that.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the political process. We have provided crucial capacity-building and technical advice to the Afghan Ministry for Peace and training for the Afghan negotiating team. We have enhanced the inclusivity of the negotiations through capacity-building support to the Afghan negotiation team, women’s networks and civil society organisations to help build women’s meaningful participation and representation, an issue touched on by both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. We are working closely with international and regional partners to further support peace efforts. The noble Baroness and noble Lord are absolutely right, and we have been very clear about it, as have all our international allies, that any political settlement must protect the progress made in the country, particularly around protection for women and minority groups.

The Prime Minister also spoke to President Ghani on 17 June and underlined our commitment to supporting Afghanistan to achieve a stable and democratic future following the withdrawal of troops. He gave his personal support, and they resolved together to continue working to counter the terrorist threat in Afghanistan. Those discussions will continue through international fora and directly with colleagues in the Afghanistan Government.

I reassure the noble Baroness that we remain committed to working with the US, NATO allies and international partners to support the ongoing training and mentoring of the Afghan defence force, and we will continue to provide financial and sustainment support until at least 2024. That is a commitment that we have already made. Obviously, we are extremely proud of the role we played during our 20 years in Afghanistan in helping to build that defence force and the resilience it has shown. It has been leading the security in Afghanistan for the past six years, and it has been a privilege for us to work with it.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about our international support. We will continue to support Afghanistan with more than £100 million of development assistance this year; it will remain one of the largest bilateral recipients of UK aid. We will continue to be a significant contributor to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, through which we will support rural development, building resilience to climatic shocks and infrastructure development. We will also continue to work to consolidate the substantial development gains that have been delivered since 2001. Through our Afghanistan multiyear humanitarian response programme, we will continue to provide urgent life-saving assistance and respond to immediate humanitarian need.

The noble Lord rightly talked about the significant progress that has been made in Afghanistan since 2001, not only on women’s rights but on the rights of minority groups, media freedoms, freedom of expression and access to education. It is imperative that we continue to work to protect this, and we will do so with our international allies and the Afghan Government to ensure this.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the ARAP relocation programme. The noble Baroness is absolutely right; we owe a huge debt of gratitude to interpreters and other locally employed staff who risk their lives working alongside UK forces in Afghanistan. We have already supported more than 1,500 former Afghan staff and their families to create new lives in the UK. The noble Lord is right that the ARAP process requires applicants to be in Afghanistan, as they are likely to face the greatest risks, but those in a third country seeking help to relocate can also contact the Afghan Threat and Risk Evaluation Unit for advice, which they will be given, so they can also access support through that. We are significantly accelerating the pace of relocations, in parallel with the military withdrawal, because we understand and accept that the situation for some in the country has changed. We will do all we can to continue to support those people who wish to relocate to the United Kingdom.

My Lords, we come now to the 20 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that we can hear from the maximum number of speakers.

The Statement highlights some of the progress made on women’s participation and girls’ education, but in recent weeks we have seen thousands of brave women protesting in the streets for the freedoms that they know the Taliban will deny them. I fear for their futures. What programmes focused on women and girls will the UK Government support in the months and years ahead?

I thank my noble friend for her continued passion on this issue and for continually holding our feet to the fire. I reassure her that we remain absolutely committed to supporting women and girls in Afghanistan. She will be pleased to know that there are now 3.6 million girls enrolled in school, which is 27% of children enrolled. Since 2013, UK funding has enabled over one-quarter of a million girls in Afghanistan to receive an education. We will continue to support programmes such as the Girls’ Education Challenge fund, the second phase of which was launched in 2020 and supports more than 70,000 marginalised girls to access education. It is one of the many programmes we will continue to support.

My Lords, the Prime Minister referred more than once last Thursday to working with our friends on an “outside-in approach” to counterterrorism. Does that mean that we will have contingency plans with NATO allies, including offensive air operations, whether or not that is in direct support of Afghan government forces? If not, what does outside-in mean?

I can tell the noble and gallant Lord that we will continue to support and train Afghan institutions, including the national police and the national army, and strengthen their ability and the ability of the defence and security forces to counter security threats. That and other capacity-building work is aimed at increasing the self-reliance of Afghan forces in the fight against terrorism. We will continue to work shoulder to shoulder with them.

My Lords, I am someone who thought it absolutely right to go in to remove al-Qaeda in 2001 and who has always been a passionate supporter of the potential for humanitarian military intervention, but we have to acknowledge that this has not gone as well as we hoped. Why are the Government so reluctant to set up an objective inquiry into lessons learned from the Afghan experience of the last 20 years? It has been a tremendous cost, in human blood, disablement and treasure. We owe it to the people who have suffered to examine this question very deeply.

I thank the noble Lord, and I hope I can reassure him by saying that there have been reviews. After the conclusion of Operation Herrick in 2014, there was a thorough internal review. As he will know, some of the further lessons that have been learned have played a key role in helping to shape our integrated review, so I do not think it is fair to say that no lessons have been learned. However, he is right that we are not at this point minded to consider a Chilcot-style public inquiry. We are not convinced that the benefits would outweigh it, and we are concerned that such an inquiry could take far longer and be far more expensive than Chilcot, which itself took seven years and cost more than £13 million. The relevant time period in Afghanistan was twice as long. However, I reassure the noble Lord that we have learned lessons and continue to do so. We will continue to use the integrated review to follow them through.

My Lords, I declare my interest as an ambassador for HALO, a charity that is active in both mine and ordnance clearance in Afghanistan. I accept that the Government’s intentions are good, but we must take account of the reality of what is happening. Units of the Afghan army are taking their uniforms off and handing their arms and equipment to the Taliban. In those areas that the Taliban now controls, it is already barring girls from school and undermining the rights of women. How in those circumstances, when that is happening locally, can we trust what may be agreed nationally?

I thank the noble Lord. As the Statement set out, while we have had some achievements in Afghanistan, particularly in security, he is absolutely right and we accept that significant challenges remain. We are very proud that, alongside our allied forces, we have helped to train, advise and assist the Afghan national security forces to build them into an increasingly capable force, notwithstanding what the noble Lord said, in providing security. In particular, we helped set up the Afghan National Army Officer Academy, which delivers 70% of the army’s combat leaders annually, equating to 5,500 highly trained officers to date, of which around 330 are women. I do not dispute that there are challenges ahead, but we have made real gains and will continue to support those important institutions to help bring peace to their country.

My Lords, seeing young girls in school and everything that means for the future of Afghanistan reassures me and, I am sure, many others who served there that our efforts were not in vain. The question is whether they will still be in school in three years’ time. That is probably down to the effectiveness of the Afghan national security forces in countering the Taliban. I worry sometimes when we seem to suggest that the answer to all these problems is simply to shovel more cash into Afghanistan. To pick up on my noble friend’s previous answer, I seek her reassurance that we will continue to offer practical training support in the Afghan National Army Officer Academy by having people there, as that is why it has been successful over the past few years.

My noble friend is absolutely right. We are extremely proud of our achievements with the officer academy. Of course, we will continue to work with it and listen to the kinds of support that the Afghan people and Afghan national security forces would like to ensure that they can do their extremely challenging job.

My Lords, in the Statement the Government seem to rely on the Taliban undertaking that it will prevent any group or individual, including al-Qaeda, from using Afghanistan to threaten the security of the US and its allies. In their reliance on this undertaking, what support are they providing to Pakistan, Nigeria, Mali and Mozambique—the list goes on—in terms of their safety, freedom or security, or do the Government believe that those countries are dispensable or unimportant in relying on the Taliban to stick to its pledges?

We certainly do not consider our international allies in the way the noble Baroness seems to suggest. We all need to work together internationally to support the Afghan Government. As NATO partners have said, we have been very clear that this military withdrawal comes in the context of a renewed regional and domestic push for peace in Afghanistan. As she rightly says, the terms of the US-Taliban agreement involve commitments it made on preventing international terrorism in its territory, including its relationship with al-Qaeda, which it must deliver on. However, we will work with all international partners to provide the support we can to the Afghan Government.

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Prime Minister informed the Commons on Thursday that he had pledged to President Ghani that the UK would continue to support the Afghan national security forces with at least £58 million annually. Given that any settlement between the Afghan Government and the Taliban is bound to mean the Taliban’s involvement in government, what would be the policy of the UK towards maintaining these current levels of support in those circumstances? What safeguards would there be to ensure that the money is used for the purposes intended?

Of course we will work to ensure that any funding goes to where it should, and I am sure we will keep things under review as the situation goes on. The Prime Minister has been very clear to President Ghani about our commitment to support him and his Government and our resolve to counter terrorist threats going forward. Of course all these things will be under review as we work together, but we have a close dialogue with the Afghan Government, and that will continue, to make sure that we can support them in the best and most effective way that we can.

My Lords, the Statement emphasises the defeat of transnational terrorism in Afghanistan using Afghanistan as a base, but we all know that transnational terrorism has moved: first to Iraq and Syria and now to the ungoverned Sahel. We understand that Britain now has a significant commitment of forces to the Sahel, in co-operation with the French and as part of a UN agency, but this is not reported to the UK Parliament very frequently. Would the Minister give some commitment that the role of UK forces committed either to the UN operation or to co-operation with the French, across the Sahel, will be reported more fully to Parliament so that we can understand the rationale and the nature of the threat they are facing?

I am very happy to speak to my noble friend Lady Goldie and have her contact the noble Lord for such a discussion.

My Lords, we went into Afghanistan to stop it being a global terrorist base. We did it successfully for 20 years and, obviously, we could not stay permanently. Surely now it is up to the Afghan people to decide their own future, but we must ensure that the Taliban are left in no doubt that they must honour the undertaking referred to in the Statement or, yet again, face the consequences. In that connection, I hope that the Pakistan Government will reinforce that message.

I thank my noble friend. He is absolutely right. As I have said, we are under no illusion about the significant challenges that remain within Afghanistan, but there have been achievements. As he rightly said, our primary objective, when we deployed to Afghanistan 20 years ago, was to ensure it was not used by al-Qaeda as a successful base for further international attacks. In that mission, we have been successful; there has not been a single successful terrorist attack launched on the West since then, obviously notwithstanding what the noble Lord said about terrorist threats in other areas. That has been the achievement of our very brave Armed Forces and the people of Afghanistan, and we must not forget it.

My Lords, Afghanistan and beyond, including the Sahel corridor, must become and continue to remain a priority. Aspects of the Statement’s cautiously optimistic messaging disguise ominous signals on the ground, all underlining these perilous times. Does the Leader of the House remember that it was the lawlessness in Afghanistan that resulted in the original acceptance of the Taliban entering Afghanistan from the Pakistan borderlands, and one of the contributory factors to the lawlessness was heroin production? What was accomplished to stem the industry during our time in Afghanistan, or is the industry carrying on as before?

We have provided mentoring and support to dedicated units in the counter-narcotics police of Afghanistan. Since 2010, these units have seized 18 tonnes of heroin, 70 tonnes of opium, almost 1,700 weapons as well as $3 million and $100 million of assets. So, we have been working with the Afghan counter-narcotics police to tackle this trade and we will continue to do so.

Would the noble Baroness agree that, given the rapid advances currently being made by the Taliban, there is little incentive for them to enter into peace talks, and so the turbulence is likely to persist for some time? Given that, what will be the effects on food aid to the needy? What advice are we giving to the aid agencies? What is the effect on the functioning of our embassy? Are we withdrawing personnel at the moment?

The UK embassy in Kabul will remain open after the end of the Resolute Support Mission. We take the protection of our staff extremely seriously and will keep security under constant review. In the immediate term, there will be a small number of troops, consistent with a diplomatic presence, that will remain to offer assurance to the international community in Kabul as we transfer to the end of the mission.

My Lords, the British Armed Forces are to be applauded for their commitment and tenacity on behalf of us all over the last 20 years to keep us safe. Would the Leader of the House say if there will be a residual garrison remaining in Afghanistan to protect British interests, such as consul buildings, and does she believe the Taliban when they say they have changed their views on the emancipation and education of girls and women?

All UK troops assigned to NATO’s Resolute Support Mission will draw down with allies and partners, but as I said in my answer to the previous question, in the immediate term a small number of troops consistent with a diplomatic presence will remain to offer assurance to the international community in Kabul.

My Lords, the departure of the allied forces from Afghanistan under the current circumstance is, frankly, heartbreaking, especially for the families of the 457 Armed Forces personnel who were killed and indeed for the many who came back without legs and other limbs. It is absolutely heartbreaking. Should the Taliban take over in Kabul, as seems depressingly possible, it will be a failure of policy over the last 20 years. It will be a disaster not unlike that of the first Afghan war, the history of which should perhaps have been studied more closely by those who committed troops in numbers to Afghanistan in 2005. If the Taliban should become the Government in Kabul, what would be Her Majesty’s Government’s intention—would we then recognise the Taliban as the Government of Afghanistan?

I am afraid that I am not going to speculate on issues like that. We strongly support efforts to energise the Afghan peace process. The Taliban have no military route to realising their political goals, so if they wish to play a political role in Afghanistan’s future, they must share the goals of stability and security for its population and engage meaningfully in the peace negotiations.

My Lords, many faiths—including a thriving Sikh population of many thousands—have had to flee Afghanistan because of the hardening of extremism, resulting from repeated invasions from Britain, then Russia and, more recently, America and the West. Bombs and missiles cannot change mindsets. Would the Minister agree with the statement by former Prime Minister Theresa May that Britain should stop being the self-appointed policeman of the world? It is a policy copied by others that creates ever more refugees in a suffering world.

There has been significant progress in human rights in Afghanistan since 2001, as I said, in connection to women’s rights, the rights of minority groups, freedom of expression and access to education. We will continue to work with the Afghan Government and international allies to protect this.

My Lords, what recent discussions have the Government had with the relevant authorities in Pakistan? It is acknowledged that Pakistan can play a crucial role in influencing the Taliban and securing the peace process, that could avoid another decent into civil war in Afghanistan. If there have been no such discussions with Pakistan, would the Leader of the House say why?

I am afraid that I do not have a running list of every negotiation happening, but I am very happy to go back to colleagues and write to the noble Baroness with recent contacts.

My Lords, as it happens, today is Malala Yousafzai’s 24th birthday—an exceptionally forceful reminder that the right to education and the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan simply cannot be ignored. I accept the unwillingness to give a running commentary of who we have or have not talked to. However, we know that things are not going to get any easier. Will the Minister undertake to give more precise details of how the Government intend to, first, deal with Pakistan in that relationship and, secondly, ensure that the right to education for girls will continue to progress in even a slightly comparable way to the progress we have made so far?

My Lords, the Americans, in their discussions with Britain, discussed giving freedom and assistance not only to Afghanistan and other countries but to the women peacebuilders and those women at the peace table. How many women are we going to assist and bring to Britain or a safe country, and how long will it be before the Government make these arrangements? The women are at great risk and some, as noble Lords will know, have already been murdered.

As I said in earlier answers, the Afghan relocations and assistance policy was launched on 1 April. We are speeding up that process to ensure that anyone whose life is in danger in Afghanistan can access this programme and build a new life in the UK.

My Lords, all listed speakers have asked their questions. There will now be a short pause before we commence the next business.