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Evacuations from Afghanistan

Volume 822: debated on Thursday 26 May 2022

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat an Answer to an Urgent Question in the other place given by my right honourable friend the Minister for Europe and North America. The response is as follows:

“The Government are grateful to the Foreign Affairs Committee for its inquiry and detailed report. We will consider the report carefully and provide a written response on the timeline the committee has requested.

The scale of the crisis in Afghanistan last year was unprecedented in recent times. The report recognises that the Taliban took the country at a pace which surprised themselves, the international community and the former Government of Afghanistan. The many months of planning for the evacuation, and the enormous efforts of staff to deliver it, enabled us to evacuate more than 15,000 people within a fortnight under exceptionally difficult circumstances. The Government could not have delivered this evacuation without planning, grip and leadership.

The evacuation involved processing the details of thousands of individuals by MoD, FCDO and Home Office staff in the UK, and by a team on the ground in Kabul. In anticipation of the situation, the FCDO had reserved the Baron Hotel, so the UK was the only country apart from the United States to have a dedicated emergency handling centre where it could receive and process people at Kabul International Airport. FCDO staff were on the ground in Kabul throughout, alongside other government departments and the military.

RAF flights airlifted people to a dedicated terminal in Dubai, reserved in advance by the FCDO, where evacuees were assisted by another cross-government team. They were then flown on FCDO-chartered flights to the UK where they were received by staff from the Home Office and other departments who ensured they were cared for and quarantined. The evacuation was carefully planned and tightly co-ordinated, and it delivered.

As it does following all crises, the FCDO has conducted a thorough lessons learned exercise. We have written to the FAC with the main findings. Changes have already been implemented by the FCDO, for example in response to the Ukraine crisis.

We all regret that we were not able to help more of those people who worked with us or for us out of Afghanistan during the military evacuation. Since the end of the evacuation last summer, we have helped over 4,600 people to leave Afghanistan. We will continue to work to deliver on our commitment to those eligible for resettlement here in the United Kingdom through the ARAP programme and the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme.”

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question. I suspect all Ministers will find the report difficult reading, but no doubt the noble Lord will because he worked so hard during the crisis. I know that he was totally committed to helping people escape. However, the Doha agreement was signed 18 months before Kabul fell. It was obvious to many that the Taliban were emboldened by the difficulties faced by the Afghan security forces, yet their success seems to have come as a surprise to the Government. Does the noble Lord accept that this was a fatal flaw in our intelligence, and will he commit to a specific review into those particular failures?

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right: I lived that crisis, and I continue to live and work on the situation and the response to the evacuation of Afghanistan. Even today, it remains the case that there are many people seeking to leave Afghanistan, particularly the most vulnerable, and it is important that we continue to engage. Certainly, through direct engagement and direct briefings—both at the FCDO and in Parliament—I have ensured that our colleagues across both Houses are fully informed.

On the specific issue of planning, I was engaged on this and, of course, I made my own assessments and provided appropriate briefings to the teams in the FCDO and Her Majesty’s Government. I recall that as late as July, I was at a conference in Uzbekistan where I met the then president, President Ghani; Foreign Minister Atmar; other key partners, including the United States, Turkey and all near neighbours; and international organisations. While it was very clear that the Taliban were gaining ground, no one—I repeat, no one—had made an assessment that this would happen so quickly. I fully accept the premise about when the fall of Kabul happened, on 15 August—indeed, I remember speaking to Foreign Minister Atmar on 11, 13 and 15 August, and then again on 16 August. Even as late as Thursday, with Kabul falling on the Saturday, there was an inward- bound Turkish delegation to Kabul.

We continue to work with partners. Undoubtedly there are lessons that have to be learned and improvements to be made—and, yes, some of those have been implemented in the response to Ukraine. But it is equally important to ensure that we remain vigilant to the current situation, which remains live in Afghanistan, including the humanitarian situation. Therefore, I am proud that, notwithstanding the challenges we face, the Government remain committed to providing support, particularly humanitarian support, to the most vulnerable in Afghanistan.

My Lords, the Minister knows that I was involved in evacuating a significant number of women lawyers and judges from Afghanistan, and chartered flights to do that. We managed to get six into the United Kingdom. After the military evacuations, only six of those 103 on the lily pad in Athens were allowed to come into Britain. That was possible because women judges here had mentored some of those judges, so they had received prior letters of evacuation—indeed, the Minister himself had provided some of them. We tried to get women at risk into this country afterwards but we did not succeed. How many visas have been given since the end of last August to women from Afghanistan who are at risk?

My Lords, I first acknowledge all the work that the noble Baroness engaged in both during the crisis and subsequently. She and I have worked on the important issue of vulnerable communities in Afghanistan, particularly the cohort of judges that she refers to. On the specifics of the number of vulnerable identified women, I can certainly write to her after consulting my colleagues at the Home Office. I have quoted an overall figure of 4,600 who have settled here in the UK since the evacuation, but I will write to her on the specific break- down after I have got the detail from the Home Office.

I pay tribute to the Minister’s role in this incident last year, but the report is pretty scathing about the Government’s mismanagement. It says that there were no necessary preparations for the withdrawal and no proper plan. There was mismanagement—indeed there seems to be a cycle of mismanagement in the Government—and I want to know precisely how the Foreign Office and the Government plan to stop this sort of action happening again.

My Lords, as I have always acknowledged, there are always improvements that can be made—the same is true in the current crisis in Ukraine. You cannot say that any Government have a perfect response in every crisis; you do not know, because every crisis is different. We had made plans. I remember myself, after heavy diplomatic engagement with near-neighbours, that I returned via Dubai deliberately on the day that we handed the keys back to the Emiratis. There was no panic in Dubai; there was a massive operation there and we are grateful to the Emirati authorities for the strong co-operation that we saw then. That would not have happened if it had not been planned.

On the issue of lessons learned, I lived through the Covid crisis when we were repatriating, and one challenge that we faced then was chartering flights. In Afghanistan, not only did we have chartered flights ready but we had a reserve option, and indeed a second reserve option with other large carriers. Previous crises fed into the planning. Of course there are improvements to be made, and they are being implemented. We have seen that in the strong cross-government co-operation in the response to Ukraine and in the leadership that we have been able to show within the international community on the Ukraine crisis and more.

My Lords, one reason why the Ghani Government collapsed so quickly was the suddenness of the disappearance of western forces. Can the Minister confirm that the timetable for that withdrawal was decided in Washington DC by the American military and that, for whatever reason—possibly now to their regret—the Americans did not listen to their allies, including the United Kingdom?

My Lords, again, the noble Lord speaks with great insight and knowledge of the situation. Yes, there was a decision that had been taken by the United States in relation to the NATO engagement in Afghanistan, and we were of course part of that engagement. It was very clear that, once the United States had made that decision to withdraw and the timetable had been set, we had to work to those parameters. The challenges that we saw were immense. I turn to the point on the speed, even on the day, at which the Taliban took over Kabul. There are now some incredible women leaders right here in London; they were sitting on planes ready to leave and do their daily business—no one expected the fall of Kabul as quickly as it happened. Equally, it is important that, when partners work together, they share intelligence so that, in extremely challenging and unprecedented situations, decisions can be made to deliver the best possible outcomes.

My Lords, I wish to recognise the incredible work done by the Minister on this issue, particularly since the fall. I want to raise the issue of vulnerable groups. A large number of LGBT people who were hoping to get out of the country are now in hiding. Are the Minister’s Government still in regular contact with Amnesty International, Stonewall, Rainbow Migration and the other organisations that are working very hard and on the ground on this issue?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we continue to work with key groups that have links with NGOs on the ground. I referred earlier to some of the incredible, courageous women leaders; they are also very much part of my formal engagement, and are informing our decisions today and our medium and long-term policy when it comes to Afghanistan. On LGBT people and other minorities, the situation is dire—the noble Lord knows the Taliban’s approach to this issue. However, that does not mean that we should be deterred from our focus on and support for these communities in Afghanistan.

My Lords, briefly, I declare an interest as chair of the HRC. I wrote to the Minister about trying to evacuate the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. For brevity, can he just tell me whether he will write back to me to tell me what happened there and whether any of its members got out?

I can say to the noble Baroness that a number of its members left, but I will write to her in this respect to allow for further questions.

My Lords, I am part of a charity that managed to facilitate the extraction of a number of LGBT people from Afghanistan. Fortunately, some of them came to Britain. However, others are stuck in neighbouring countries, where although not facing certain death they are still in grave danger. Can the Minister say what is being done to enable those people to come to the United Kingdom?

My Lords, as I have already said to the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, we will continue to work with them. If the noble Baroness has any specific information to assist, I will of course be pleased to meet her.

My Lords, the Minister, whose conscience and industry in these matters is doubted by no one, will be aware of a case that was publicised in the Guardian on 1 May. Does he think it fair to say of an Afghan judge currently in fear for his life, who, in an ISAF-led counterterrorism court, tried and removed to custody hundreds of insurgents captured by British and other ISAF forces, and who has applied to be resettled here through the ARAP scheme, that he did not make

“a material contribution to HMG’s mission in Afghanistan”?

My Lords, our colleagues in the Ministry of Defence are working as quickly as they can on a number of ARAP cases that have arisen. Of course, ARAP is one pathway; there is also the ACRS pathway. I suggest to the noble Lord that there are a number of judges, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said, and other notable communities and minorities. I assure the noble Lord of my best offices. Efforts are ongoing to help a number of people and communities who are still very vulnerable.

However, I will also be candid: the challenge in any engagement, as we have with the Taliban at an official level, is that the situation is becoming more dire. Recently, we have seen the challenges imposed by the Taliban on girls seeking to partake in education. It is not the same throughout the country but there are challenges. More recently, we have seen regressive attitudes towards women. It is not just about the UK and our obvious key alliances and partnerships. We must work with Afghanistan’s near neighbours, the Islamic world and the OIC to stop the poisonous narrative of the Taliban, which it continues to peddle against minorities and vulnerable communities, be they women or those very professionals who set up the Afghanistan we all want to see—an inclusive, progressive Afghanistan. We stand by those people and will play our part.

House adjourned at 3.33 pm.