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Afghanistan: Security

Volume 814: debated on Monday 6 September 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the security situation in Afghanistan.

My Lords, the security situation in Afghanistan remains extremely volatile. There is an ongoing and high threat of terrorist attacks. As set out in UN Security Council Resolution 2593, we remain concerned about the security situation and call on the relevant parties to work with us and international partners to strengthen security. This resolution reaffirmed

“the importance of upholding human rights, including those of women, children and minorities”

and encouraged

“all parties to seek an inclusive, negotiated political settlement, with the full, equal and meaningful participation of women”.

The British embassy in Kabul has suspended in-country operations and is, for the time being, based in Doha. We intend to re-establish the embassy in Kabul as soon as the security and political situation in the country allows.

My Lords, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated at the Human Rights Council that she had received “credible reports” of “summary executions” of civilians and Afghan nationals who had been in the security forces. The hundreds of British citizens and Afghans who have helped us along the way and are now trapped in Afghanistan have asked for advice from the FCDO. The advice they have been given is to stay in a safe place within Afghanistan. Where is safe for them in Afghanistan?

My Lords, I totally agree with my noble friend’s very valid point about the importance of the service given by people across Afghanistan in the security services and other areas where they were very much part of the NATO operations and the work on building Afghanistan. The advice that has been given to British nationals, their dependants and others is based on the internal situation, which I know my noble friend is following very closely and is very fluid. I can share with your Lordships’ House that discussions are under way, as noble Lords will be aware, about ensuring secure and safe passage. We will certainly work with all key partners and, at an operational level, with those currently in control in the country to ensure safe passage. At the moment some of this work is very discreet and I can go no further, but I know my noble friend will appreciate what I say.

My Lords, nation building in countries awash with arms, with a narco economy, marred by corruption, with a totally different culture and where large portions of the population are opposed to change is a fool’s game. When a maritime nation such as ours tries to do it in the middle of central Asia, it is even more crass. I hope that we have learned the lesson. In Afghanistan’s case, it is exacerbated by the fact that it is landlocked by Pakistan and the ISI bears a huge responsibility for encouraging terrorism in that country. The shambolic departure of the US and allies was caused by a number of factors but would seem to indicate a failure of intelligence. Will the Government agree to the ISC’s request to analyse all intelligence assessments which cover the outlook for the regime with regard to the final withdrawal of the United States and coalition forces from Afghanistan?

My Lords, I note the noble Lord’s request and assure him that that is being, and will be, looked at. I think this is a moment of reflection. I agree with the noble Lord that with any intervention, we need to consider carefully the intent of intervening in a particular country; the purpose that we go in for; and, equally, the situation that we leave at the end. If we reflect on recent interventions, even in my own lifetime, these are questions that the Government—and, indeed, others, I am sure—ask themselves. It is important that the lessons that we have learned from our interventions continue to remain a focus of what we do in the future. Equally, for the here and now, I assure all noble Lords that we remain very focused on ensuring that the people in Afghanistan who are seeking to leave remain our key priority.

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary was saying the other day that we should be talking to China and Russia about the next stage in the Afghanistan tragedy, despite, obviously, disagreeing on many other issues. Surely he is right. Afghanistan should not be a forum of hegemonic struggle but, clearly, nor is it a suitable area for the USA as a world policeman, as we have seen. Can my noble friend say whether these talks have been initiated in any way and what the main issues might be?

My Lords, on my noble friend’s second question, of course, the issues about security and safe passage of those wishing to leave Afghanistan are in front of us. The issues of human rights and humanitarian aid are all very much part of our discussions. We have engaged with China and Russia, in the formulation of the Security Council resolution that was passed. Further discussions are under way, and I am sure that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will announce those in the near future.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his tireless efforts on behalf of those who have worked with the United Kingdom and those who have already been recognised under the ARAP scheme. What advice should be given to individuals who have been called forward and are now in Kabul but have not been allowed out of the country? Some of them have had no food and are having to move from safe house to safe house, which, after a while, cease to become safe for anybody at all.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and many across your Lordships’ House and in the other place. The last three weeks have been an extremely testing time for all of us. The stories of courage that we have heard from individuals stuck in Afghanistan to whom we owe a responsibility are very clear. In this regard, I thank all noble Lords and those in the other place who have worked tirelessly across party lines to ensure that we do the right thing and get people out. That remains a central objective. The noble Baroness is right about the ARAP scheme. First and foremost, an assurance has been given that those who have been called forward, if they go to a third country, will be processed and brought back to the United Kingdom. The important issue is of safe passage. On the humanitarian side, today Qatar landed the first aircraft, which has provided humanitarian assistance, but the issues of security and stability in Afghanistan must remain primary in our minds. Anyone whom we seek to assist will have that particular context in relation to the advice that we give them. On ARAP specifically, anyone who is called forward through a third country—I assure the noble Baroness that we are working on that—can hold us to the obligation that we have given.

My Lords, as distressing as it is to see a Taliban Government in Kabul and particularly galling for those of us who have served there, if we want to achieve our objectives of delivering humanitarian aid to the Afghan people and preventing Afghanistan becoming a hotbed of terror, governance in the country is needed, even if it is not good governance. I ask my noble friend: what are the Government going to do when it comes to managing this dilemma and engaging with the Taliban? What are our red lines?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. I assure him that we are doing just that. At an operational level, we are already, through our diplomatic efforts, engaging with those on the ground to ensure that we can provide access and security and hold the Taliban true to their assurances of security within the country. Engagements with the near neighbours are equally important. In that regard, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and I have just returned from various visits to the region, where we are also seeking to ensure safe passage of British nationals and others who seek to come to the UK eventually, but also seek a safe haven away from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

My Lords, how many Afghan interpreters who have already relocated to the UK had to leave behind wives and children still to be processed? While the Minister obviously cannot go into detail, can he at least give a firm assurance to the House that security arrangements which are proactive and targeted will be made so that these eligible dependants can come safely to the UK without delay?

The noble Baroness is right, and there are many heart-rending stories in this respect of choices having to be made not in days or minutes but in seconds. In this regard, we have of course ensured the safe passage of 15,000 to 17,000 people —2,000 came through the ARAP scheme before the actual crisis unfolded in Kabul. However, in the short time that we had, over 15,000 people under three categories—British nationals, ARAP and others—were evacuated from Afghanistan. I assure the noble Baroness that, as I have said already to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, the issue of security is important, and, in any support that we give, it has to be paramount before we can ensure safe passage. This is exactly what we are working on, including by engaging with the Taliban from an operational perspective—not through any issue of recognition, but to ensure that they remain true.

Every lever, especially economic ones, needs to be used to protect our security and prevent Afghanistan becoming once again a safe haven for international terrorism. I hope that, this afternoon, we will hear from the Prime Minister a clear diplomatic road map for the way ahead. I welcome the steps at the UN that the Minister has referred to, but can he say a bit more on how we are working with our partners to deliver on the ground the essential humanitarian support that is most needed at this moment?

My Lords, first I apologise to your Lordships’ House for overrunning. In seeking your Lordships’ indulgence, I hope that noble Lords will excuse me on such an important issue. In this regard, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, is right: we are working with key partners, including the Qataris and the Pakistanis as well as others, including through the UN and other vehicles, to ensure that exactly the points that the noble Lord raises are prioritised.