Motion to Take Note
That the Grand Committee takes note of the Report from the International Relations and Defence Committee The UK and Afghanistan (2nd Report, Session 2019–21, HL Paper 208).
My Lords, I am pleased to introduce our report The UK and Afghanistan. I thank the members of the International Relations and Defence Committee and our staff, including our specialist adviser Dr Weeda Meehran, for all their hard work in producing our report. It was published one year ago—when few others were either debating or writing about Afghanistan.
We noted that the UK’s prioritisation of Afghanistan had slipped over the previous decade. Yet the scale of challenges facing the country had not diminished during the period of the UK’s involvement there. Challenges to stability were—and still are—terrorism, drug production, drug trafficking and the fragile nature of the Afghan state. We noted the substantial level of aid dependency of the Afghan Government, with little prospect of developing alternative sources of revenue in the immediate future.
Against that bleak background, we praised achievements made over the previous 20 years, including progress on human rights, particularly for women and girls. However, we warned that the Taliban remained “ideologically opposed” to much of this progress and could seek to undermine it. The past few months have shown that warning to be prescient. We highlighted that the Hazara
“have a long history of suffering … persecution”
and pressed the Government to find ways to protect them and other groups from such persecution. We also warned that there was
“a real risk that the principal national security challenges still posed by Afghanistan, namely terrorism, narcotics and regional instability, could worsen, and the gains made since 2001 could be lost.”
At the time of our inquiry, peace talks had been launched between the Afghan Government and the Taliban in Doha. But we expressed our deep concern that the planned withdrawal of US and NATO troops would undermine the position of the Afghan Government in those talks and destabilise the security situation in Afghanistan. Despite our warnings, withdrawal plans were accelerated and the situation in Afghanistan rapidly deteriorated over the first half of last year. By mid-August the Afghan Government had collapsed and the Taliban took Kabul, declaring their control of the administration of the country, ruling by violence and intimidation. While events have overtaken some of the findings of our report, most of the challenges we highlighted remain and have been exacerbated by the Taliban’s actions.
In the integrated review the Government committed to
“continue to support stability in Afghanistan”.
This debate provides an opportunity to take stock of the situation now and ask the Government about their priorities and their plans to keep true to that commitment. The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has clearly worsened considerably since August and is dire. I am grateful to the director of the UK office of the UN World Food Programme for her up-to-date assessment of the situation. The UNWFP calculates that the number of people facing acute food insecurity—another description of famine—has risen to 2.8 million, more than half the population, and 3.2 million children are expected to suffer acute malnutrition by the end of this year.
It is now the harsh wintertime in Afghanistan, which threatens to cut off areas of the country where families desperately depend on humanitarian assistance to survive the freezing months ahead. It is vital that those countries that sought to bring stability to Afghanistan over the past 20 years do not turn away now. International support is needed more than ever to tackle the humanitarian crisis on the ground. Our report highlighted that Afghanistan is the most aid-dependent country in the world. According to the World Bank, grants financed 75% of public funding in 2018-19. The UN and aid organisations now warn that basic services in Afghanistan, including the health service, are at risk of collapse.
Of course, the Taliban takeover led to a pause in international aid to the country. It is not clear how much aid is able to get to Afghanistan and, when there, how much actually reaches those who are in desperate need. I welcome the Government’s pledge last August to increase official development assistance to Afghanistan to £286 million but that is still less than our commitment in 2019, before the crisis, and it is not clear how much of that has actually been disbursed. On 15 December 2021 the Government stated that £81 million had been disbursed within Afghanistan and £10 million to refugees in the region. About a month later, on 12 January this year, Minister Ford said that £145 million had been disbursed, but I do not seem to be able to find any other mention of that figure. I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could clarify the position on that today.
Witnesses to our Select Committee told us of their concern about the time taken to disburse the funding and the extreme challenges of operating in the context of sanctions and the breakdown of the Afghan banking system. The UK played a vital role, of which we should be proud, in successfully negotiating UN Security Council Resolution 2615 last month. That should provide real support to aid operations in Afghanistan by reassuring banks that they can securely and lawfully offer the full range of financial services needed to facilitate humanitarian activities there.
However, NGOs such as the Norwegian Refugee Council and Christian Aid are concerned that the FCDO appears to be considering imposing new and burdensome restrictions on NGOs and the financial sector when the Government bring before Parliament the statutory instrument that should incorporate Resolution 2615 into law. It is feared that the provisions of the SI will undermine the very purpose of the UN humanitarian exception that was authorised under the UNSC resolution itself. I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could give an outline of the SI’s provisions and give an assurance today that the statutory instrument will not have that chilling effect.
It is important that the UK works with international partners to halt the rollback of the progress that has been made on human rights, particularly on women’s and girls’ rights, which had been hard won over the past 20 years. We were pleased to hear from the Minister, my noble friend Lord Ahmad, about the work that he has done on that issue. Events since August last year prove that our concern that the Taliban remained ideologically opposed to the progress on women’s rights was well founded. The position is now infinitely worse for girls, who cannot access their previous levels of education nor hope that they will be permitted to work unless in the most menial of tasks. What discussions has the Minister had with Ministers of like-minded countries to bring hope to the youth of Afghanistan?
Last August, we all viewed from afar the horrors of the Taliban takeover in Kabul and the desperation of those who wished to flee for their lives. I congratulate our Armed Forces on their professionalism and courage in delivering thousands to safety during Operation Pitting. But there are many who remain in danger in Afghanistan—in danger, because they worked with western Governments and NGOs to bring the hope of a better future to their country. Now they face the reality of reprisals wreaked on them by the Taliban.
The ARAP and ACRS are indeed welcome, but it is disappointing that the Government narrowed the eligibility criteria in December, leaving many UK partners such as the British Council in considerable uncertainty about the fate of their colleagues. I am pleased that the Government have now provided a little more detail on the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which was launched earlier this month, but there is still much uncertainty and concern among NGOs about how it will operate.
Last year, our committee wrote to the Foreign Secretary requesting clarification about the position of women judges and journalists, who are particularly vulnerable. We were disappointed by the response we received. I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could clarify today how the ACRS in particular will help those remaining in Afghanistan, whose lives are clearly in danger.
Finally, it is important for the Government to look ahead and set out whether and how they could engage with the Taliban on a diplomatic level to address the following three challenges. The first is the extent to which any engagement should be conditional on the Taliban halting the reversal of human rights advances over the past 20 years, while taking into account the significant humanitarian crisis faced by the people of Afghanistan. The second is the extent to which the Taliban appears to be influenced by terrorist groups in the country. Our report noted the close links between the Taliban and the Haqqani network and al-Qaeda. We also noted the threat posed by ISIS-K. After the August withdrawal, American officials labelled that organisation as the most imminent terrorist threat to the US coming out of Afghanistan. The third is the extent to which the UK can or should work with partners such as Pakistan, Iran and other regional actors to reduce instability within Afghanistan and the region.
This is not the time for the international community to avert its gaze from the heavy challenges of securing stability in Afghanistan and the region. The humanitarian crisis within that country makes it more important than ever that the Government should maintain their commitment, given last year, to
“continue to support stability in Afghanistan”.
I look forward to hearing from my noble friend the Minister how the Government plan to do just that. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, who is a highly respected chair of the committee. I was not a member of the committee at the time, but I suspect that if this debate had been held last summer, there would have been unqualified praise for the quality and comprehensive nature of the report’s analysis and its recognition of the challenges faced. However, the report was published over a year ago, so much of the evidence must have been gathered over the previous year, since when—to adopt and adapt a parliamentary phrase—an amendment has been moved. Of course, the amendment is the events of August 2021 and the Taliban victory.
What were we trying to achieve by our intervention in Afghanistan? The aims of the UK Government are set out in paragraph 37 of the report. They were:
“to safeguard what it describes as the UK’s legacy in Afghanistan since 2001. It wishes to strengthen the gains made in this period, and defines its legacy in terms of improvements in human rights, particularly of women and girls, and the strengthening of the Afghan state since the fall of the Taliban administration.”
It is fair to say that the committee noted in the next paragraph that
“gains made since 2001 could be lost”,
but the options it considered did not include the collapse entirely of the Afghan Government.
The committee noted the considerable expenditure by the UK taxpayer in development aid—more than £3 billion over the period—the training and equipping of the security forces, the tragic loss of 456 UK troops killed in the campaign from 2001 to 2014, and the more than 600 British military personnel with life-changing injuries. However, despite all that expenditure and loss of life, the Afghan army speedily collapsed, surrendering its weapons, and the President fled with much of the Government. Poverty and hunger among the people have increased and would surely have a larger focus in the report if the committee were to consider the humanitarian situation today, which the noble Baroness mentioned.
So one is bound to ask: was it all a waste of time, resources and lives? What is, in fact, the legacy? What is left from that major allied and western effort? Is the report essentially now a historical document? Time will tell, of course, but many of the more educated and modern Afghanis have taken the opportunity to leave the country. There are major question marks over the plight of women and girls under the Taliban regime, but some of that taste of freedom might indeed linger and be capable of surviving when circumstances change, as surely they will one day.
Perhaps we should have had a more profound appreciation of history, such as the British history of intervention in the 1840s and 1880s as part of the great game, the Soviet intervention in the 1980s—what Gorbachev called the “bleeding wound”—a greater appreciation of the reality of Afghan society and the tribalism which apparently the Taliban are experiencing even now, and the intense localism I experienced when I visited Herat and heard that those trained were most reluctant to leave the immediate vicinity of their homes. Did we think that we could graft a western concept of democracy on a very different society? Are there lessons to be learned?
The report concludes that the US talks with the Taliban in Doha were about withdrawal rather than peace negotiations, and that the Afghan Government were sidelined and, indeed, undermined. It rightly points out that the UK and other allies very much played second fiddle to the US in the conflict, and that when the US left we had to leave, together with the European Union and other allies. Was this a reality check for us and the EU? Is it the Government’s view that the Taliban as a whole is in any way different from when it was last in power up to 2001? I would welcome the Minister’s views on whether the Taliban will encourage terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda and ISKP—the Islamic State Khorasan Province? Will there be an even greater transfer of narcotics to the UK? These are key questions, which it is perhaps premature to ask at the moment and to expect clear answers from the Minister. It may be more productive now to reflect on some of the geostrategic consequences of the Taliban victory.
First, with the experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, will the West be a little more cautious about intervention? Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, with his experience, will say something about this. Will nation-building be less high on the agenda and spreading democracy now be less favoured? Is there a danger that the correction will go too far in the opposite direction and be very cautious about intervention?
Secondly, the credibility and trustworthiness of the West has been damaged worldwide. It happened before, of course, given the US defeat in Vietnam, but then the US was very much the dominant hegemon and China was not the rival it is today. Taiwan and Ukraine will be especially worried. Countries in the Middle East and Africa will hedge their bets and seek to make peace with China. The UK and the European Union will be similarly affected. Perhaps, as a result of what has happened in Afghanistan, the integrated review needs now to be revisited.
Again, terrorism throughout the world, from Mozambique to the Sahel and Iraq, even in Pakistan, will exult and be emboldened. Is it likely that more such groups will find a safe haven in Afghanistan? What is the Government’s judgment in this respect?
China will, of course, take advantage of the US humiliation and seek ever closer links with Pakistan and the Taliban in Afghanistan, including mining concessions, particularly in respect of rare minerals. In short, the West will need to rebuild its credibility globally and it will take some time for this to happen. Perhaps China will, over time, overreact in Africa.
Positively, however, we in the UK need to have a period of soul-searching in respect of Afghanistan and make our priorities clear: for example, how to get aid to its suffering people and whether some of the assets need to be unfrozen. There is also how to get the aid there without channelling it through the Taliban. We need to reverse the cuts in our own aid and develop areas where we are a superpower, such as in soft power. We need to know ourselves better, avoid any pretensions to great-power status and rely massively on what remains as our major advantages globally.
My Lords, as one of, I think, 12 members of today’s Committee who are former or current members of the International Relations and Defence Committee, I too commend our chair for suggesting that the committee conducted our inquiry and then for chairing it and introducing this debate so well. I do not think it is acceptable that it has been a year since we concluded a prescient report, which had constructive requests of the Government and of the whole House, and that it has taken so long for us to debate this.
As has been said, the intervening period has confirmed the benefit of such a committee report if the conclusions are not only read but acted upon, because we took a wide view. We took evidence as to the very mixed nature of human development in Afghanistan, specifically over the last decade. Certain parts of Afghanistan had seen negative human development, while there was positive human development in others, especially for women’s rights and children.
In some measures, we looked at the regional impact, which has become so obviously important, whether for Qatar and the UAE, from differing perspectives, or for Pakistan and the other neighbouring countries. We looked at how relevant they have become and took that into consideration. We also looked at the likely impact of the aid and development cuts. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, was absolutely right when she indicated that, from 2019 to 2020, UK funding was £240 million but, in 2021, went down to £168 million. Therefore, in many respects, what is being committed over a three-year period will only regain territory lost. That cannot be right, given the scale of the humanitarian crisis that Afghanistan is suffering from.
As the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, indicated, the committee wished to be fair to the Government in agreeing with what they considered to be their own legacies as far as Afghanistan is concerned. The report states that the Government
“defines its legacy in terms of improvements in human rights, particularly of women and girls, and the strengthening of the Afghan state”.
Clearly, these have been failures since August. As we said:
“There is a real risk that … the gains … could be lost.”
Now we know that those gains have been lost, what is the way forward?
It is 20 years since the start of the American operation termed Enduring Freedom. Published just two weeks ago, UN OCHA’s planned humanitarian response for Afghanistan makes for profoundly depressing reading. I quote the foreword of the humanitarian response plan after 20 years of the operation:
“We go into 2022 with unprecedented levels of need amongst ordinary women, men and children of Afghanistan. 24.4 million people are in humanitarian need—more than half the population. Years of compounded crises and under-investment have resulted in nearly four times the number of people in need of lifesaving humanitarian assistance compared to just three years ago.”
That appeal has been matched with a funding appeal for the plan of $869 million, but, according to OCHA, there is a shortfall of $105 million. The UK has responded to the plan with $21 million, but that is behind Sweden, Germany, Japan, France and Denmark. Why are we behind those countries for this humanitarian response plan?
Our wider support is welcome. The UK has committed £82 million for the separate wider humanitarian appeal. However, as the noble Baroness indicated, a concern has been raised that, of the totality of the £286 million that has been announced over a three-year period, only around half—the figure of £145 million has been reported—has actually been allocated. I, too, want clarity on the distribution and allocation of the funds. Obviously, concerns have been raised among the charity and NGO sectors that if the remainder of the funding is not dispersed to the field before the end of this financial year, the Treasury will claw back any unallocated and undispersed funding. I hope that, in summing up, it will be a straightforward job for the Minister to state categorically that this will not happen; that no funds previously allocated to Afghanistan will be clawed back if they have not been distributed.
Urgency is key, of course, but there has been some degree of sympathy for the point made by the noble Baroness about the use of the Taliban for the distribution of certain funds. The Minister was categorical when he gave evidence to our inquiry and has been consistent to this day—he deserves credit for that—that funds will not be distributed through the Taliban. However, as we hear in some of the discussions with the UK envoy and in the discussions that Norway is now facilitating, there are areas controlled by the Taliban that, by necessity, UK funds will have to be distributed through.
That is why it is so important that charities and NGOs know with absolute clarity what the Government’s legislation will be on the use of sanctions. There are, of course, UN sanctions, but there are separate UK sanctions. Therefore, clarity and whether we will be in a position openly and substantially to debate the statutory instruments that will come through on this will be very important. Charities and NGOs have said to me and others that clarity is important for them, not just for now but to have ongoing security with a regime that is unlikely to change.
My second point was also raised by the committee: it is with regard to UK capacity and administration. A very brave Foreign Office whistleblower highlighted in a devastating report the lack of integrated IT, language skills and individual computers for staff; the 5,000 unanswered emails and the block-flagging of unread emails to show that they had been read; disengaged political and head of department leadership; and the complex decision-making which was set aside, notwithstanding the very hard work of certain officials in our Armed Forces and Civil Service. I do not cast any aspersions on our Minister’s work, but it is clear that some lives were lost. The Foreign Office spokesman said at the time that we could not help everybody but our support for those people was enduring. As my noble friend Lady Smith of Newnham and others will no doubt say in this debate, in many respects the meagre and confused resettlement schemes have not been an illustration of our enduring support as referred to by that press spokesman.
Finally, I shall pick up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson. Coincidentally, Losing Afghanistan: the Fall of Kabul and the End of Western Intervention, edited by Dr Brian Brivati, was published today. It raises difficult questions about the future of intervention, given the context of Afghanistan. My essay in the collection offers a slight degree of optimism but redefines what intervention must be. Only 16 months separated Operation Noble Anvil—the bombing of Serbia—and Operation Enduring Freedom. It is probably clear to many of us that one of those operations has been sustainable and more successful than the other. We need to redefine what intervention is. We need to look at the tools open to us and our allies and partners and be free to allow them to be used when we recognise that a regime that we sought to defeat and deny access is now in place. This is not a time for timidity, even though the circumstances and a humanitarian crisis are there. Reports such as this one and others from charities and NGOs have to be listened to.
Retired General Sir Jack Deverell, former Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces Northern Europe, said this about the book, and I think it is worth closing on it:
“Above all the book poses a question: how can we in the West claim we know so much yet demonstrate in Afghanistan that we understand so little?”
If we do not debate reports such this one and others, we will continue to understand so little at a time when the people of Afghanistan, especially the women and children, demand of us that we understand more.
My Lords, the Minister will perhaps not be surprised that I want to raise a number of issues concerning the Afghan civilian interpreters who worked with the British military. I should declare an interest as a member of the former MoD assurance committee on locally employed civilians, which monitored the application of the intimidation policy for interpreters and others.
I was pleased to see the recommendation at paragraph 49 of the report:
“The UK Government should ensure that all Afghan interpreters who worked for the UK military, including those now resident in third countries, are aware of, and able to access the provisions of, the ex-gratia scheme.”
This was a positive and welcome response from the committee to written evidence submitted by my noble and gallant friend Lord Stirrup and me. We made a number of points, and I am grateful to the committee for taking the point about third-country residents.
Of course, as with other aspects of the report, events have overtaken the situation facing the interpreters and the remedies available to them. I have a series of questions for the Minister about the Government’s response to the committee’s recommendation, as well as on the evolving circumstances facing interpreters, and some other points that my noble and gallant friend Lord Stirrup and I made in our submission but which were not reflected in the report.
I understand that the Minister may well not have with him today all the data that I am about to ask him for, as some of it will no doubt rest with the MoD or the Home Office. If this is the case, I should be grateful if he would undertake to write to me afterwards and to place a copy in the Library.
At the time of the committee’s report, the schemes on offer for the interpreters were the ex gratia redundancy scheme for those who qualified and the intimidation policy. In April 2021, the latter was replaced by the broader scheme, ARAP, and, shortly after, following the Taliban takeover, the ACRS was also introduced.
Up to the point at which the Taliban took over last year, the number of interpreters and family members whom we had relocated to the UK was, I think, in the region of 5,000. I would like to know what the current figure is. I would also like to say on record, as I have done on previous occasions in your Lordships’ House, that although the redundancy and intimidation schemes sometimes left significant room for improvement in flexibility and generosity, this level of relocation, as well as the assistance provided in country, is to be commended and puts the UK at or near best practice among all our allies in their treatment of former interpreters.
What I would like to know now from the Minister is: how many interpreters were awaiting clearance for relocation to the UK under the ex gratia scheme or ARAP at the time of the Taliban takeover? How many had already been given clearance but had not yet travelled? How many wives and children of these two groups were involved? How many from each of these groups have managed to relocate following the Taliban takeover? On the assumption that not all will have successfully relocated but did have prior clearance or were very likely to secure it, what measures are now in place for locating and then relocating the remainder? Are our former interpreters eligible under ARAP or the ACRS, or both? Given their status and former role, is any priority being given to interpreters and their families?
On third-country residents, I was told by the noble Lady, Baroness Goldie—and it was echoed in the government response to the committee’s report—that “administrative difficulties” effectively prevented consideration of requests from former interpreters whose experience of severe intimidation had already driven them to flee to a third country; I believe that they are not eligible under ARAP either. However, she did say that discretion could and would be applied on a case-by-case basis. How many individuals have benefited from such discretion and how proactively are the Government acting to locate, communicate with and offer discretionary help to interpreters in a third country?
Two other issues were raised in the submission from my noble and gallant friend Lord Stirrup and me in evidence to the committee, on which the report is regrettably silent, so I would like to press the Minister for some comment at least and, even better, some commitment for further action.
First, contracting out to a private company the employment of the Afghan interpreters worsened their terms and conditions of employment, including their protection against intimidation. We do not believe that sufficient due diligence was done before awarding the contract and, although too late for those Afghan interpreters, we believe that handing over legal responsibility to a private company should not absolve the Government from the moral responsibility in the short or long term for the safety of interpreters. It is crucial to get this right to avoid serious risks to future military operations. Can the Minister say whether, and, if so, how, the private contractor is providing any assistance in locating former interpreters who may be in hiding but still wish to relocate to the UK?
Finally, I have spoken with the Minister several times before about the wider issue of protection for civilian interpreters in conflict zones, of which the case of the Afghans is a good example. An international campaign has, for some years now, been trying to get the UN Security Council to pass a resolution to mirror Resolution 2222, agreed in 2015, on the protection of journalists in conflict zones. The case for interpreters, I would argue, is even stronger, as journalists are usually able to go home to a safe country when their assignment ends, whereas interpreters are left to face potential intimidation and violence in their own communities. Such a resolution would pave the way for the Geneva conventions to be updated, and would send a powerful message that the UK and others value the vital role of interpreters and will honour their moral and practical obligations to them during and after the conflict that they are helping us to resolve. I hope the Minister can update us on where this issue currently stands within the Security Council and that he will undertake to follow up on it.
My Lords, I join everyone in welcoming the report and thanking our chairman for producing it. I also echo the problem that we have with it being more than a year old. This is not a government problem. This is a problem because the House of Lords cannot manage to organise its business. We really need to send a message to the leadership of this self-governing House, as we are called, that when effort is put in to producing reports of the stature, elegance and erudition of this one, we expect the House authorities to table a debate in reasonably short time, certainly not after a year, and a year in which there have been momentous developments. I hope that message will be carried to the leadership of this House.
We have to look at the lessons for the future and the lack of strategy. The most relevant matter is in one of the briefings I received that quotes Professor Michael Clarke, former director-general of RUSI, who identified
“only one overall strategic driver, dated 2001: to support the US, regardless of whether its strategy was sound or not.”
I cannot disagree with that. A barrister called Frank Ledwidge was also quoted as saying:
“I have asked eight Defence Secretaries what our strategy was … I have not been able to identify a national strategy.”
I am afraid that equates with my own view of where we have gone wrong. Part of our problem, which was classically demonstrated in Afghanistan, is that we are bit players, not major players. The moment the Americans decided to leave, Joe Biden put down the phone, put a tea cosy over it, did not call anyone and said, “We’re off”. At that point, all the rest of the NATO group had to leave. There was no way in which we as NATO without the United States could mount any mission whatever. We were out behind it. I think we did a reasonable job in getting out our supporters and the people who had assisted us, but let there be no doubt that out was the only destination we had, because one of the biggest lessons we have to learn is that we have repeated the same mistake in Afghanistan for 150 years. We never learn, and it is about time that we did.
The second thing I would like us to learn is that you cannot have a policy based on bombing people into submission and then sending aid to rebuild the place. This is not a strategy. We may have to face the fact that in some parts of this great world of ours there are people who do not share our values, and we cannot force them to share our values. What Afghanistan has demonstrated is how quickly the castle can disappear into the sea because it is just a sandcastle. We have many people from Afghanistan now in Britain and in other western countries, but we had to pull them out because we had not built any structures that would survive for even a very short time.
I received, among other things, a rather good briefing from the BBC. It has got most of its people out. It has clearly done a good job there. We need to continue to support the BBC. But I find it bizarre that the funding for the World Service comes out of exactly the same pool as “Would I Lie to You?”, which is a programme on the BBC—it is not Prime Minister’s Question Time, incidentally. I really think that we need to see the World Service as a protected species; in other words, we need to make sure that it is protected, because it is the one body that is universally respected. I have travelled all over the world in my career and it is the one body that is always mentioned to me as something that people are very proud of and listen to and trust. We need to somehow pull the BBC World Service out of this mélange of BBC funding. It needs to be looked after.
What are the lessons for the future? Some 20 years ago, when this was just starting, I accompanied a Russian general around a museum of the Afghan war. In that museum there were letters from soldiers—their last letters—and various artefacts that had been in Afghanistan, and I always remember something he said to me: “You won’t win either and your enemy is much better armed than ours was in the beginning because your enemy has been armed by the Americans. They’ve armed the Taliban and it’s their arms that are now going to be used against you.” We need to look at things and say: “What can we actually do?”
A little closer to home, at the moment we are getting ourselves in a complete mess in Ukraine. Germany is refusing to let Estonia hand over its weapons. We cannot get overflight of Germany. But we need to reflect, as the German foreign office does, that we cannot do anything militarily in eastern Europe. If you talk to people at the German foreign ministry, that is what they will tell you. They will say that all you are doing is stoking up trouble. No one has ever won a war against the Russians. We are not going to be starting it. But we need a much sounder policy when we look at the lessons to be learned from Afghanistan. I think the lessons are that we can export western values through an aid and support programme and through helping with education and women’s rights—all the good things that we do—but we can do that only when we have fertile ground in which to sow our seeds. Self-evidently in Afghanistan we did not.
My conclusion on this excellent report is that we should use it as a series of signposts as to what we should not do again. That is the most important thing that comes out of it. I read it and at various points thought, “Hmm, maybe not. Better be careful there.” If we can get one good thing out of it, it should be realism in British foreign policy.
My Lords, there are few countries with a more tragic recent history than Afghanistan. It has endured long periods of war and internal conflict; its Governments have been weak and mired in corruption; a high proportion of its population has lived in extreme poverty. The long-term weakness of its economy has led to heavy dependence on international aid. For many years, the main cash crop has been opium-producing poppies, associated with criminal gangs exporting opiates.
The earlier takeover of the country by the Taliban led to a grotesque retreat into extremist values, viciously repressing women, the denial of basic rights of free speech and free assembly, and the torture and killing of those who challenged the human rights abuses which had become commonplace. All this led to large numbers of Afghans leaving the country as refugees.
At the turn of this century, Afghanistan was perceived to be a serious threat as a breeding ground for terrorism and a source of regional instability. Following the collapse of the Taliban after the invasion by the West and the restoration of an elected Government, progress was made in human rights and the provision of public services, supported by NGOs. There were improvements, especially in Kabul, in basic rights for women to an education and employment in government and the professions. The continuing presence of small numbers of NATO forces, primarily but not exclusively involved in supporting and training the Afghan military, reinforced the Government, although they remained weak, and further helped protect basic human rights, although abuses remained.
The decision by the Trump Administration to withdraw from Afghanistan, leading to negotiations between the USA and Taliban representatives in Doha, has implications for the UK and our policies towards Afghanistan. In these circumstances and against the background of a terrible recent history, it seemed very appropriate for the International Relations and Defence Committee to launch an inquiry into the Government’s policies on Afghanistan. I am very grateful to our chairman for agreeing to this.
The evidence the committee received led to a report which pointed to the danger of the USA’s approach and our support of it. Select Committees do not always get things right and come to the right conclusions. On this occasion, most of the committee’s analysis and predictions have turned out to be correct. Indeed, if anything, it understated the disastrous outcomes of western policy. We argued that US and NATO troops should stay in Afghanistan until a negotiated settlement between the then Afghan Government and the Taliban was reached. There was a failure of diplomacy by the US Government in early 2020 because they made a unilateral agreement with the Taliban to withdraw their troops without adequate conditions. This agreement undermined the Afghan Government in their talks with the Taliban which followed. Since the US was going to leave regardless of the outcome of the talks, we said that this would be likely to destabilise the security situation—and so it did.
Do the Government regret their decision to support the US-Taliban agreement? Were decisions by NATO allies to withdraw made collectively rather than more or less imposed on NATO by the USA? The response of the Secretary of State for Defence at the time of the withdrawal suggested that at least he did not support it. In saying this, perhaps I should remind the Minister—I do not suppose he has forgotten it—that the numbers of US NATO troops remaining in the country were minimal and the costs therefore very small compared to the vast expenditure of the earlier war.
Following the appalling planning of the mechanics of withdrawal and the consequent chaos that followed last summer, the Prime Minister admitted that the situation in Afghanistan was “bleak”. The priorities that he set out were to work with our international partners in providing humanitarian support; to evacuate Afghans who had worked with the UK; and to establish a plan agreed by the international community to deal with the Taliban regime. I will deal with each of those in turn.
As soon as the country was overrun by the Taliban and they were back in government, NGOs providing development aid had to leave. Given that foreign aid accounted for 60% of government income with no prospect of it being replaced by domestic revenues, it should have been obvious immediately that a humanitarian crisis would follow. It has. So why were the UK and the international community so slow in devising and then implementing a scheme in which humanitarian aid would be increased, ring-fenced and then delivered by UN agencies?
As has been said, many children have already died from malnutrition. We are now in the depths of winter and a high percentage of the population, especially in rural areas, is suffering from acute hunger, many of them at risk of starvation. Does the Minister agree that it is not just food aid that is required but basic public services, notably in health and education? What increases are the Government making in our aid funding to Afghanistan through targeted subventions to UN agencies following the disastrous cuts to our aid budget—referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis—in a context where, despite promises to reverse them, no date has been provided for when that is going to happen?
I know the Minister will have come armed with figures on the number of Afghans who worked for the UK who have been evacuated or subsequently given asylum to settle here, but it is hardly surprising that in the shambles of last summer many of those with a legitimate claim to come here were unable to leave and were left at risk of horrible Taliban reprisals. I am particularly concerned about recent stories of locally-engaged British Council staff who appear to have been largely forgotten under the ARAP scheme for resettlement in the UK.
I welcome the decision to open a new scheme, the ACRS, to cover not just those who helped the UK with our work in Afghanistan but other vulnerable groups too. These should include lawyers, academics and journalists, especially women in all three of those categories. How many from such groups have been able to resettle here, and how many is it planned to provide for over the next 12 months? Could the Minister respond to criticisms of the narrowing of the criteria for ARCS that was announced last month? Does he accept that the changes made renege on earlier promises? Does he agree that they will have a retrospective effect, crushing the hopes of some Afghans hoping to escape the country who believed that they were eligible for resettlement?
I turn to the third of the Prime Minister’s priorities last August. Where do the Government now stand on how to relate to the Taliban Government? When responding on this, I ask the Minister to report on a meeting apparently being held under the auspices of the Norwegian Government to consider these issues. What position are the UK Government now taking? Clearly the return of the Taliban as the Government of Afghanistan has had disastrous consequences, setting back the earlier improvements—even if limited—made by the previous Government?
There appears to be a lack of unanimity and conflict within the Taliban regime. Moreover, there is evidence that the Government are not controlling many of their adherents, who are committing atrocities at ground level that go unchallenged. What assessment have the UK Government made of the Taliban leadership? Do they believe that there are more progressive elements to whom it may be possible to reach out, or not? Is there not a case to be made, as Rory Stewart and others have said, for dialogue taking place with the Taliban, not just in respect of the delivery of humanitarian aid?
To conclude, without such dialogue, leading possibly to the eventual recognition of the Taliban Government providing certain conditions are met, it is hard to see anything other than continuing security challenges, as well as a bleak future for the people of Afghanistan. Its tragic history, which I described at the beginning, will not be reversed. Without economic development, the rule of law, stable government and basic human rights, those Afghans who can will seek to escape, and the flow of refugees to neighbouring countries and the West will go on and on.
My Lords, under the notable chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, who opened the debate so well, and with the assistance of a terrific secretariat, the International Relations and Defence Select Committee undertook a rigorous and thorough examination of the UK’s role in Afghanistan and explored what the future might look like. I agree with others who have said that it is quite wrong for a report of this importance, and which was clearly so urgent, to have been consigned to the long grass for so long. Referring to the report when Parliament was recalled on 18 August last to debate the unfolding and appalling chaos in Afghanistan, I said that the failure to debate its prescient recommendations and findings had been negligent. I repeat that today.
One year ago, the report excoriated the Government for showing
“little inclination … to exert an independent voice”
and it criticised the United States for “undermining NATO unity”. It insisted that troop withdrawal
“runs contrary to the UK’s objective of securing a durable negotiated settlement”
“the potential to further destabilise the security situation in Afghanistan”.
So let no one say it was impossible to foresee the disastrous debacle that was coming.
Among the long-term consequences that we now have to deal with is a weakened America—or at least the perception of American weakness—emboldening a host of aggressors who threaten the liberal world order. The ill-thought-out abandonment of Afghanistan damaged alliances and networks, and had a chilling effect on vulnerable people bravely upholding human rights and the rule of law in fragile states. I have seen what has happened to judges and lawyers, some of whom I met earlier today with the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and to public servants, journalists and teachers abandoning their homes and fleeing for their lives from Kabul. They ask: will they be next? Bullies retreat when met by strength and resolve, and advance when they sense weakness. Of course, the abandonment has emboldened the Taliban, which, along with all its other distortions, would probably apply to Afghanistan the words of Ernest Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls:
“If we win here we will win everywhere.”
One of the inquiry’s most authoritative witnesses was Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former distinguished ambassador to the United States. While Kabul was being taken by the Taliban, he said that
“what is happening in Kabul will not stay in Kabul. Radical Islamists, armed with the powerful narrative of driving out two superpowers through jihad, will challenge the American-led order across much of the Muslim world”.
When our admirable Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, appeared before the Select Committee in October, I asked about the findings of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy that
“recent events in Afghanistan suggest the NSC and the cross-government machinery that supports its work are inadequate to the task”,
a point referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis. How have we addressed what it identified as “groupthink”—
“reluctance by Ministers and/or senior officials to engage fully with the realities of information presented to them”—
“failure of diplomacy to bring forward an alternative NATO coalition on the ground”?
I have a number of other questions. Just a few days ago, on 17 January, a group of United Nations-appointed distinguished experts reported that the Taliban is attempting
“to steadily erase women and girls from public life”
“institutionalizing large scale and systematic gender-based discrimination and violence against women and girls”
including trafficking and forced marriage. As we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, the Select Committee’s report warned that this would happen. In evidence to our committee, we heard that, since 2001, women had begun to enjoy their basic human rights, including the right to education. They were able to enrol in higher education and pursue careers, including in the judicial system, politics, medicine, the police and the armed forces. The committee found
“considerable improvement in the participation of women in Afghan society, politics and the economy since the fall of the Taliban administration in 2001, particularly in urban areas.”
The Taliban often uses a metaphor about clocks and time. As the clocks are now turned back in Afghanistan, will the rights of women be a priority for any engagement on Afghanistan? As the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, implied a few moments ago, in negotiations currently under way in Norway, will the position of women as a priority be a pre-condition for any kind of recognition? For us in the UK, will it also be a priority to ensure that any money sent through our aid programmes does not end up lining the pockets of corrupt men?
The committee also raised Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its insistence on freedom of religion or belief. In his evidence, the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon—said that the Taliban’s “ideological philosophy” needs to be addressed. He is right, of course. We asked for further information and were told that the then Afghan Government were seeking
“to create space for moderate Islamic scholarship and ulema.”
What will happen to that now? We were also told about the Minister’s welcome Declaration of Humanity, especially its call
“for multiple faiths and beliefs to unite in a common front to challenge damaging societal norms”.
What is the FCDO doing to prioritise the declaration?
Last week, for the first time in 20 years, Open Doors ranked Afghanistan in its World Watch List as the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian, reporting:
“Men face ridicule, imprisonment, torture, sexual abuse and potentially death because of their faith. Men and boys also become targets for militias seeking to coerce them into joining their fighter groups … women … can be sold into slavery or prostitution, beaten severely, forced to marry a Muslim (in an attempt to re-convert them), or sexually abused.”
Since the Taliban came back to power, their community has had to flee or go into hiding, with the remnant living in acute danger and the Taliban actively hunting them down. Ali Ehsani said that the Taliban was merciless when it found out his family were Christian:
“One day, I came home from school to find that the Taliban had destroyed our home and killed my parents.”
The plight of the Hazara Shias is no better. The committee’s written evidence found that the Shia Hazara minority were
“regularly subjected to targeted killings, violence, and discrimination based on their ethnic and religious identity … The response from the Afghan government and international community has been largely inadequate or missing altogether.”
Subsequently, in August 2021, Amnesty International published a report shedding light on the mass killings of the Hazaras by the Taliban. Around the same time, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum published a statement on the risk of crimes against humanity, even genocide, against the Hazaras. I hope that the Minister can tell us whether the Government have carried out their treaty obligations under the convention on the crime of genocide to conduct a risk assessment of genocide from the moment that such a danger is known to exist. Such a risk assessment is a matter not for the courts but for the FCDO.
Furthermore, even in 2020, the Taliban’s affiliate, Islamic State Khorasan Province, was responsible for at least 10 attacks against Shia Muslims, Sufi Muslims and Sikhs, resulting in 308 civilian casualties. Subsequently, in a chilling report about the Hazaras, Amnesty described
“a recent resurgence of attacks ... Hazara schools and religious sites have been bombed, medical clinics targeted, and Hazara civilians murdered by the Taliban or ISIS-K.”
The Select Committee’s report called for an urgent review of the Home Office failure—unlike other Five Eyes countries, such as Canada—to include IS-K on its list of proscribed terrorist organisations. Can we have an update on this, please?
Through emails and questions, I have regularly drawn the plight of the Hazaras to the attention of the FCDO. Last September, I sent reports of ethnic cleansing of Hazaras in Daykundi who were sent letters telling them to leave their homes within three days. They left with only their clothes and bare necessities; their homes were given to Taliban fighters. Our committee report recommends:
“The UK should publicly champion the rights of minority communities, such as the Hazaras.”
How do we intend to do that when those persecuted on the grounds of their religion have been given no priority in the response to this terrible tragedy? Is it any wonder that such cruelty has led to a massive exodus of refugees, adding to the 84 million people displaced worldwide?
The committee’s report highlights the immense challenges faced by Afghan refugees. The UN estimates that some 3.5 million people are internally displaced, 80% of whom are said to be women or children. Millions of others are dispersed throughout the region and the rest of the world. On 25 October, in a Parliamentary Question, I asked the Government what assessment they had made of the World Food Programme estimates that 22.8 million now face acute food insecurity, 8.7 million face emergency levels of food insecurity, and 3.2 million children under five are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition by the end of 2021. Can we now hear from the Government whether they agree with those estimates?
In their response to the committee’s report, the Government said:
“Afghans remain in the top 10 nationalities for irregular migration into Europe and the UK. Irregular migration is facilitated by criminals operating along well-established routes, with migrants often suffering some form of exploitation during their journey.”
Other than repelling them from our shores, as some drown in the English Channel, what are going to do to give them practical help? The Minister knows that a day does not pass without him and Ministers at the Home Office receiving emails—there were more from me today—about desperate Afghans still fleeing for their lives. Some belong to the persecuted religious minorities. Some have worked for the allied forces or western organisations. Some are gay; some are journalists; some are judges and lawyers; some have family in the UK. They are scared. They are desperate, fleeing and fighting to survive.
I welcome the official opening of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme but what provision is there in it for religious minorities facing existential threats? How many of the 20,000 who we say we will help are already settled in the UK, and how many will actually be new cases? My noble friend Lady Coussins has raised the issue of Afghan interpreters in third countries, where they often remain at risk. I hope that the Minister will respond to what she said about that.
I have some short, concluding points. At paragraph 187, the committee reminds its readers:
“Afghanistan is the largest source of heroin in the world”
and, at paragraph 279:
“Opium remains the main source of income for the Taliban, accounting for up to 65%.”
The report warns that
“terrorism, narcotics and regional instability, could worsen, and the gains made since 2001 could be lost.”
In January 2021 the committee said:
“The Government should seek to reinforce the need for a multinational approach, and be precise about its aims, including regional stability, counter-terrorism and countering narcotics production and trafficking.”
In sharp relief, we can see the consequences of failing to do those things but, undoubtedly, although heightened and made even more difficult to address, the same challenges now apply as they did in January of last year.
It is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alton. He asked many important questions and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say later. Like others, I welcome the chance to reflect on the report that I and my fellow members of the International Relations and Defence Select Committee published nearly a year ago just as we witnessed President-elect Biden take the oath. I want to thank the excellent secretariat, my colleagues on the committee, many of whom are here today, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for her brilliant chairmanship.
Whatever one’s view of President Trump, being his friend and ally on the world stage was complicated—his presence being irregular and erratic—which is why I, like many others, welcomed Biden’s return to a more multinational approach to solving the world’s problems. Last year, we saw an immediate change of course—the decision to rejoin the Paris peace accord, for example—which is why I hoped that, at the very least, President Biden might pause and reflect on making the decision to press ahead with the withdrawal from Afghanistan. It made the fact that he went ahead with such speed all the more disappointing.
By the time I started working in No. 10 under the David Cameron Administration in 2010, we had already been one decade in Afghanistan. British lives were still being lost and it was beginning to be uncertain what success would look like. A rethink was on the cards. It became clear that there was little support for the continuation of a large deployment of troops, but there is a big difference between a drawdown and the chaotic exit we saw last summer.
In recent years, with a small number of troops, we were able to bring—or help to bring—stability to the country, train the Afghan army and police, and support aid operatives doing so much good on the ground. However, when President Trump announced the withdrawal from Afghanistan, he did so with no discussion with his NATO allies and with no apparent concern that this undermined any chance of success at the peace talks. It was clear to us on the foreign affairs Select Committee, reviewing the fragile state of affairs at the time, that it would be impossible to deliver peace with no leverage, and that leverage must come from the ongoing presence of US and NATO troops. This was never a peace plan; it was an exit plan, and it turned out to be a disastrous one at that.
The decision to withdraw and the way in which it was done undermined US moral authority and western credibility globally, just when we need leadership so desperately as we face huge challenges such as Covid, climate change and the ongoing clash between China and the West. The events of the summer were grave days for all of us to witness, the good intentions of 20 years lying in tatters. Those many British and Afghans who risked, and in some cases paid with, their lives to bring stability and hope to Afghanistan deserved so much better. I think we all agree that this was not the endgame that any of us would have wished for.
As we try to pick up the pieces, there are still many unanswered questions. First, the speed and efficiency of the Taliban campaign seemed to surprise everyone. Why? This must have stemmed from either a failure of intelligence or a failure of leadership. We still cannot really tell which, amid the noisy blame game that has followed, but we should not allow that truth to be buried.
I pay tribute to all those who worked so hard to get friends and allies out of Afghanistan, but what of those left behind, as others have mentioned? I fear, as we all do, that many have been abandoned to their fate. Like others before me, I ask the Minister to report on recent numbers in the resettlement scheme.
Secondly, of the many people we let down, the terrible impact on the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan weighs heavily. We learn of hardship and threat to life every single day. What does that say about us and our values when we talk about human rights globally?
Thirdly, what does that tell us about our relationship with our closest allies? It is extremely disappointing, to say the least, that we were unable to exert more influence over the Americans. The NATO alliance is under pressure again, this time from Putin, and its ability to respond cohesively and effectively matters too much to allow NATO to dissipate as a relic of the last century.
Fourthly, our neglect is to the gain of others whom we do not call our allies, such as China, Iran and Russia. We have already seen the Chinese make inroads to Afghanistan and we are yet to know exactly how regional stability will play out. Twenty years on, we have simply delivered the very thing we were trying to avoid: a Taliban-run Afghanistan, a country which is likely to harbour terrorist groups and store up CT problems for us in the foreseeable—the very reason we went in there in the first place.
Fifthly, Afghanistan was already one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world before Covid and our withdrawal. With the effects of both, we are now looking at a humanitarian catastrophe worsened by the bleak winter and further waves of Covid. This was our mess in the creating, and I urge the Minister not to turn our backs on the people of Afghanistan; others have said this today. Whoever their masters may be, we must support them. I commend efforts to provide aid through UN agencies as well as other trusted NGOs and urge that this continues.
Those, like many of us in this Room, who ponder the withdrawal from Afghanistan should not forget why we went in there in the first instance. It was a NATO-led deployment in response to Article 5 after the devastating attacks of 9/11. However, it is often the case that the unified purpose of an intervention is far easier a task than to bring such a mission successfully to its end. No one wants forever wars. Perhaps we should put more strategic energy into thinking about what our mission is and what we owe to those who have supported and served with us on the ground.
Afghanistan seems fated to play a pivotal role in the 21st century, as it did in the century before and the one before that, from the advent of the great game to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to the precipitation of 9/11 and the abrupt exit of this summer. The people of Afghanistan once again find themselves paying a heavy price for global politics. We should acknowledge our debt to them and continue to help where we can.
My Lords, few individuals and no organisations emerge unscathed from last August’s debacle in Afghanistan, and I regret to say that our House is among those institutions, having failed to find time to debate our committee’s report, so ably introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for more than year—a momentous and tragic year for Afghanistan and for Britain’s involvement in that country. If our conventions are responsible for that delay, there is something seriously wrong with the way they are being operated. It is beyond parody. I make the rather unusual request to the Minister that he convey to the usual channels the unanimous view so far in this debate that this sort of thing should not be allowed to happen again.
I add, with some regret, that the Government do not seem to emerge very well from that debacle. Just look at the bland complacency of their response to the report or the evidence that Ministers gave to the committee before we wrote it. In neither was the slightest sign of awareness of the disasters that lay a few brief months ahead. Could that debacle have been avoided? I rather doubt it, once President Trump signed off on a deal with the Taliban in February 2020, a deal that totally ignored the views of the elected Government of Afghanistan and made withdrawal in no way conditional on the Taliban’s performance. Clearly, the Biden Administration made some major tactical errors, but the die was cast by President Trump. Our own Government have deplored the way this was handled, and I would like the Minister to tell the Committee what representations the Government made over that when the Trump deal was being negotiated in early 2020 and what representations were made to the Biden Administration when they were shaping their Afghan policy in early 2021.
That is enough history. What can be salvaged from this shipwreck? First, we need to help the long-suffering people of Afghanistan—faced with starvation, draconian and inhumane social policies and the loss of much of women’s and girls’ education and job opportunities—as best we can. That means funding UN and other international agencies which are capable of getting food, medicines and development assistance through to those who need it. It also means assisting any of our NGOs which are capable of continuing to operate in Afghanistan and, in particular, assisting them to convey funds to their Afghan employees who are carrying out this essential work. I hope the Minister will have something to say about that. It also means a generous approach to supporting refugees and receiving asylum seekers who are fleeing in well-justified fear for their lives. What are the Government’s policies on the ground and in practice on these three points? I know what has been announced, but it is not always what is happening.
Should we be recognising the Taliban in any way beyond the inevitable extent needed to assist our humanitarian efforts? I do not believe so and I welcome that that also appears to be the view of the Government. What is the case for recognition of a group which has seized power by force, refuses to share power with representatives of many sections of the population and flouts the provisions of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights—itself an integral part of UN membership?
We, in close concert with the US and the EU, surely need to find ways of working with Afghanistan’s neighbours, most obviously Pakistan, but also Iran, China and Afghanistan’s northern neighbours. Whatever our other differences with these countries, we share many broad objectives; for instance, avoiding Afghanistan again becoming a base for terrorist attacks—which could be a serious problem for Pakistan, China and Iran—ensuring that it does not remain contagiously unstable, and reducing the flow of illicit drugs. Again, this is an objective we share with many others.
Even if we have different views on the best road to take to achieve those objectives, we share quite a lot of common ground and should overcome any hesitancy about dealing with these matters in concert with others. The recent UN Security Council resolution on humanitarian aid was very welcome in that respect. What prospect is there of building on that with a wider UN approach which could underpin the pursuit of those objectives?
Clearly, we must not turn a blind eye to the lessons from the debacle in Afghanistan, but nor should we draw too sweeping and unjustified conclusions from it by flinching from the challenges we face around the world—not least from China and Russia—and from the need to address collectively the problems of state failure, of gross abuses of international humanitarian law and of the consequences of climate change.
I hope I may be forgiven for concluding on a rather personal note. It is now a little over 60 years since my wife and I, a recently married couple, drove up to the gates of the British embassy compound in Kabul, whose Curzonesque splendour was more a reminder of Britain’s imperial past than its present state. We had travelled by Land Rover from Tehran. Even in my wildest dreams—let us be honest, nightmares—I could not then have imagined the circumstances in which today’s debate is taking place. The Afghanistan of 1961 was an often overlooked but peaceful backwater in the Cold War—the safest place on earth to be, as I thought a year later during the Cuban missile crisis. The last 40 years have turned Afghanistan into a horrendous reminder of the mayhem and human suffering that can result from political miscalculations—miscalculations by Afghanistan’s own rulers, by its meddling neighbours, and by the two great superpowers of the day, the Soviet Union and the USA. One can only hope that President Putin has that in mind as he ponders his next moves on Ukraine.
My Lords, a debt of gratitude is owed to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and the whole committee for the work that has gone into this report, particularly to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for her persistence in seeking to get the Government to respond to it and find time for this debate. They have done so, as numerous other noble Lords have pointed out, only belatedly. A particular debt is also owed to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who has given a lifetime of service to this country and the diplomatic corps for his reflections on the debacle—as he described it—that Afghanistan represents.
The Minister has an undoubted commitment to human rights and to the values that we all share in our House. He is the Minister for Reassurance, when it comes to foreign and international development policy. He carries out that role with great skill and eloquence. But even he will fail to be reassuring in this instance, because there is nothing in this whole sorry saga that gives us any cause for comfort, let alone the complacency that I fear is sometimes shown in the departmental response to what has occurred in Afghanistan.
For me, the most powerful message from the committee’s report is the conclusion that
“despite the scale of the UK’s involvement”
“both military and economic, over recent years, there were few traces of a coherent overall policy approach.”
That is undoubtedly true, but it is also undoubtedly true that there has been no trace whatever of a coherent overall policy approach in relation to everything that has occurred after our withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The challenge for the Government at this time is to come up with such a coherent approach, because one is desperately needed, as the situation in Afghanistan during these winter months reveals so starkly. Millions of people face literal starvation. That is beyond a shadow of a doubt. If we claim to have their interests at heart and to be upholding the values that we hold dear, we have to have a better answer than has so far been forthcoming in relation to how we will, through our overseas development aid, meet the scale of the humanitarian crisis that Afghanistan faces.
It simply will not do to say that we have to be careful in case aid falls into the wrong hands. The reality is that aid to Afghanistan has been falling into the wrong hands for many years. The previous Government in Afghanistan were corrupt, beyond a shadow of a doubt, yet we continued to make them a major beneficiary of our development aid. What is the justification now for failing to take some risk—yes, there is a risk—to ensure that women and children, the elderly and the dispossessed have at least some hope of seeing this winter through, and that Afghanistan’s economy has some hope of beginning to recover? It is very hard to justify and explain how a nation that purports to be concerned about the role of women in the country and economy can do what we have done, in circumstances that undermine any possibility of women engaging in, for instance, the carpet trade and continuing to earn a basic living from a trade when it depends on exports, which have been made absolutely impossible by the policies adopted by ourselves and, above all, the United States of America.
If we are concerned about women being active participants in the economy, as I believe we should be, then we have to do something to create an enabling environment in which that is possible. At the moment, frankly, the stance that we are taking in relation to sanctions on Afghanistan makes that impossible. I ask the Minister to give us some indication that that policy is being re-examined.
I would also like a response from the Minister to the points made by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Richards, in his evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the other place. He pointed out that we have adopted a policy after our defeat—his word—in Afghanistan which makes it that much more difficult to secure that country in terms of stability and international safety in relation to a possible resurgence of terrorist activity in that area by the stance that we have taken. He said:
“My own view is that we now need to accept our defeat, which is what it is; we need to work with our eyes wide open with the Taliban—engage with them. The whole issue of recognition is, I think, a distraction at the moment. We need to engage with them, influence them through a combination of carrot and stick … and preserve life in the short term, but influence into the longer term, and try to work with those Taliban who I think we should take at face value.”
If a former Chief of Defence Staff who has himself fought in Afghanistan is able to come to that conclusion then, frankly, who are we to gainsay him? What insight and understanding do we have that are better than his? I simply do not see it.
It is likewise in relation to the former Secretary of State for International Development, Rory Stewart, who in evidence to the same committee pointed out the implications of our current policy. Again, I draw his words to the attention of noble Lords and the Minister:
“The first thing to understand is that the Afghan Government is going to be bankrupt anyway, so they will not have a lot of money to spend on weapons and stuff. Some 60% of their budget came from international donors—that is no longer going to come, whatever happens. They can barely pay to keep the electricity going, and a quarter of the hospitals and clinics have closed”.
I repeat: a quarter of the hospitals and clinics have closed. He continued:
“There is money sitting—there is nearly $9 billion currently frozen in the United States. There is a whole World Bank mechanism called the Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund. That money can be put into UN agencies such as UNICEF and WFP, and into Save the Children”.
Well? Is it going to be put into UN agencies or into the hands of those respected NGOs?
Rory Stewart, and indeed the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Richards, recognise that there will be some dividend through the tax system for the Taliban as a result, but the resulting benefit to the hard-pressed people of Afghanistan mean that is a price worth paying. That is a view we all ought to take. I hope the Minister will come to understand that it is the view of very many of us who are concerned to see a change in the stance and policy of Her Majesty’s Government towards the peoples of Afghanistan, so that we can truly uphold the values that we have purported to be seeking to uphold in that country.
I come now to my final point. Again, it is a values-driven point. It relates not to what is happening in Afghanistan now but what is happening in our own country now. It relates to those Afghani refugees who currently find themselves between a rock and a hard place because of the lack of any coherent policy in our country and the Home Office’s failure to work effectively with the Local Government Association. This is about the failure of a resettlement policy that makes it very difficult for local councils, even when they wish to help; further, more of them wish to help than are currently able to help because of problems in relation to the funding of the resettlement programme.
What assurance can the Minister give us that there will not be a protracted stay on the part of Afghani people resettled in this country in former military accommodation? We know that such accommodation is grossly inadequate and not the sort of place where one would want to bring up children. These children, these people, are already traumatised by what they experienced in Afghanistan. I am afraid that they are being retraumatised in our country—in our own back yard. That is happening in Kent and all over the country where Afghani refugees are currently being housed. Local authorities are entitled to a better deal than the one they have had from the Home Office. I urge the Minister, who I know cares about these issues, to consult his colleagues in the Home Office and the communities department so that something can be done to support local authorities up and down the country and improve the lot of those Afghanis who have managed to get out and desperately need our help.
It is never a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, because he shoots one’s foxes with such style. He has just shot four of my foxes so please see what I say as a series of footnotes to his very good speech.
I join the Committee’s unanimity in finding the delay in handling this excellent report absurd. However, the timing is fortuitously convenient because it enables us to ask the Minister to tell us about the weekend meetings in Norway, the Government’s response to Gordon Brown’s weekend appeal and the Government’s answer to what is clearly the number one priority issue: how to stop millions of people starving in Afghanistan this winter.
The report points out:
“Afghanistan is the most aid-dependent country in the world”—
it is talking about the 2020 numbers—with 60% of its budget funded from outside by the international community. Then,
“‘10.9 million people faced “crisis” … levels of hunger’”;
I quote the remarkable report of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. The world pledged $3.3 billion of aid for 2021; not all of it got through because of what happened in the summer of 2021. However, the need is much greater now. By December 2021, the UN was estimating that 23 million refugees—more than 50% of the population—faced acute malnutrition. We cannot let this happen. The West won the war, but we must not let our defeat trigger an Afghan apocalypse.
That means recognising reality. It means putting our pride in our pocket and working with the Taliban Government. But without outside budgetary support, they could not, as the report says, maintain basic state services. Yet, as I understand it, all our humanitarian aid now is going via UN agencies and NGOs, and none of it is going to or through the Government in Kabul. What does that mean for public health, education, power supply, transport and the distribution of the desperately needed food? When states fail, it is the poor who suffer. We must not fail the Afghans a second time. The Government in Kabul must be allowed access to the Afghan Government funds held abroad. I am afraid that we really must not let our well-founded concerns about the Taliban’s human rights performance mean that we end up denying the Afghans the most basic of human rights: the right to stay alive, the right to have something to eat.
I never understood why Foreign Secretary Hague derecognised the Assad Government in Syria 10 years ago. Recognition does not imply approval. Recognition provides a basis for doing business. Recognition makes it easier—much easier—and more efficient to do what we need to do now in Afghanistan. We were the first of the great powers to recognise the Bolshevik Government in Petrograd 98 years ago. We have an embassy in Pyongyang; I know, I opened it. We have to face facts, however unpalatable: the Taliban are in charge and we have to do business with them. If we are going to help Afghans, we have to recognise the authority of the Taliban Government now in Kabul.
I would like to make two more points. Unfortunately, they were both made much better than I am able to by the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, but I trade on the Committee’s patience. To ensure that our defeat does not also carry dishonour, we have to deliver on the promises we made to the Afghans—the ones who came here and those we said could come here. In August, as Kabul fell, the Prime Minister said:
“In addition to those Afghans with whom we have worked directly … we are committing to relocating another 5,000 Afghans this year”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/8/21; col. 1260.]
We also then said, separately, that we would take another 20,000 in “the coming years”—variously four or five years; it was not clear at the time.
But this month the Government have announced that the first tranche of the 20,000 are in fact those brought out in August. In December they revealed that the Prime Minister’s additional 5,000 similarly have been subsumed into the 20,000. In short, it rather looks as though we are now interpreting our commitment—the Prime Minister’s word—as restrictively as possible. It seems that few, if any, new refugees will be let in during this calendar year. I find that rather disappointing and I hope the Minister will comment on it.
In the first place, 20,000 over four or five years is not particularly generous. Canada is taking 35,000 this calendar year and, since 20 August, some 300,000 Afghans have crossed the mountains from Afghanistan into Pakistan to join the 3 million already shivering in the camps round Peshawar. Are we sure that our response to this massive tragedy matches its scale? I am not.
Nor, despite all the fine talk of Operation Warm Welcome, are we treating those who got here in August with conspicuous generosity; again, my fox here was shot by the noble Lord, Lord Boateng. These people are plainly refugees in any reasonable understanding of the word, but they are not being treated as such. They have not been allowed refugee status. Instead, they have been given leave to remain for six months and, five months on, many still have heard no more. Those whose position has been regularised have been given indefinite leave to remain. That does not carry the rights that come with refugee status, such as the right to family reunion. The majority, of course, are still living in temporary accommodation in hotels; as of today, the number is 84. They are unable to work. Their children are not in school. They are still in the dark about where in the United Kingdom they will eventually be settled. That does not come across as a particularly warm welcome. We could, and should, have done better; indeed, we still must. I hope that the Minister will be able to say something about that too.
However, the number one priority must be to make sure that as many of those left behind in Afghanistan as possible survive the Afghan winter. That means accelerated and enhanced international action urgently, as Gordon Brown said this weekend. It also means recognising reality and recognising the Taliban. The crisis unfolding right now is partly of our making because it springs from our policy failures and defeat. We must not just shrug our shoulders and walk away.
My Lords, I too pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. She is one of the wise women of this House. I welcome the report and express my regret that we are debating it a year after it was produced. It was indeed prescient; if only some of the warnings contained in it had been taken on board.
Only a month after the report was produced, two Supreme Court judges were assassinated in Kabul: Justice Zakia Herawi and Justice Qadria Yasini. We should remember their names. I knew Qadria Yasini; in fact, two of her sons were included in the evacuations conducted by the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, of which I am the director. We took out 103 women judges and prosecutors as well as some others, including a couple of journalists and two Members of Parliament. We took out those boys, then aged 17 and 19, too. They are still sitting in Athens, waiting on the lily pad that was secured as a temporary place for us to land the planes we chartered. Let me tell you, it was never our plan to charter airplanes; that has not been part of my legal practice over the years. However, when judges contacted us, desperate and in mortal danger—let there be no doubt that they were in mortal danger—we felt that we had to do something.
I did not immediately think of chartering planes. I sought to find who was getting people out. In fact, Christians were being evacuated by American evangelical charities. I wanted to know whether some of my women judges could be put in the back of the planes, but of course there was no room at the inn. There were no places on the planes but they did give put us contact with charter companies. This meant that I discovered the great price there was on evacuations, and I had to fundraise the money to get these women prosecutors and judges out.
What is special about the women prosecutors and judges, you may well ask me? Is this about evacuating the great privileged and professional middle classes? These women were educated at law schools in the period after the Taliban were last ousted. Many of them are still comparatively young women by our judges’ standards; we are talking not about Brenda Hale here—the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale—but about women who are still in their 30s and early 40s, with young children. They answered a call which we, of course, wanted them to answer. We wanted to see a different kind of judiciary, which reflected the whole of their society, and encouraged that. They took up the challenge and became judges in courts that were dealing with the narcotics that have troubled the cities in our own countries. They were running the courts that dealt with terrorists who were blowing up our soldiers with home-made bombs. They were dealing with some of the most challenging cases that we wanted to see dealt with properly by those courts.
All the way through the years before the re-arrival of the Taliban in Kabul these women were receiving threats, which arrived at the courts. They have not stopped receiving threats for years. Then in February, nearly a year ago now, two of their most senior women colleagues were assassinated and the terror that ran through their circles was huge. They knew it was a warning. Those women were shot: Zakia through the forehead and Qadria through the heart. The head and the heart—that is what those women brought to their professional practices.
The prosecutors too, who were prosecuting cases of violence against women, trafficking, forced marriage, child marriage and rape, were all on the kill lists of the Taliban as soon as the Taliban were released from prison. Let us be in no doubt as to the threat these women are facing. There are still women making contact with me and telling me of the danger that they face. They are living in basements or have moved to other houses. They move on a regular basis because of their fear; their relatives are also in fear.
What do I say in answer to the Home Office on this? When I asked for visas for some of the people who are still there—young prosecutors who are undoubtedly at the top of the list—I was told: “But you see, there’s a problem. Even if there is proof of this, we can’t give visas to people in Afghanistan because we have no embassy there, so they can’t be measured for biometrics. You can’t get a visa if you can’t be biometrically tested, and we can’t do that because we don’t have an embassy to do it, therefore there are no visas”. Tell me, then, the safe routes for how you get to the United Kingdom.
Then a suggestion was made, and I have learned a lot about how to evacuate people from Afghanistan. I know now about air traffic control and landing rights. I know all about how you manage to get from A to B with security, and about safe houses. So when I say, “We could bring out another planeload of the most desperate of the women, who need help now”, I am told, “Oh no—we can’t do that because we might be sued”. I said: “Who by? Who do you think is going to sue you?” There is the anxiety that there might be risks here and we would not want to have blood on our hands. Let me tell you: we are going to have blood on our hands. I am afraid that the answers I have been given so far have not been very heartening.
I would not have been able to do this without the incredible generosity of many people. I know that some noble Lords donated to the fundraising I conducted. I thank them for the way they helped and encouraged me. Sir Michael Hintze, an Australian philanthropist who has dual nationality and lives and works here in the United Kingdom, took up the lion’s share of paying the costs of some of these flights. I was helped by other people, some of whom do not want their names to be mentioned because they “do a mitzvah”, as Jewish people would say, quietly and without recognition. But that should not be necessary. What happened to states doing these things?
At the end of all this, I want to ask: what are we doing about visas for people to get out? With my little team at the International Bar Association and with Sir Charles Hoare, who is a great humanitarian, I have managed to get resettlement for a number of these women around the world. Australia is taking 20. I phoned up the former President of Ireland, who happened to study at the same time as me, and we got people into Ireland, which has already taken 10. As far as I can count, we have got only nine women judges into the UK so far. Five of them got out in the military evacuation and four have been taken from my group, who have been sitting in Athens in this temporary lily pad. They have been there for five months. I reiterate what others have said: why have we not done better?
I will ask about money. We talked about corruption in aid that was paid into Dubai to people who were supposed to be legitimate Governments. Why do we not talk to Dubai about the amount of money that was hived off and sits in bank accounts in Dubai? Transparency International has documented it. We should freeze some of those assets.
If I secured more funding for another flight, will the Foreign Office and the Home Office help us secure landing rights here in United Kingdom for another plane of perhaps 30 judges, lawyers, prosecutors, journalists and human rights workers fleeing for their lives? If I get 30 of them and their families, will Britain accept them?
Even as we speak, negotiations are taking place in Oslo with the Taliban. Are we talking about the rights of women? Alex Crawford interviewed Abdul Qahar Balkhi on Sky News earlier today, who said that
“we do not threaten women … ever … we have a lot of respect for women”.
I have heard abusers in this country say how much they respect women, but it does not stop the terrible levels of abuse. We know these people abuse and want to silence women. They were busy today in the media saying that it was the military abusing women over the last 20 years. The dishonesty is clear. All I am saying is that the women who made a stand and did a great deal of public service that we and the people of Afghanistan benefited from are still in fear. We have not stood up and done well enough yet. I hope we can do more.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for bringing this report before the Committee, and the Select Committee for its important work. The return of the Taliban and the humanitarian disaster unfolding from Afghanistan’s economic and social collapse make it all the more important that this work to monitor and understand the situation on the ground continues. The previous speakers talked about various problems that have taken place since we withdrew from Afghanistan.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and many others have talked about girls and women. I will focus my remarks on the plight of women and girls; in particular, on the situation in which widows now find themselves in Afghanistan—the poorest of the poor, marginalised, invisible and unheard. The World Widows Report published in 2016 by the Loomba Foundation, which I chair, revealed that Afghanistan already had the highest proportion of widows in the world: more than one in five of all marital-age women from the age of 10. Maternal mortality was also in the highest range, with more than 1,000 mothers dying for every 100,000 births. Not surprisingly, Afghanistan has one of the highest percentages of war widows.
The tragedy for widows is that they are marginalised by society even as they face gender discrimination from the Taliban. They have nowhere to turn as the economic and social situation in Afghanistan deteriorates. Low life expectancy and early marriage result in women mostly being widowed in their 20s and 30s. In some countries ravaged by conflict, widows can move into male work roles to make up for the shortage of labour, but not in Afghanistan. What are they to do? In Afghanistan, conditions for widows can be so bad that there have been reports of them selling smaller children in order to save the others, and in the rare situations where they can work, they are invariably underpaid and exploited, with no one to turn to. I echo the wider sentiments about discrimination against women and girls whose hopes of empowerment and a better future nurtured in the past two decades have been cruelly dashed. We have all seen the shocking reports of the Taliban suppression of women protesters in recent days.
I know that the Government care about this and see it as a priority. For my part, I make a special plea for those who are doubly disadvantaged as widows and ask the Committee and the Minister to make every effort to shine a light and bring succour to those who need it most.
My Lords, 6 January was the first anniversary of the publication of our report. Several other noble Lords have mentioned the problems associated with getting it debated—better late than never, I suppose. I was proud to a member of the committee. If I can say so as 1/12th of the committee, I think it is an excellent report and it stands the test of time. Although it was long ago, I must give special thanks to the secretariat—Eva George and her team—and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for her chairmanship. She managed to do it all on Zoom, which to me is beyond human understanding.
On rereading the report, I particularly regret that we did not have a chance to debate it before the establishment of the Taliban regime. I am not going to exaggerate the significance of a single parliamentary report, but I think that many of the issues we raised were relevant prior to the Taliban takeover and remain relevant today. One year ago, no one reading our analysis could have been in any doubt whatever that the situation in the country was exceedingly grave. Although we did not predict the imminent collapse of the Government, we certainly identified their nearly insurmountable challenges. As we said in paragraph 1 of our summary:
“The Afghan state remains very fragile, with limited control of territory. The Taliban’s insurgency continues, and terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and Islamic State Khorasan Province, operate in the country.”
We also pointed out that:
“The Afghan state is highly aid-dependent, and there are few prospects for domestic revenues to increase.”
Perhaps most tellingly of all, we said:
“The Afghan government’s accountability to its citizens is limited by its reliance on international military spending and aid. Government appointments are regarded as a source of spoils, and warlords and militia leaders retain roles inside the state.”
It was also obvious to our committee that, whatever resulted from the peace talks then taking place in Doha, our Government would have to address the fact that the Taliban would be involved in any settlement and we would have to decide at what level, and under what conditions, we should engage with them. We said:
“We conclude that the Government should be giving careful consideration to how, in the event of the Doha talks resulting in an agreement, it will handle its future relationship with the Taliban, which will necessarily be part of any power-sharing arrangement.”
We knew before it happened that the Taliban would be playing a crucial role in the future and that our Government would need to know how to engage with that.
While, as I say, we did not anticipate the imminent total Taliban takeover, it was obvious that the Taliban would be a major if not dominant force in any future Afghan Government. Indeed, anyone reading our report today would see there was a palpable sense of the overwhelming challenges of instability in the country and, despite the peace talks then ongoing, a strong sense of foreboding. That was implicit in our comments on the policy of the Trump Administration in reaching their one-sided agreement with the Taliban. It guaranteed US withdrawal without any reciprocal undertakings from the Taliban or any involvement in the talks by the then Afghan Government. It is impossible to resist the temptation to say of US policy at the time, in the light of subsequent events, “We told you so.”
Now we know that our foreboding was justified—the Taliban takeover is complete and took place in a stunningly short time—yet, for all the huge significance of the takeover, just a glimpse of the chapter headings of our report shows that the challenges facing Afghanistan today were there prior to the takeover, although of course hugely exacerbated by it. Our report listed the problems of poverty, hunger, Covid, human rights, corruption, refugees, drugs and terrorist groups.
On poverty in the country, we pointed out a year ago that Afghanistan was ranked 170th out of 189 countries in the 2019 Human Development Index. We also reported that Afghanistan depended on international aid for about 60% of its budget, that it was the most aid-dependent country in the world and that there were few prospects for domestic revenues to increase. In paragraph 237 we said, and this was prior to the takeover:
“The country faces a humanitarian crisis, with alarmingly high levels of food insecurity.”
So the basic problems of poverty were known well before the events in August.
It has to be said, in fairness, that in subsequent Statements and Answers to Questions the Minister has recognised the absolute priority of aid to those most in need in the country. He said in the House last week that the aid was getting through and there was good co-operation on the ground. However, since the Statements last week millions of people who will not necessarily be following these things will have seen the heart-rending, almost unwatchable reports by John Ray on ITN—this led the news on one day—about the desperation of so many people in Afghanistan, particularly the children, who as we speak are simply not getting enough to eat to keep them alive. So I really must ask the Minister: what are the obstacles to aid getting through to where it is needed most? How far short of the aid needed is actually being provided? What is being done to co-ordinate and accelerate the international effort?
We then have the allied problems of disease and hospital supplies, which were also highlighted by ITN, with children dying for lack of medicines. This issue is massively exacerbated by Covid. Last January, our report said that further humanitarian aid would be necessary specifically as a result of Covid. Again, I ask the Minister: where is the international commitment, and the UK’s in particular, on the supply of vaccines and essential drugs to hospitals that are so desperately in need?
So many of these issues have, inevitably, been mentioned before; the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, moaned about four of his foxes being shot but I feel as though all my foxes have been shot by speaking late. But on human rights, especially those of women and girls, our committee noted the improvements that had been made since the beginning of the UK’s involvement in 2001. For this, as with so much else, we salute the heroism and dedication of the military and all those British citizens who worked in Afghanistan with the aim of making life better for the Afghan people.
However, our report expressed concern about the extent to which these hard-won rights were being jeopardised in those parts of the country already under Taliban control. We found that there were substantial local variations, depending on individual Taliban commanders. I ask the Minister this: since the takeover in August, can he give any kind of overview of the human rights situation now that the Taliban has overall central control? Is it at all possible to say—this is perhaps a crude question to ask, but I would be interested to have an assessment—whether the Taliban today differs in any substantial way from the horrors of the Taliban of 20 years ago or is a reprise of that?
That brings me to the question which the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, mentioned and I merely repeat, about the engagement of the UK and our allies with those in control in Kabul. In December the Brookings Institution published a paper titled “It’s time for the West to engage with the Taliban”. The paper says:
“If we refuse to engage with the Taliban at any meaningful level … economic collapse and isolation risk provoking deeper instability, insecurity, and repression”.
On 15 December, the Minister for the Middle East, James Cleverly, said in a ministerial Statement:
“We have used our engagement with Taliban to press them to ensure a suitable environment for aid delivery, as well as to respond to international concerns on terrorism, the protection of human rights, especially the rights of women, girls and members of minorities”.
We have heard about the talks in Norway, but can the Minister update us on the level and frequency of that engagement? Can he also report on the success or otherwise of those contacts with the Taliban, especially on the catastrophic humanitarian issues?
I would also be interested in his reaction to a letter which some may have seen in the Guardian today—it was reported quite heavily. A number of our distinguished colleagues were signatories, including the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, the noble Lords, Lord Ricketts and Lord Sedwill, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Richards. They basically argued, among other things, for proper engagement with the Taliban. I would like the Minister’s reaction to this and, in particular, to the quote from the Norwegian foreign Minister, who said
“we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster”.
I agree with every word in that letter and report. It would have saved me a lot of trouble if they had written it a couple of weeks ago, because it would have given me a lovely structure for my remarks. I would like to hear the Minister’s response.
I almost find myself summarising at this stage because it has been a very sombre, quite sad and regretful debate, with much more—this is true of my remarks as well as so many others—about the huge problems facing the country than practical ways of addressing and solving them in our much-reduced situation, but we must make the effort. In our report, we identified so many challenges facing Afghanistan. The same challenges remain but the situation is now far worse. The need is so great on so many fronts that it is sometimes difficult to focus and prioritise, but there surely can be no higher priority than the millions of children in Afghanistan whose lives are threatened because they simply do not have enough to eat. We need to address these problems, with that clearly as the first priority.
My Lords, this has been a sombre debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has rightly been congratulated by everyone, not least because of the remarkable timing. I have never seen a report and the belated government response go out of date so quickly, given that the whole fabric of western democracy in Afghanistan has collapsed. This whole debate could have been about NATO because of the knock-on effects of Afghanistan on the morale of the coalition at the moment and the obvious advantages for President Putin—but that is for another time. We are now in a period of limbo while we wait to see how the Taliban is going to put the country together again.
The noble Baroness and her committee have asked a number of pertinent questions. HMG have answered most of them, but not the central charge in paragraph 46 of the committee’s report that the UK failed to exert an “independent voice” in spite of its contribution. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, used the phrase “second fiddle” because this is nothing new. This proved only too true when the US pursued its own mistaken policy of rapid withdrawal; in my view, Bagram was perhaps the most flagrant example. The Minister might like to put the record straight and reassure us that the UK’s voice was at least there at the table, even if it was ignored.
There seems to be a consensus, at least among NGOs, that the Taliban is not the main obstacle to humanitarian aid but our own Governments are, or have been, because of the sanctions that they imposed on the Taliban, along with the lack of any banking system or official channels of aid. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, I expect the Minister to confirm that there is now an amendment to UNSCR 2615, adopted in December, and that this will provide a new UK channel for humanitarian aid. However, can he confirm that the exception when implemented in UK law through an SI will align with the exception agreed on 21 December? Can he confirm that banks and humanitarian agencies will not be subject to any new requirements, to ensure that the exception that the FCDO worked so hard on is upheld?
Can he also say whether the whole of the £286 million pledged for Afghanistan will now be made available to aid agencies, including NGOs, and whether this will be supplemented with unallocated funds, which always arise at the end of the financial year? People are dying every day. It is winter. Half the country is hungry, food aid is urgent, children are being sold and women are in hiding. This is the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, as everyone has said. Some aid is getting in, yet we are distracted by many other issues.
As noble Lords have said, the International Bar Association project to evacuate women judges has been an outstanding example of bravery, compassion and efficiency. There are individuals here and in the rest of the House who must be congratulated on this and other schemes, although so much more is still required. My personal tribute is to the NGOs that either never left or remain in close contact with Afghan partners, in some cases clinging on to projects on diminishing resources. They have suffered casualties and run risks every day. Some have even been killed. The group that brings together all these British, Irish and Afghan agencies—it is called BAAG—has organised regular briefings since August on what its members are suffering. It and many of its members submitted evidence to the Select Committee and, more recently, to the Foreign Affairs Committee.
These NGOs have put in a vast number of programmes. I have worked with Christian Aid, Save the Children and CARE International and have seen a lot of their work, such as community health, reconstruction, water and so on, and I see no reason why they should not continue. The HALO Trust remains because no one could deny its critical importance in demining. Obviously, women’s education projects will not. Back in the 1990s, I was a trustee of a charity supporting girls’ education in Badghis which had to stop under the Taliban, but it continued even then when we trained mothers to be teachers and the girls remained at home.
Reading the committee’s report, now more than one year old, brings back some nostalgia for the range of programmes that the coalition has provided or sustained over 20 years. It is a testimony to all the achievements of the UK and others over many years. What a waste it now seems, yet the experience remains in the country. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, that I am among those who believe that many Afghans who remain in the country have absorbed democratic values and would like them to continue. The Hazaras may be at great risk for that very reason, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said. However, we must recognise that it will not be up to ordinary Afghans. It is up to the Taliban. They will have to make their mind up whether to embrace these western values. The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, made a very strong case. We will have to make some sort of peace with them. NGOs have already learned that, and many have been working side by side with them all the time. They have had to.
The Taliban are not one force, as has been said many times. They are not even welcome everywhere in the country. The Tajiks, the Hazaras and the Uzbeks are very different from the Pashtun. There are dozens of warlords with their own patch and militia to protect them. It may be that we have to wait for further internal struggles before stability returns, as the terrorists remain a constant threat. Only last week, eight National Resistance Front fighters commanded by Ahmad Massoud were killed by the Taliban. News like this often comes through news agencies in Pakistan since our mainstream media are, not surprisingly, still restricted. I was pleased to hear, as I think everyone would have been, that the BBC today told us that the World Service is still delivering its news coverage in five languages. Afghan journalists are often targeted and still live in hiding. Many have been arrested, attacked or brutally flogged if they cover demonstrations or speak in favour of women. We must salute them and all those who are speaking out against injustice, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, on her excellent chairmanship of the International Relations and Defence Committee and on the work she did in ensuring that this report came to fruition one year ago. Like so many Members of the Grand Committee, I served on the committee that produced this report and like so many noble Lords I express my grave dissatisfaction at the fact that it has taken one year for this report to be debated.
Normally, as the good people of Hansard will be aware, if I am winding for the Liberal Democrat Front Benches, I spend my time scribbling notes all through the debate. I tend not to have a speech when I arrive because I think it is important to make sure that I have listened to the debate. While I do not pretend that I am doing the Minister’s job of listening to the debate and responding, I think it is useful for Members of the House—or, on this occasion, the Grand Committee—to know whether the Liberal Democrats agree or disagree and where we stand on things.
However, when I saw this debate listed, I had a very different sense: I knew immediately what I needed to say and that I needed to write a speech. This is not merely a debate about a report from one of your Lordships’ committees that was written over a year ago and debated with hindsight, as so many of our reports are. It is a debate about something that affects the United Kingdom and our standing in the world. It is about whether we take moral responsibility and stand up for what we believe in.
We are speaking only in Grand Committee today. What a great shame it is that we are not in the Chamber, being watched and engaged with by the rest of your Lordships’ House. Yet again, this is a committee speaking by and large to ourselves—with the exception of one or two noble Lords, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, my noble friend Lord Purvis’s official opposite number in Labour. The point is that we are not speaking to the Chamber or the outside world, but we should be. My remarks today seek to speak to your Lordships’ House and the Government, but also to the people whom we have left behind in Afghanistan, their friends and families here in the United Kingdom and the NGO community that is trying to support them.
It is so easy for people to forget about Afghanistan. We have a real problem with the news cycle. In August 2021, all we heard about on the news was Afghanistan, the attempts to get people out and, for a while, the attempts to get dogs and cats out of Kabul. The news of the animals and their sponsor seemed at times to be more important than getting individuals out, which perhaps says something about how we were viewing the crisis. How quickly the media move on.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, rightly said that ITN has recently been producing extremely moving and important short reports from Afghanistan to highlight the problems of people on the ground right now, during winter, when they are facing starvation, do not have enough heat and do not know where their next food is coming from. For most people in the United Kingdom, though, the Afghan crisis is something that happened last year, not something that is going on in January 2022. The main focus of our news broadcasts at the moment seems to be whether the Prime Minister attended a party. We must wait for Sue Gray, so we are told; that is what the headlines are all about. However, the people of Afghanistan do not know or care who Sue Gray is, and they certainly cannot expect to attend a party because, in most cases, the opportunity to do things that they might want to do at a party, such as singing, dancing and having music, have been banned by the Taliban. More importantly, they cannot envisage having a party because they cannot envisage where the food would come from.
As other noble Lords have pointed out so eloquently, the report we produced over a year ago stated just how dependent Afghanistan is on aid. That was a year ago, before the collapse of the Government in Kabul, before the Taliban came and before the reprehensible western withdrawal that led to chaos, carnage and leaving behind so many people without the opportunity to find a living.
Back in January 2021, we noted that, without aid, the public services of Afghanistan could not function. That was true then; it is true now. One of the issues that has barely been touched on in today’s debate is the situation with the banks. The letter from the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, and others to which the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, referred refers to the banks. Can the Minister tell your Lordships what this Government will do to work to ensure that, as far as possible, people in Afghanistan have money in future? The freezing of aid and the banking system means that people have no money.
Another thing that has barely been mentioned today is the fact that so few people are actually earning any living at all in Afghanistan because before, the funding was being provided through aid for 80% of the people. They were dependent on jobs in the public sector and those people, including teachers and medics, are not being paid. There was talk about women not being able to teach but there are still women working in hospitals as midwives, nurses and doctors. Even the Taliban knows that those people are necessary but they are not being paid. The only reason they still go to work is because they feel they have a duty, but for how long can that go on? What are the Government doing to ensure that aid gets to Afghanistan and the people who need it?
We need to make sure that people who are working are being paid but, beyond that, there are serious problems for women in Afghanistan at the moment—particularly widows, whom the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, talked about, but also for married women whose husbands are away looking for work. Afghanistan is essentially an agricultural economy but it currently faces its worst drought in 27 years. Even if it were not for the Taliban or Covid, there is drought. The men are away looking for work. The women are at home, more vulnerable than ever because the Taliban has put in restrictions on the movement of single women and those who have no chaperones, while trying to feed their children. There might be eight, 10 or 12 children. How would any of us feed our children when we have no income and when the cost of fuel has risen and there is no cooking oil? There is a grave humanitarian danger right now and we need to be responding.
However, that danger is so much worse for the people whom the United Kingdom left behind—the interpreters and judges, the British Council people, the GardaWorld force and the Chevening scholars. I refer in particular to the British Council because, for the past four and a half months, I have been writing again and again to the Government, asking what is happening to those people. It is a microcosm of the problem in this British response. The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, said that there has been no structure or strategy to the response. That seems to be the case with ARAP. The British Council people were told, “You can come out under ARAP”. A few did but many were left behind. I kept being told about rumours that ARAP is time-limited and that the numbers are limited. So I kept writing to the Government but was told, “No, ARAP is not time-limited and the numbers are not limited”.
That might have been true, but the rules have changed. If you worked for the British Council you might now be able to come under the ACRS. That is great, but we still do not know what the rules are or how you apply. We believe that if you are already in this country you might be eligible for the ACRS, through some opaque means. We understand that if you are in Kabul or elsewhere in Afghanistan you might be able to apply, but it is not quite clear how. Over the last six months, again and again, the Home Office, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and the MoD have passed the buck one to the other.
Individuals in Afghanistan, their families and others, and the diaspora communities in the UK need to understand who to talk to and how they can assist people. How can we, as Members of your Lordships’ House, assist? How can NGOs help? We understand that some of the referral routes will be through the UNHCR, but the NGOs are there on the ground. They know the situation. What are the Government doing to explain to them how they can make referrals, or, if they cannot, who can?
Finally, it is worth bearing in mind that the people suffering the most are precisely those who worked most closely with the United Kingdom. If everybody faces famine, it is even worse for those whom the Taliban know worked as interpreters or taught English for the British Council—not just English but British values: the very values the Taliban are most opposed to. The Taliban are going door to door. Many of the people who worked for the British Council and as guards have moved to safe houses, but they have to move again and again. If their children are left behind, some have been taken by the Taliban, either as child soldiers or as child brides. The word “bride” is not appropriate; they are children being raped. What are the Government doing to help all these people?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for her introduction to this excellent report. I also extend my thanks to all the members of the committee not only for their contribution to the work on this report but for their excellent contributions today. I share the concerns over the delay in debating the report, but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and my noble friend Lady Blackstone said, the 124 recommendations and the analysis behind them are still very relevant. I hope the Minister will be able to reflect on that. Learning the lessons of this report will certainly be invaluable.
The final weeks of the UK’s intervention in Afghanistan marked a chaotic end to two decades, but we should not let that overshadow the incredible achievements made during that period. As the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for the work of our servicepeople, not only in the last months before the Taliban takeover but in the past 20 years, because it is they who have contributed to a level of freedom and empowerment for Afghan women and girls that would never previously have been imagined. We can also take immense pride in the servicepeople and diplomats whose efforts as part of Operation Pitting enabled so many people who worked alongside us to get out.
However, as we know, too many were left behind. It is our priority to focus on them as well, but I accept what many noble Lords said about those who did get out. We have a duty of care for those people. My noble friend Lord Boateng is absolutely right: they should not be left to suffer. We need to help them rebuild their lives and those of their families. That is very important.
However, our focus must now be on two priorities. First, and most immediately, how can we protect the people who remain in Afghanistan and those who have been able to escape? Secondly, how can we protect the gains of the past 20 years—particularly relating to women’s and girls’ education, as this excellent report highlights? The education of millions of girls, landmine clearance on a huge scale and the establishment of media freedom are only a few of the achievements that are now, sadly, under threat from the Taliban. The people of the United Kingdom and Afghanistan will always have a special bond. As a generation of young Afghans see those gains lost, we owe them our support.
The most immediate way we can help the people of Afghanistan is through a response to the unfolding humanitarian crisis. Across Afghanistan, more than half the country’s population are expected to face potentially life-threatening food insecurity this winter, leading to mass starvation that could kill 1 million children—far outnumbering how many have been killed in the 20 years of conflict. According to the International Rescue Committee, this means that near-universal poverty will take hold in Afghanistan this year.
As my noble friend Lord Grocott highlighted, part of the issue is that 90% of the country’s hospitals and clinics face closure due to lack of funds and, with cash liquidity still a huge problem, the suspension of foreign aid and sanctions are hammering the economy. The UK needs to step forward now to address the impending humanitarian crisis.
The UN has already provided political leadership on exactly what is needed. UK spending on development assistance is positive, as we have heard, but the Government must demonstrate that they can spend money effectively so that it reaches those who are most in need. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, highlighted, this will involve working with multiple delivery channels, including the UN and NGOs, to support Afghan civil society and bypass the de facto Taliban authorities wherever possible. The funding needs to be flexible enough to adapt to the fast-changing conditions on the ground. Like the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, I want to hear in the Minister’s response exactly what he will say to Gordon Brown in respect of his appeal.
Earlier this month, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, called for $4.4 billion for the Afghanistan humanitarian response plan, to be paid directly to health workers and those in control of basic services. Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has put forward the Afghanistan Situation Regional Refugee Response Plan to support refugees and host communities in five neighbouring countries, but has said that many states must contribute more. I repeat the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay: it is clear that the UK needs to be clearer about exactly what commitments it has made and how and when the funding will be distributed. I also want to hear from the Minister about the responses to the UN’s appeals, not only Gordon Brown’s, and the course of action. How will the UK offer practical support to ensure that the UN can provide all the humanitarian assistance that Afghanistan needs?
As was referenced in the committee’s report, the UK should use its influence with key allies such as Pakistan and Qatar to maintain humanitarian dialogue with the Taliban and ensure that the specific protection needs of vulnerable communities are met. I know that the Minister has been doing that in recent times.
The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said that we have to respond because many countries do not share our values. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, they may not share our values but they certainly share our concerns. The report was excellent in highlighting common issues of concern: terrorism, drug production and regional insecurity. Every country that neighbours Afghanistan shares those concerns; it ought to be within our ability to work with those countries to address them.
Humanitarian investment needs to be matched by diplomatic treatment and dialogue with the de facto authorities and continued commitment to the humanitarian diplomacy priorities outlined in the Government’s integrated review, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, so ably highlighted. Looking particularly at the constraints on humanitarian access and the promotion and protection of the rule of law, the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and other noble Lords raised the BBC World Service, which is well positioned to continue in its mission to provide accurate, impartial and impactful journalism in Afghanistan. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, highlighted, with the recent announcement that the licence fee is to be frozen for two years and with additional Foreign Office funding yet to be agreed, it is difficult to see how the BBC will be able to maintain that level of support.
The other focus of our debate is the millions of people displaced from Afghanistan. We must ensure that continued safe and legal routes are available for those fleeing persecution so that they can travel safely. People who assisted the UK in Afghanistan and stood up for our values should not be forced into the hands of criminal gangs to make dangerous journeys in the absence of safe routes. Unfortunately, as we have heard this afternoon, it is six months since the fall of Kabul and we still see many people struggling as the result of the confusion over those eligible for ARAP. We need a lot more clarification on the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. It is not clear who will be eligible. No one could have been unmoved by some of the stories that we have heard in this debate, such as about the British Council staff who were mentioned and those we heard on the radio only last week, who I raised with the Minister in a Question. We need to give proper assurance to these people and to understand that that support will continue and will not be cut off.
My noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws made a moving speech about the situation of lawyers and judges. The Government made a clear commitment to help evacuate lawyers and judges, and it is concerning that only a handful have been successfully evacuated to the United Kingdom. I hope the Minister will not only respond to my noble friend’s specific questions but tell us how many cases have been referred to the FCDO and what percentage of them have been successful.
My noble friend Lord Boateng and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, addressed the issue of engagement with the Taliban. Aside from the most pressing questions of humanitarian support, the UK must also face up to the growing question of how to engage with the authorities in Afghanistan. That is why Labour has called on the Government to lead efforts to negotiate terms of engagement. Nearly six months after the fall of Kabul, the international community has failed to grasp the reality and to put in place a plan about how we engage with Afghanistan. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that no responsible Government would normalise relationships or allow taxpayers’ money to fund a Taliban crackdown on women’s rights and girls’ education or terrorism, but a complete failure to engage is costing lives and is clearly not sustainable. I hope the Minister will be able to respond to noble Lords’ questions. In the light of what has been happening in Norway, can he tell us how the Government are pursuing those relationships with the Taliban?
To conclude, our focus must turn to Afghanistan’s future rather than its past. The people of Afghanistan face enormous humanitarian difficulties. Our response must be to work multilaterally to address their ongoing suffering. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s mandate was extended for six months on 17 September 2021 by UN Security Council Resolution 2596. I hope the Minister will explain what our position is on the renewal of that mandate in March this year. Its continuation would ensure that robust monitoring continues on the ground. This is very important for developing our relationship with the Taliban. Will the UK support the work of the UN special rapporteur on Afghanistan and ensure financial support for fact-finding missions once a person is appointed?
I hope that this report will form part of a necessary and thorough review, not only of our policies that led up to our evacuation but of how we supported people to leave. That review should be cross-departmental and aim to identify areas where joint responsibility and planning can be strengthened, including civilian-military engagement. This has been a timely and important debate. I certainly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that we need to draw attention to a wider audience; I know not many people respond to our debates. I hope the Minister will not feel too pressurised in answering our pressing questions; I certainly hope he will not do what the noble Lord did this afternoon in response to an Urgent Question and feel the need to resign under pressure. I hope, knowing his longevity in his office, that he will be able to answer our questions to the satisfaction of everyone here.
My Lords, I join others in recording my special thanks to my noble friend Lady Anelay. I have known her for my full stint of what is now approaching 10 years on the Front Bench of the House of Lords.
Indeed, my noble friend was my first mentor and remains not just a noble friend but a friend in its true essence. In joining others, I pay tribute to her and all members of the committee for their report and the various levels of engagement we have had.
I share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, as articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that although we meet a year on from the publication of this report its findings and recommendations are very much part and parcel of our thinking. They are as relevant today as they were 12 months ago. As to the reasons why this debate had not been scheduled earlier, I must be honest and say I really do not know. I think the usual channels will have taken note. For my part, and I hope noble Lords will feel this, it is not just that I assumed responsibilities for our relationships with south Asia in 2019. Since then, I have sought to engage directly not only with various partners but with noble Lords on this important issue, during the crisis and subsequently. I am grateful to those noble Lords who attended part of the regular programme of briefings that focused on Afghanistan just before the Christmas break. I give noble Lords an absolute, categorical assurance that I will continue to engage specifically.
I also put on record my thanks to many noble Lords who are here today and others who worked with me, notwithstanding differences—many questions and challenges have been put to me on the Government’s response. When it came to the practical response, we leveraged the maximum level of expertise to ensure that the people who needed our help could get it at whatever time of the day or night, certainly during the evacuation and Operation Pitting but also subsequently.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, raised the British Council. I hope she will appreciate and recognise that I have paid personal attention to this issue. I assure her that, through the various discussions I have with colleagues, particularly at the Home Office, the three cohorts we agreed to support through resettlement schemes, the British Council, Chevening and GardaWorld, will be fully supported. I cannot announce anything today, but I am in the process of finalising the exact contacts with each organisation. They are directly engaged on the people we continue to assist over that scheme.
I recognise the valuable contributions of all noble Lords in this important debate. It is incredible to think that the report was published a year ago. As noble Lords said, a lot has happened since. First and foremost, I shall reflect on the points made about the NATO withdrawal. The great thing about your Lordships’ House is, as I say regularly, the expertise and insights provided. That has been reflected in today’s debate. I agree with other noble Lords that it is a shame that we perhaps do not receive attention.
I note the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who talked about the importance of the original NATO decision. As a Minister of State, you make your contributions and you make your case, and I know that representations were made with the then President of the United States, President Trump, and his team, and subsequently with the Biden Administration, as noble Lords will recognise. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister sought an extension of the programme right until the end of Operation Pitting. Unfortunately, once the US decided to pull out troops—I recognise the points made by several noble Lords—NATO partners together decided that they would be unable to continue with the mission on the ground. However, it is very clear to me that the reality is we cannot, should not and will not turn our back on Afghanistan and, most importantly, its people.
I agree with my noble friend Lady Fall: whatever decisions were taken—I agree with her assessment of the decisions taken when the focus began on withdrawal from the Resolute Support Mission on 1 May—once the key leverage was given away, which was the date, it was not a question of if the Taliban would take over; it was simply a question of when. As the events of August demonstrated, the challenges became all too apparent. There was almost a domino effect. I know from speaking to people who have arrived here, as I have done directly with Afghan leaders, particularly women leaders, that even they did not expect that 15 August would be the date that the Taliban took over Kabul. Some were on planes and some were at their departments. Indeed, negotiations were still taking place, as brave leaders who continue to be on the ground have shared with me.
The UK accepts the reality of the situation and has played an active role in building a new international approach since the Taliban takeover through the UN Security Council, the G20, the G7, NATO and our direct engagement with countries in the region. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, spoke about the history of Afghanistan. It is a country torn by conflict, not just in recent times but over many centuries. Nevertheless, what happened over the past 20 years was a change in the people of Afghanistan. There is a new generation of empowered women. It did not mean that there was no corruption—there was—but there were new hopes of new beginnings with an educated population.
Yet, after the withdrawal of NATO forces, we have seen a regression—that is probably an understatement—in what has been achieved on the ground. The Government have been absolutely clear about their priorities, which remain that we wish to ensure safe passage for those who wish to leave the country. As several noble Lords have said, we want to prevent foreign terrorist fighters travelling in or out of Afghanistan. We remain committed to human rights in Afghanistan and the important issue of humanitarian aid.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, spoke about the importance of women and the importance of judges. Again, I thank her for her efforts; she and I have engaged extensively on this issue. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked for specific updates. The information that I have is that the UK has offered a home to more than 20 Afghan judges and prosecutors. I have met some of them, including their dependants. I can share with noble Lords that we are working with like-minded Governments, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, will note, to see how we can co-ordinate our efforts better for those who are still outside Afghanistan but in a third country to ensure their final settlement. I look forward to working with the noble Baroness on this important issue.
On the evacuations and resettlement, we have talked about Operation Pitting, which was the biggest and fastest emergency evacuation. I know there have been challenges and questions, but I saw the early planning for the operation, and the fact that it was stood up—notwithstanding the fluid situation where we had no engagement with the Taliban and did not know how they would react—and that 15,000 people left is an important testament, as noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Balfe and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, have acknowledged. Indeed, the United Kingdom did not just help our own cohorts to leave; we also helped 36 other countries and their nationals.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, asked specifically about the resettlement schemes and the announcements that have been made. I can share that the original figure of 5,000 for year 1 has been exceeded and we are nearer 7,000. The 450 people already here will be counted within that 7,000, but the scheme remains very much open to others as they come through. The people who came through the ARAP scheme, and British nationals and their dependants, are not counted within that 5,000 or the 20,000 over the four-year period. I hope that is clear.
I join noble Lords in recognising the important role that our Army and indeed our diplomats played in this unprecedented evacuation under the most challenging circumstances. I can further share that since the end of Operation Pitting the UK has now supported 3,400 individuals to leave Afghanistan. This includes over 1,200 British nationals and qualifying dependants. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to help those in Afghanistan to depart the country, including holding the Taliban to their commitment to ensure safe passage.
Various schemes continue to operate. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that ARAP remains open. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, asked about various schemes that were operating. I fully accept that in the challenge of Operation Pitting there could have been greater clarification about how each scheme operated. When we talk about lessons learned, it has to be about much more than that: clarity, how we work a filter and how we can ensure that people are directed. I very much recognise how I would feel if I were at the other end of trying to get people out and receiving desperate emails. Actually I was receiving such emails directly and, truth be told, yes, there were many moments of frustration and exasperation, but you have to battle through. I may disappoint the noble Lord, but I have no intention of taking the decision that my noble friend took earlier today in your Lordships’ House; to me, if you are going to effect change—and perhaps I am being slightly starry-eyed about this—it is important to stay within to see what can be done. That was certainly my attitude in working with others on ensuring that this could be achieved in the best way possible.
The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, spoke passionately and I share his views. We are the UK; we are a country. Like his, my own family is testament to the opportunities afforded to people who migrate to the UK, make a life of their own and are able to contribute. We recognise that as Afghans arrive here in the UK, they should be given that warm reception to ensure that they too can rebuild their lives. They are starting with nothing. We need to ensure that those in temporary accommodation are brought through to permanent accommodation, and I assure all noble Lords that we are working closely not just with the Home Office but with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure accommodation. There are regular meetings chaired at a very senior level to ensure that there is co-ordination in that respect.
I recognise that another important role is that of local authorities; again, the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, pointed to this. We are currently working with 300 local authorities and have pledged to support families. We have made it clear that those who arrive through this safe and legal route will be granted indefinite leave to remain. I recognise what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said but we are providing support to families and councils. Of course, this is about the whole offer, not just housing; it is also about, for example, healthcare and education for children.
On humanitarian support, let me say from the outset that I attended a conference in Uzbekistan just three weeks prior to Operation Pitting and the fall of Kabul. Every player was there, including President Ghani and Foreign Minister Atmar from Afghanistan, the United States, Turkey and Afghanistan’s near neighbour, Pakistan. I engaged directly with each and every one of them. Although the inevitability of a Taliban takeover was understood, no one—not even President Ghani, in his final conversation with me— perceived how quickly it would happen. However, what was clear was the need for co-ordination and, as soon as that was clear, we engaged with the UN over several months.
During the crisis and as the Kabul takeover happened, many early calls were made to UNICEF, UNHCR and the ICRC, among others. For example, I spoke to the deputy Secretary-General of the UN to ensure co-ordination of the humanitarian response. Last year, total UK aid to Afghanistan was £286 million. On the clarification of how much money has gone, I assure the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that it is £145 million. I draw noble Lords’ attention to the fact that I deliberately placed a detailed WMS just in advance of Christmas; I will share it again. All this money, the £286 million, will have left our door and be with agencies—indeed, be delivered on the ground—by the close of the current financial year. That was the commitment given and we are fulfilling it.
As I said, we worked to ensure that £145 million went out. To give an example to my noble friend Lady Anelay, we talked about this at the UN directly but I have also spoken to the UN emergency relief co-ordinator, Deborah Lyons, the UN SRSG, UNICEF, UNHCR, OCHA and ICRC, as well as other NGOs such as the Aga Khan Development Network, while working on the ground. If I can share a glimmer with noble Lords, many of these organisations have said that they are working without hindrance. Their ability to stand their networks up is clear. Challenges remain for some of their women workers but it varies from state to state. With 36-odd regions in Afghanistan, there are certain regions where work has become better and more effective because there is no conflict. We are monitoring that.
When I spoke to David Beasley at the World Food Programme, one thing he assured me of on our support and the money we have given—the latest report, which I shared with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, came directly from the World Food Programme—was that aid is being delivered. However, I accept that, as the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, pointed out, there are vulnerable communities such as women and girls, particularly widows; I pay tribute to the noble Lord’s work in this respect. We are working with agencies on the ground.
I have met Afghan leaders, particularly women leaders, directly. I am meeting Fawzia Koofi this week but I have already met others, such as Hasina Safi, who was the Women’s Minister; I also met Shukria Barakzai a few weeks ago. I asked each of them to tell me which Afghan NGOs are working on the ground and still operational, so that we can help to support them. As the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, said, they know best. We will continue to support them through multilateral efforts as well as directly supporting UK NGOs. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, has raised this point with me. We are working with organisations such as Save the Children. I will keep noble Lords fully updated on the detail of that.
My noble friend Lady Anelay, the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Boateng, and others raised the important issue of Afghan sanctions. On 22 December, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2615, which we were central in leading on, and added a humanitarian exemption to the sanctions regime established by Resolution 1988, thus enabling the provision of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. I assure noble Lords that the UK Government are now working as a priority to update the relevant UK legislation to implement this exception directly in line with the UN Security Council resolution. I hope that this gives my noble friend the assurance she seeks. The reason I was turning back as the noble Earl spoke was that I was checking with my private secretary, as I believe I am signing that SI tomorrow, so I shall update noble Lords accordingly.
The challenges and obstacles to aid disbursement was raised by several noble Lords. On the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, we channel our funding through UN agencies and trusted NGOs and work with them to ensure that that money gets through in the most effective manner. Questions were asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and others about how we are working to ensure the further release of funding. We worked directly with the World Bank to release the first tranche of $280 million, which goes to health workers and teachers, and are currently working with it to ensure the release of another $1.2 billion. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and others pointed out about the recent letter in the Guardian. I have read it, and I agree with the sentiments about engagement with the Taliban.
In the time I have, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that human rights are central to my thinking. The issue with the Hazara community is well known to me. It is a point we are making in direct engagement with the Taliban, which I will come on to, first through identifying the situation on the ground. Various NGOs have been named. We are in touch with them. Many minority communities are suffering. The Sikh community, the Hazara community and my own Ahmadi community are under great challenge. We are working to identify them, discreetly at times, to ensure their safe passage because for some minority communities there is no option but to leave. I am very aware of that issue.
My noble friend Lord Balfe raised the important issue of the BBC World Service. We are working very closely with the BBC and have successfully managed to evacuate a number of people from Afghanistan, but I take my noble friend’s wider point about the importance of the BBC and the soft power and influence we often talk about that can bring about change on the ground.
I am conscious I am up against the clock, but I hope your Lordships will indulge me on the important issue of engagement with the Taliban. As the noble Lords, Lord Boateng and Lord Kerr, said, the reality is that the Taliban are now in charge. I have often been asked—I was asked this by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and others—whether I think the Taliban have changed. When I went before the committee, I was very clear. When it comes to the Taliban, I do not recognise the faith I follow in their perverse ideology. Have they changed? I do not think so. What has changed is that Afghanistan changed in 20 years. Will the Taliban recognise that? That is the key question.
If the Taliban want international recognition and to be part of the international community, let us talk about Islam. This is not about western values, as my noble friend Lord Balfe said. We often talk about British values. I am a Muslim by faith and I am proud of my country of Britain. Is there a conflict between my faith and the country I represent? No. These are shared values. These are human values. I say to the Taliban: the first verse of the Holy Koran is Iqra, which means educate. No caveat, no addendums, no saying just for men. It is for men and women, boys and girls. Recognise that, Islam. The Holy Prophet Mohammed, who is often quoted by the Taliban, was employed by his first wife, Khadija Khuwaylid. She asked him to marry her. So let us have a reality check, Taliban. That is Islam, the principle you claim to follow. Stand up. You shall be held accountable. On inclusivity and the protection of minorities, Islam provides that protection. Stand up. Follow that Islam. Then we will see you being counted among countries that are standing up.
In all this, it is important that the Muslim world plays its role. It is vital that we invest in our relationships with Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and others, and we are doing just that. For example, I have just returned from Sri Lanka and Qatar and I met Minister Al Thani as he was about to go out to Kabul. I listed many of the issues that the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, among others, including my noble friend Lady Anelay, listed about girls’ education, women’s rights and the rights of 36 million people in Afghanistan.
With the best intentions, we tried to stand up. Could we have got out more? The honest answer is that I do not know. I stand by the fact of what we achieved. We should not celebrate but say with humility that we managed to get 15,000 people out, but what about the 36 million that remain? Therefore, I recognise what noble Lords, Lord Anderson, Lord Kerr and Lord Hannay, have said: that we must engage.
At this point, a line is being drawn. We are engaging and have been at the forefront; Sir Simon Gass and Martin Longden have both been to Kabul. We are engaging directly, as noble Lords have said, in Norway. Nigel Casey, our special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, will be returning later tonight and I will meet him tomorrow. I will update noble Lords on the discussions that are taking place. I share with noble Lords that we are drawing a line with the Taliban at the moment that I will not engage with it them as a Minister. We will engage at official levels to ensure that they provide safe passage, provide and stand up for human rights and allow humanitarian aid in. As my noble friend Lady Fall said, we will not allow Afghanistan again to become a base for terrorism. It is not an easy ask, but we must work with international partners in this respect. Today those meetings are taking place in Norway. It is a change. I believe it is the first time the Taliban have been invited outside the region. They met in Islamabad a few weeks ago.
I, too, heard that awful interview which said that women’s rights are being protected after seeing a most shocking video of those very rights being usurped. That is not good enough; the Taliban will be held accountable. If the Taliban want international recognition they must step up to the mark and deliver on the promises and examples that they claim to follow. Then they will see how we can engage further. It is important that we engage with them for the key things that we deliver on human rights and humanitarian aid and we are doing just that.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked me about the mandate. We are very much part and parcel of that. When I met Deborah Lyons, I assured her of our continued support. We will work with UN partners to ensure humanitarian aid remains a priority. I heard the call from Gordon Brown; he is right to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis. I believe that with the contributions the United Kingdom is making—we are ever-evolving and learning from experience—we are stepping up to the mark to try to play our role. What happens in the weeks and months ahead will determine many of the issues.
The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, rightly raised the issue of interpreters; she and I have had many a discussion on this. Many interpreters have arrived. I remember working through cases and examples even in the few days I tried to take off at the end of July. Every new case brings hope. Some of the interpreters I got involved with, with your Lordships raising their cases, have arrived here. I have met them, and it is heartening to see them building new lives. I take on board what the noble Baroness says. We remain focused on ensuring that we stand up for those who played important roles for all of us.
I am over my time by five minutes, but I hope that by illustrating some of the detail behind our engagement I have been able to respond more extensively, particularly to the questions raised by my noble friend Lady Anelay and all noble Lords. The final point I will make is this: as the government Minister responsible, I will continue to engage with your Lordships across the piece on the important issue of Afghanistan because one thing I recognise beyond everything else is that within your Lordships’ House we have the insight, experience and expertise that can help to guide our Government in a response which is ever evolving. In terms of what we have achieved, we should show humility. In terms of what we seek to do, we should put humanity at the heart of our work.
My Lords, I thank everyone who has contributed to our debate and my noble friend the Minister. He reminded us that he has been on the Front Bench a mere 10 years, with hardly a grey hair to go with it. When I met my noble friend, I was the Government Chief Whip. He joined our Whips team. I knew then, as I know now, that he is a man of faith and honour. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott: Whips can be people of both faith and honour, can’t they? I knew the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, when I first became the Opposition Chief Whip back in 2007. He could get away with murder but never actually committed murder—I think.
Today, we have had a reminder of where duty lies when you purport to be a leading power in the world. We were reminded early on how important it is to have a view of history—and I do not say that just because I used to be a history teacher, a lifetime ago. We heard speeches from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, my noble friend Lord Balfe, the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and others that put our debate within the context, within the frame, of the lives of those who live in Afghanistan and the region. They reminded us that we should not think in terms of today but remember that tomorrow is built upon yesterday.
My noble friend Lady Fall said that we must remember why we went into Afghanistan in 2001 and why we intervened as a member of NATO, making sure that we upheld the rule of NATO that, if one of its members is attacked, so are the others, which all bear that responsibility of responding. She also made the point, which I shall remember very well, that the unified purpose of intervention means that, if you win, you have a straightforward military result, but the real problem is what comes next, which is where so many colleagues focused their remarks. Despite the continuing challenges mentioned by many Members today, progress was made.
However, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, made the telling point that last August was a potent reminder of the ghastly consequences of political miscalculations. How true that is. Again, the question was asked: what next? How can we maintain our work with those in Afghanistan? How can we ensure that we fulfil our commitments on humanitarian aid without in any way compromising our position by talking to an Administration whose actions can be, and are, so deplorable? How can we balance everything we do with the duty to stand by the commitments that we have given?
The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said that we should ensure that our defeat last August does not lead to our dishonour. He put me in mind of the two Oslo meetings. One has already been referred to; I shall briefly describe the other. We have heard about the Oslo meetings last weekend. I learned about them only by seeing on Twitter a tweet from one of the members of the Taliban, who was there on behalf of the political office of the Emirate. I do not describe him that way; it is the way that he describes himself. As I read his tweet, which he wrote in four sections, I was carried back to one of my first overseas visits as a Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as it was. I went to Oslo at the end of 2014 to meet a Moses Room-sized room full of women. It was a conference of Afghan women who had travelled to Oslo to be able to talk about their hopes for the future. Some of them were teachers, some were doctors, some were politicians—all aspired for their children to have the same kind of freedom that they had found after 2001. As I listened to them, I felt very strongly our country’s responsibility that, when we make commitments to people whose whole future and lives depend on others, we should maintain those commitments. I am very pleased to hear the strength of what my noble friend the Minister said today.
I come back to the issue of dishonour. As a British citizen and parliamentarian, if I ever meet any of those nearly 60 Afghan women again, I want to be able to look them in the eye and say, “We have not forgotten you, and we will not do so.”
Committee adjourned at 7.15 pm.