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Volume 692: debated on Tuesday 20 April 2021

Following the shocking attacks of September 11 2001, NATO allies invoked article 5 of the Washington treaty. An attack on one was an attack on us all. In Afghanistan over the two decades since, NATO has shown extraordinary resolve in a country where the soldiering is tough and operational success is very hard won. Some 150,610 UK service personnel have served in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. Hundreds of our troops have suffered life-changing injuries, and 457 of our young men and women have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country. I pay tribute to their service and their sacrifice. They will not be forgotten.

I served in Afghanistan on two tours—the first, to Kabul in 2005; and the second, to Sangin, in 2009. My battalion lost 13 men on that second tour, with many more killed in our wider battlegroup. I have friends who will walk on prosthetic limbs for the rest of their lives, and I know people who suffered severe mental pain that tragically caused them to subsequently take their own lives. Like every other Afghanistan veteran, when I heard NATO’s decision last week, I could not help but ask myself whether it was all worth it.

We went into Afghanistan to disrupt a global terrorist threat and to deny al-Qaeda the opportunity to use that nation as a base for mounting further international attacks. In that mission, we were successful. By fighting the insurgency in its heartlands in the south and east of the country, NATO created space for the machinery of the Afghan government to be established and strengthened. Afghan civil society flourished. Schools reopened and girls enjoyed education just as boys did. There is a vibrant and free media. Women are not only valued and respected but are working in Afghan academia, healthcare and politics. Over 20 years we have developed and then partnered the brave men and women of the Afghan national security forces. They are now a proud army with the capacity to keep the peace in Afghanistan if empowered to do so by future Governments in Kabul.

Those of us who have served very rarely get to reflect on an absolute victory; only in the most binary of state-on-state wars can the military instrument alone be decisive. But two generations of Afghan children have now grown up with access to education. The Afghan people have tasted freedom and democracy, and they have an expectation of what life in their country should be like in the future. The Taliban, apparently, have no appetite to be an international pariah like they were in the late ‘90s. Our endeavours over the past two decades have created those conditions and have given Afghanistan every chance of maintaining peace within its own borders. We will continue to support the Afghan Government in delivering that, but our military could not stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, and so we will leave, in line with NATO allies, by September. Nothing in the future of Afghanistan is guaranteed, but the bravery, determination and sacrifice of so many British soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen has given Afghanistan every possible chance of success.

Sending our troops into conflict is the biggest decision that any Prime Minister has to make. The strategic objective must be clear, yet we now withdraw from Afghanistan, after enormous cost and human sacrifice, with the country heading towards another civil war and the Taliban on the ascent. I have visited the country many times. This cannot be the exit strategy that we ever envisaged.

Our nation and our military deserve answers. I request a Chilcot-style inquiry so that we can learn the lessons of what went wrong. How did we squander the relative peace of the first four years? Why were the Taliban excluded from the peace talks in 2001—a fundamental error that could have brought stability early on? Why did we adopt an over-centralised western model of governance? Why were we too slow in building up Afghan security forces, up to a paltry 26,000 five years after the invasion? Why was Pakistan allowed to harbour and train the Taliban for so long? More widely, did the ease of the initial Afghan invasion lead to an over-confidence by the US for it to then invade Iraq, meaning that we had to fight on two fronts? Should we take responsibility for the Taliban’s emergence in the first place after the US abandoned Afghanistan once the Soviets had left? Where was the British thought leadership—our situational awareness that might have influenced US strategic thinking? As we have learned in Northern Ireland, you cannot defeat the enemy by military means alone.

If we depart completely, a dangerous part of the world becomes more dangerous as the Taliban assumes control of the bulk of the country and once again gives sanctuary to extremist groups. Our brave military served with honour, but they were let down by poor strategic judgments that if politicians today do not understand and learn from, will impede our confidence to step forward and stand up to extremism and authoritarianism in the future. There are so many questions and it is the Government’s duty to respond.

I thank my right hon. Friend for calling for this urgent question. I do not entirely share his analysis of what would have happened next. The relatively benign, by Afghan standards, security situation in the country at the moment is not the norm; it is the consequence of the accommodation that the US and the Taliban had come to last year. That means, in effect, that there are three options for the international community. One is to prepare for a fighting season this summer once the 1 May deadline expires. The second is to come to a new accommodation with the Taliban that effectively removes all of the political imperative to reaching a solution. The third is to agree that, effectively, the military mission is done and that what remains now is a political one, and the way to accelerate that is to force the hand and agree to leave as we have done.

My right hon. Friend asks some great questions about the route to being in Afghanistan and the prosecution of the campaign thereafter. I think that those of us who have served, as he has done, take some solace from the way that these things are considered deliberately after the event. It is not for me to agree to such an inquiry right now, but one would hope that the lessons would be learned. I do not necessarily accept all of his analysis of how the campaign has played out, but obviously we have reached the point where the military mission has effectively culminated and what remains is a requirement for politics. To keep our people there indefinitely with 1 May approaching does not seem to me to be the right use of the military instrument.

The House will appreciate the Minister wanting to respond to this question himself. He saw two tours in Afghanistan and I know that more than 50 from his regiment were among the 454 British personnel who lost their lives there. We honour their service and their sacrifice.

There certainly have been some gains in governance, economic development, rights for women, education for girls and in ending Afghanistan as a base for terrorism abroad, but Afghanistan is more failure than success for the British military. Now, with the full withdrawal of NATO troops, it is hard to see a future without bloodier conflict, wider Taliban control, and greater jeopardy for those Afghanis who worked with the west and for the women now in political, judicial, academic and business roles. The Chief of the Defence Staff has said that this was

“not a decision we hoped for”.

Did the UK Government argue against full withdrawal? What steps will NATO allies take now to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a breeding ground for terrorism directed towards our western democracies again? There is US talk of over-the-horizon operations and of building anti-terrorist infrastructure on the periphery of Afghanistan. Will Britain play any part in this, and where?

The Minister said that Britain’s remaining 750 troops will be out by September. When will their withdrawal begin? How many UK contractors helping Afghan forces to maintain equipment are in Afghanistan? Will they withdraw at the same time as UK troops? How many Afghanis who helped British troops are still in Afghanistan, in danger and in need of the special scheme to settle in the UK? Ending military deployment should mean expanding diplomatic and development support, yet Britain cut direct aid to Afghanistan last year by a quarter. This year, will the Government reverse that cut?

Finally, where does this withdrawal leave the Government’s strategy of forward deployment in a region that sits between the three main state threats identified in the integrated review? Does this cause the Secretary of State to reconsider his decision to cut Army numbers by another 10,000?

First, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his reflections on the service and sacrifice of the UK armed forces. I am not sure that I accept his characterisation of the situation as defeat. Many members of the armed forces will reflect, as I do, on their tactical and operational successes in their individual tours and in the districts for which they were responsible. If they arrive in a district and the school is shut, but when they leave, it is open; or if they arrive in a district and the market has six stalls, but when they leave, it has 20—those are the sorts of successes that show them with their own eyes that their service has been worth it and they have done good.

The shadow Secretary of State picks up on what the Chief of the Defence Staff said in his interview on the “Today” programme last week, and I do not think that anybody in the UK Government would shy away from his very honest assessment of what happened. I think we should be clear that the disagreement, to the extent that there was one, was over a matter of months, rather than over staying there for four years more.

As I said, there is a logic to this, because we were at a decision point no matter what. On 1 May, the accommodation would run out and we would be preparing for a fighting season; or we would need a new political accommodation with the Taliban, and that would remove the political imperative altogether; or we would take the decision, as the President did, and with which NATO subsequently agreed unanimously, to leave and, in doing so, to force the pace of the political process. I think that is the right thing. The opportunity to prosecute counter-terrorism missions from the wider region into Afghanistan is something that we are working up with our NATO allies and the Americans at the moment. I am sure that the UK will have a role in that.

The exact withdrawal timeline is not one that I intend to share publicly—I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will understand the operational security reasons why that is the case—but a withdrawal from Afghanistan this year is not unexpected. It was completely within our planning last year and over the winter. We can achieve the timeline that is required without any cost to our other planned military activities this summer. I can reassure him that my right hon. Friends the Defence Secretary and the Home Secretary are working with all appropriate haste to make sure that those who have served alongside us in Afghanistan are looked after in the future.

I was in Afghanistan with the Afghan resistance, and I know that when the foreigners leave, the theological justification for jihad finishes. The problem we have is that Afghanistan still faces attack from the Taliban, fully supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, with the simple aim of conquering the country. Given the success since 2015 when the coalition moved into an advisory CT mode, what is the coalition’s plan now to prevent even larger swathes of the country from falling to the Taliban—indeed, to prevent Kabul itself from falling? If it does, I would call that strategic failure.

I share my hon. Friend’s assessment of the requirement for regional partners not only to step up and take a stake in Afghanistan’s peace, but to behave responsibly in the way they go about their diplomatic affairs in the region. His characterisation of what remains of the coalition is, if he does not mind my saying so, somewhat out of date. We have been down to a residual counter-terrorism mission for some time. For five years or more, the coalition has not extended its writ across the whole country. Actually, the Afghan national security forces have done a good job of maintaining security within the borders of Afghanistan since the NATO mission stepped back towards the current CT mission. I am full of optimism for what the Afghan national security forces could achieve. It depends, of course, on their being empowered to do so by a future Government in Kabul.

Like the Minister and the shadow Secretary of State, I pay tribute on behalf of the Scottish National party to all those who served, and of course, we remember all those who sadly lost their lives in Afghanistan.

All of us want the Government to get this right. I accept that there are no easy, clearcut, black and white ways forward, but I share some of the concern at the somewhat over-optimistic assessment that the Minister comes to the House with today. There is no absolute victory, of course—there is victory of sorts—but the peace is unstable. Governance is better, but it is still unstable, and the Taliban are not the outfit they once were, but they still pose a threat. The Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), made some excellent points on how lessons are learned about what went wrong, because some things did. I return to the question he asked, which the Minister was not quite clear on: what is the Government’s view of a Chilcot-style inquiry? If we are all committed to getting this right, that is the kind of thing that surely needs to happen.

This might be the end of one of America’s forever wars, as it is sometimes known, but for Afghanistan, it remains immensely uncertain. What does the post-September relationship look like with the Afghan Government? I say this to the Minister on foreign aid. We can either have peace and stability in countries such as Afghanistan, or we can have foreign aid cuts; we cannot have both. If the Government are committed to a stable future for Afghanistan—which, in fairness, I believe they are—they need to reverse not just the cut that the shadow Secretary of State mentioned but the cut in its entirety across the foreign aid field.

May I remind the SNP spokesperson that he has one minute, not the more than two minutes that he has taken?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to ask what the mechanism is for solidifying the peace within Afghanistan, but I am not sure that I see what the international military presence would do to solidify that peace any further. What needs to happen now, as we have seen in Northern Ireland and many other conflicts in which we have been involved in the past, is this deeply imperfect and—for those of us who have served —uneasy reality that all parties, irrespective of the role they played in the conflict, need to come together and make the politics work. I think that the conditions are right for that to happen now.

I do not mean to sound over-optimistic. My eyes are wide open. I said in my answer that the future for Afghanistan is uncertain—of course it is. But there is a set of Afghan national security forces in place now that are capable of maintaining the peace, and I genuinely believe that there is a political will to achieve that and an expectation within the Afghan public that their politicians will achieve that.

How the lessons are learned from this campaign, as they were with Iraq, is for my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary to decide in due course. Of course, in everything we do in the Ministry of Defence, we look at what we have done, and where it worked, we reinforce, and where it did not work, we change. Within the integrated review, there is already a recognition that the way we have done our business in the last two decades may not be the way that we do it in the next.

On the hon. Gentleman’s final point about the relationship with the Afghan Government and the need to financially support them, as the Secretary-General of NATO said, this is not the end of our involvement in Afghanistan; it is just the start of a new chapter. That new chapter is one that remains every bit as committed to supporting the Afghan national Government, and this year alone the UK will spend up to £70 million on supporting the Afghan security forces. Such support—both diplomatic and financial—is key to ensuring the future that we envisage for Afghanistan in the absence of a military contribution.

Alongside its regular colleagues, the Territorial Army has served with distinction in Afghanistan, not least 21 Special Air Service Artists Rifles, which, as a formed unit, demonstrated its extreme gallantry by winning three Military Crosses in the fighting in Nad-e Ali in Helmand in 2008 as well as a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross at a later date. On the back of that highly distinguished record, will my hon. and gallant Friend retain the option to deploy the Army Reserve on live operations abroad, both as attachments to regular forces and in their own formed units?

Within the 150,000-plus service personnel who have served in Afghanistan, there will be many thousands of reservists who have mobilised and answered their nation’s call, and they have done so with great distinction, as my hon. Friend describes. He will be pleased to hear, I am sure, that the design of our armed forces for the next decades recognises absolutely the importance of the role that reservists play both as individuals, with the expertise that they bring to the force, and as formed units. There is every intention of building on their success in Iraq and Afghanistan as we look at how we use the reserves in the future.

Let us be quite honest about this: we are where we are today because the United States is going to do what it is going to do. Some of us will remember the scenes of Saigon in 1975, with people who had helped the US forces scrambling desperately to get on board the helicopters. Those who were left faced imprisonment and in some cases execution. So my question is very clear: the Minister and the shadow Secretary of State have touched on the fate of those Afghanis who have helped us—the translators and the like—but will we give them asylum and will we give them residency in the UK to thank them for what they have done? Let me go further: will we extend the same offer, because there is interchange, to those who helped the US forces if the United States refuses to do so?

The hon. Gentleman asks me a very straightforward question, and I hope I can give him a very straightforward answer. Between 1 May and the completion of the withdrawal in September, any attack on NATO troops will be responded to robustly. The withdrawal will happen in good order; there will be none of the scenes that he evokes from previous conflicts. The plans are well established, and I have every confidence in the ability of our military and the militaries of our allies to deliver them. He is quite right to raise our responsibility to those who have served alongside us. It is not for me to pre-empt the decision that is yet to be made by the Defence Secretary and the Home Secretary, but I can reassure him that they are both seized of our responsibility, and I know they are working with all appropriate haste to make sure that a solution is put in place.

I pay tribute to the service of my hon. Friend the Minister, with whom I served a lot in Afghanistan and a lot in the Ministry of Defence. May I just say that the work the NATO troops are currently doing in Afghanistan is hugely important—not because they are in combat operations, as the Minister rightly says, but because they are enabling the Afghan troops and supporting them with medical aid, logistics and so on? So while I recognise that this withdrawal cannot be avoided by the UK, because fundamentally it is a US decision, what assessment have he and his Department made of the implications for the responses of others? He will know that the perception that we may not endure on an operation, even when we are no longer in combat, will weaken the way we are seen by our enemies and may lead our allies to doubt us.

I think that our resolve has been tested and demonstrated by the longevity of the mission. We could arbitrarily say, “Well, if we were to stay for another 10 years or 20 years, that would even further show our resolve”. I think the alliance set itself a set of military objectives, which were broadly achieved. It is clear that the politics must now take over. My hon. Friend is entirely right to point, however, to the wider range of effort that goes on and the degree to which that underpins the operational effectiveness of the Afghan national security forces. Clearly the military presence within Afghanistan itself will come to an end, but our ability to remain connected to the Afghan military academy remotely is undiminished, and likewise our ability to host Afghan officers and NCOs on military courses in the UK. All of that will I think, first, help to strengthen the connections between the Afghan and UK armed forces, but secondly, help to continue to develop their capacity so that they sustain their own operations and ensure that there is a lasting peace within Afghanistan.

I do believe that the decision by the United States, ourselves and NATO to pull out military personnel at this stage will be wrong. I think it only gives succour to the Taliban. We do not have a stable situation in Afghanistan yet. Can I ask the Minister what support is being given to women during the peace process? He knows the importance of women within Afghan society, and their advancement is so important. What is he doing to give support to women to ensure that they have a strong platform and to ensure that things such as girls’ education are protected?

The hon. Gentleman picks up on one of the great successes of the intervention in Afghanistan: for 20 years schools have been open to girls, and the education of girls remains one of the Government’s key foreign policy aims. Around the world seldom are those aims underpinned by military effort, however, and there are two things from which we should take heart. First, there are now so many women, relatively speaking, within the Afghan institutions—its Parliament, academia and media—that there is an expectation within Afghan civil society that women and girls will have more rights than what they had to endure under the previous Taliban Government. Secondly, the Taliban want legitimacy within the international community if or when they become a part of a future Afghanistan Government. Therefore it is reasonable to expect that they will not want to be the international pariah that they were, so they will be responsive to the diplomatic efforts to promote opportunities for women and girls that we are pursuing bilaterally and through the United Nations and our alliances. I wholly expect that future Afghan Governments would not want to reverse all the great progress that has been made in this important area over the past 20 years.

My hon. Friend speaks with great experience and knows of what he talks, but I am still struggling to understand precisely what the NATO strategy or plan is here. In addition to the great bravery and sacrifices of our own military, some very brave Afghan leaders, including women, believed that NATO would stay the course and will now feel very let down while the Taliban have little need to negotiate but increasingly will be in a very strong position. Does this not underline the very real limits of hard power and the importance of using soft power judiciously?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He is of course correct that the military could underpin an accommodation of sorts almost indefinitely, but that is not an enduring solution for any country. The decision NATO took last week recognises that we are at a moment of decision. The accommodation with the Taliban is coming to an end, so the decision is to extend the deal, which removes the political imperative, to fight this summer, and who knows where that would have gone—and from a position of having far fewer troops in Afghanistan than has been the case since five years ago—or to force the pace of the political settlement. All those options are imperfect, but what matters now, exactly as my right hon. Friend says, is that the Governments who have formed the alliance now use their soft power to ensure that the parties come round the table and an enduring peace is found.

Our withdrawal from Afghanistan was announced without a peace-day deal in place and with the security situation continuing to deteriorate. Many who fought in, and are still affected by, the conflict are wondering just what it was all for. We cannot allow either the Afghan security forces to be completely overrun or terrorist groups to re-establish training camps, so what operational capability will the Government make available to prevent this from happening?

The decision to draw down our military presence within Afghanistan has been announced, and I know that the hon. and gallant Member will appreciate that we will need over the next couple of months to work through the intricacies of what capabilities may endure in Afghanistan. However, it is clear that the United Kingdom will not tolerate an ungoverned space in Afghanistan from which international terrorism can find a base and from which attacks on the UK homeland or those of our allies can be mounted. A CT effort within the wider region will be required to counter that, and of course the alliance reserves the right to go back in if the security situation deteriorates to such an extent that our national security is threatened.

As we have heard, 457 brave men and women of our armed forces have paid with their lives to protect us here at home, and countless others have been wounded. I sincerely hope that their sacrifice has not been in vain. I seek my hon. and gallant Friend’s assurance that this withdrawal will not see a reluctance on our part to combat terrorism in the future, for, as Edmund Burke said so succinctly, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

My hon. Friend is entirely right. I should be clear that, as I hope the integrated review made clear, the UK has an ambition to be a force for good in the world and that where terrorism threatens the UK’s interests or those of our allies, we will be present, building the capacity of partner forces and helping to remove that instability and insecurity around the world. What we have learnt over the past 20 years is that there are ways of doing that, and the vision we have set out in the integrated review is for a far more intelligent way of doing that: developing capacity, tackling insecurity and being a force for good around the world.

I am sure that we all pay tribute to the service and sacrifice of all those who served and of those who, sadly, lost their life. General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, said in a recent interview that although he respects the decision of the Biden Administration, it was

“not a decision we hoped for”.

Will the Minister confirm whether the MOD feels confident in the ability of the Afghan national security forces to defend the Afghan Government and their people without the current NATO presence in Afghanistan?

I fear that that question invites a reprise for all the answers I have already given, but, yes, the Afghan national security forces have the capacity to maintain peace within Afghanistan. The key is whether they are empowered to do so by a future Government in Kabul.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the United States should be a global neighbourhood watch in the middle east, not just a superpower that draws down the blinds? Does he share my grave concern, and that of many colleagues, that the withdrawal of troops will boost Sunni extremism, not just in Afghanistan, but in Iraq, where the Sunni ISIS death cult threatens Iraq and Kurdistan? Will he consider gifting surplus military and medical kit to the Iraqi Kurds in Kurdistan, rather than leaving it in Afghanistan?

IS and the Taliban are no friends, and I suspect that that will moderate the march of IS in Afghanistan. My right hon. Friend invites me to set out how we might gift the equipment we have been using in Afghanistan. Some of it will be gifted to the Afghan national security forces. Where we have critical capabilities that we want to recover to the UK, we will of course do that. Whether or not those are in due course re-gifted in other theatres is a decision for us to take over the next few months, but I note his suggestion.

I think we are all aware that the risks in Afghanistan remain and are significant, and although over the past decade they have metastasised through different iterations and dispersed through the region, they still have significant roots in Afghan territories. So how will the Minister ensure that the strategic expertise brought by our armed forces’ soft power can be utilised to reduce the risk of the resurgence of violence and to support the Afghan security forces for as long as they require us?

The institutional connections between the UK Ministry of Defence and our armed forces, and the Afghan Ministry of Defence and armed forces are as strong as one would expect them to be, given that those relationships have been forged in combat over the past 20 years. As I said in response to an earlier question, there is every intent to continue to mentor the Afghan national security forces and MOD remotely, and to continue our involvement in the Afghan national military academy remotely, and of course to give the opportunity to Afghan officers and non-commissioned officers to attend courses in the UK that will maintain those connections and develop their capability.

I pay tribute to my hon. and gallant Friend for his service. Some three years ago, I had the privilege of visiting Kabul and seeing the Welsh Guards serve in Afghanistan and contribute to the building of a civic and civil society in the community. Given the fragility of that society, what tangible steps does my hon. Friend propose to take, as we leave Afghanistan by September, to ensure that the steps taken in recent years are not lost?

My right hon. Friend has seen with his own eyes the good work that has happened. As I said in response to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), there are opportunities to maintain those connections even without a physical presence on the ground. I have every confidence that we will do so. This is not just about politics and ministerial decision making; there are friendships between our armed forces that mean that the UK armed forces and UK MOD want to see the Afghan army, the Afghan security forces and the Afghan MOD succeed in the future. We will do everything we can to maintain those connections and develop capabilities so that the green shoots that my right hon. Friend saw can grow.

May I add my tribute to all those who served and those who tragically lost their lives? I visited Helmand in 2009, when I believe the Minister was on his second tour, and I saw at first hand the bravery, dedication and professionalism of our armed forces and all those who worked with them in extraordinary circumstances. That will never be forgotten. They did make a difference.

The Minister mentioned those who are living with life-changing injuries, including some of those he served with. Of course, those injuries are not just physical; tragically, there are mental health consequences for many, and there are also issues with housing, access to public services and so on. Will he give a cast-iron guarantee that we will continue to meet our debt of obligation to all those who served in Afghanistan, whether it is with respect to their physical health, their mental health, their housing or other needs, for as long as that is necessary?

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his question. Yes, the Ministry of Defence and Her Majesty’s Government will continue to meet that obligation. One of the things that came out of the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan was huge public recognition of the debt that we owe to our armed forces, and a recognition of the sacrifice and the commitment that they make on behalf of our nation. It is absolutely incumbent on those of us who now have the honour of making policy in Government to ensure that we live up to those obligations and that our veterans of Afghanistan, Iraq and all other conflicts are properly looked after.

I pay tribute to my hon. and gallant Friend and, indeed, all those who served with distinction in Afghanistan. Clearly, the economy of Afghanistan—in particular the farming community—will be vital to preserving peace and security in the region. Will my hon. Friend update the House on what will be done to encourage farmers to develop products and crops rather than feeding the illegal drugs trade, which has caused so much damage not only to the region but to the rest of the world?

My hon. Friend has taken me well out of my comfort zone. If he will indulge me, I might need to write to him.

I, too, pay tribute to all the veterans of the Afghanistan conflict, a number of whom are residents at the Cranhill Scottish Veteran Residences complex in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) was right to link this issue back to the decision to cut foreign aid. The Minister should not just listen to him; James Cowan, the chief executive officer of the HALO Trust and a former commander of British troops in Afghanistan, said:

“I have seen first-hand the importance of foreign aid. But the prime minister has announced a £4 billion cut in UK aid – money that is vital not only to the wellbeing of vulnerable people worldwide, but also British national security”.

He is not wrong, is he?

This issue has been touched on in previous questions. There is a commitment to spend up to £70 million in Afghanistan this year alone in support of the Afghan security forces, and of course there is an aid package beyond that. Very obviously, the end of our military contribution in Afghanistan does not mean the end of our wider diplomatic and development agenda in the country, and I fully expect that the UK Government will maintain that commitment so that we can do our bit in helping Afghanistan to succeed in the future.

This nation has a proud record, as indeed do many Members of this House, of responding to need around the globe. Decisions to get involved are not taken lightly. Questions of purpose and measures of success are rarely clearcut, and they always come at a cost. We have already heard that, for 454 British troops in Afghanistan, it was the ultimate sacrifice. For many more, including veterans and families that I have met here in Aberconwy, it is something they continue to carry day by day. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan and their families? What assurance can he give them that their work and their sacrifices will be remembered?

This Government, and indeed our nation, place huge importance on our duty to remember the sacrifice of those who have given their lives in the service of our nation around the world. I have every confidence that we will continue to do so, and when we reach remembrance events in the autumn I think people will be particularly focused on the end of our military operations in Afghanistan and the sacrifice made there.

Beyond that, I hope that Afghanistan veterans such as myself and six other Members of the House will reflect on their personal experiences in that country and on the good that they know they did and that they saw with their own eyes. Cumulatively across the whole country over 20 years that amounted to an environment in which the Afghan Government could establish itself and grow and in which civil society could flourish. We have set the conditions within which Afghanistan has the chance of a peaceful and secure future.

I join the Minister in paying tribute to all those who were deployed to Afghanistan, and it is right that we remember today the 457 who paid the ultimate price, as well as those who are now living with life-changing injuries. I first visited Afghanistan in 2003, and then on numerous occasions up until 2010, and the Minister is correct to highlight the success stories. One of those is the Afghan security forces, and Britain can be quietly proud of the work it did at the Kabul officer academy in developing that force. However, operationally, the Afghan security forces are dependent on allied air power, so will Minister highlight whether there are any plans to give that air support once we withdraw?

Clearly, the announcement was that there will be no military presence in Afghanistan. Air support can come from outwith Afghanistan, and I suspect that decisions on that would be based on the security situation at the time. However, I think that the priority of all in NATO is to force the pace of a political settlement, which our departure does. What we should all hope for is a successful political outcome, where the capabilities that the right hon. Gentleman draws our attention to would not be required.

Will my hon. and gallant Friend tell the House how confident the Government are that the peace negotiations will bring the right governance and security to Afghanistan by September and, in particular, that women will continue to have rights under a future regime? Only in the last few months, several women have been targeted for assassination, apparently by the Taliban. The treatment of women under the Taliban was totally unacceptable, and as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women, peace and security, I do not want to see any reversal of women’s rights in Afghanistan, but I am afraid I do not share the Minister’s optimistic outlook on this issue.

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and for her work in chairing the APPG, to which I think my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa and I will present the annual report in the coming weeks. The work on this issue is important and characterises so much of our contribution to conflicts. My hon. Friend will be aware that 3.7 million girls are now in school—a huge step forward from zero, which was previously the case. There is an expectation in Afghan society that is far more powerful than any military stick that may be wielded, and one can only hope that that is irreversible. The genie is out of the bottle, and once women and girls have that expectation and it becomes the norm in society, it is awfully hard—even for the Taliban—to reverse it.

The allies’ withdrawal from Afghanistan is causing deep concern for those who placed their lives on the line as invaluable interpreters for British forces. We know that the Taliban will exact revenge on those who supported the alliance, so what steps are Ministers taking now to fulfil our responsibility and our promises to ensure that the remaining interpreters and the families of those who are already here—I still have ongoing constituency cases where there are problems—are rescued? This is about honouring our promises.

I hope that the hon. Lady will have taken some reassurance from my earlier answers on the work of the Defence Secretary and the Home Secretary. I am sure that they will come forward with an answer imminently.

Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the locally employed civilians throughout Afghanistan, who were a vital help during our deployments? Colleagues have asked questions about interpreters and their safety, and I was pleased by his answer that, during the drawdown, people who had helped our forces will not be abandoned. However, once we have left, will he give us some assurance that all the many hundreds of locally employed civilians and the interpreters—the people who have risked their lives, their family’s lives and their safety—will not be abandoned?

I refer my hon. Friend to my previous answer. I have seen with my own eyes just how integral those locally employed civilians were to the success of our mission. We owe them a debt. There is work going on in Government to make sure that that debt is paid.

There are no easy answers in Afghanistan and I pay tribute to the service of personnel who have worked so hard to bring peace to the country. I reiterate the SNP’s strong support for a Chilcot-style inquiry into our engagement in Afghanistan to learn the lessons. On aid, we regret deeply the cuts to the aid budget, but I do not doubt the Minister’s sincerity and commitment to Afghanistan. Would he accept and agree with our call to exempt Afghanistan from any cuts to the wider aid budget, because now is precisely the time to step up that support, not scale it back?

I know that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I refrain from making policy on the hoof at the Dispatch Box, but the suggestion is noted, and, as I have made clear in previous answers, it is clear that the removal of the military instrument does not bring with it an end to our commitment in Afghanistan. I am confident that my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary will be listening to the contributions about the importance of making sure that we continue to support an Afghan civil society and military to underpin the peace that we all hope for.

Improvements in Afghanistan’s society, such as to girls’ education, are welcome and, as the Minister said, show signs of an improved future for Afghanistan’s people. However, freedom of religion or belief remains severely curtailed. Does he share my concerns about that, and what can be done to address it?

Afghanistan is a deeply Islamic and conservative country. As my hon. Friend will know from the amazing work that she does as the Prime Minister’s special enjoy for freedom of religion or belief, those countries are hard ones in which to espouse the values that she so enthusiastically campaigns for. I know that she will keep all the pressure that she can on the Prime Minister and my colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. She is absolutely right that this is a very important hallmark of a free democracy, and we should have every expectation that the sort of things that she would want to see are things that we are comfortable and enthusiastic about discussing with Afghan Governments in future.

Can the Minister give specific examples of actions that the Government now intend to take as we withdraw from Afghanistan to support and ensure that all the improvements that have been taking place over the past 20 years in the human rights of women and girls, such as access to education and healthcare, will not be reduced or reversed?

I can. The bilateral relationship between the UK Government and the Afghan Government will endure, and so, too, will our engagement through multilateral forums such as the UN. These are hard-won steps that have made Afghanistan a better country. Our expectation must be that nobody involved in the peace process would want to row back from those, and the international community must be united in ensuring that they do not.

As we draw down our forces in Afghanistan, the United Kingdom can look proudly at the contribution that we have made to supporting and developing the local security forces. Because our military contribution ends, that training and assistance need not, so will my hon. and gallant Friend confirm that, moving forward, we will continue to offer support and training to the Afghan security forces, including, for example, by posting cadets at Sandhurst?

That is exactly the sort of support that we envisage. The agreement is that there will be no military presence within Afghanistan, but that does not diminish in the slightest our ability to continue to have a strong relationship with the Afghan national security forces and to develop their capability either from the outside in or by bringing them to study and train in the United Kingdom.

I congratulate the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), on securing this question and on his excellent contribution, because whatever way the British Government try to present it, the unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan is a humiliation. No parliamentary vote was held to authorise the invasion 20 years ago, nor was democratic endorsement sought for the disastrous escalation of UK involvement in Helmand province. Is it not time that it was enshrined in law that major military engagements and significant escalations of conflict must be endorsed by this House and, I would argue, when Welsh troops are involved, by the Senedd as well?

That last point is clearly somewhat problematic. People from across the United Kingdom serve in our units and they serve as the UK’s armed forces. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman knows how impractical his suggestion is, but perhaps he is playing to an audience back home.

As for the hon. Gentleman’s earlier point, it would be impractical in the extreme for all operational decisions, some of which have to be taken with some haste, to be a matter for a vote in this House. The detail that underpins those decisions often cannot be fully shared at the Dispatch Box, for obvious reasons. The Government have, throughout, made every effort to be transparent about the way the Afghanistan campaign has been progressing. I remember there being regular updates to the House on it and the opportunity for Ministers to be held to account, but I am not sure that military planning by parliamentary vote is necessarily the way to show the coherence of the military instrument to our adversaries overseas.

I am concerned that, with the drawdown of our troops, Afghanistan could again become a centre and base for international terrorism. Can my hon. Friend update the House on the steps we are taking to mitigate that risk?

I suspect that I have answered that question a few times over the last hour. This is simply the end of military operations in Afghanistan; it is not the end of the UK’s commitment to that country. Everybody is clear on that. So, too, are our partners and allies around NATO and beyond. The international effort to deliver peace and security within Afghanistan continues; it is just no longer appropriate to seek to achieve that through military means.

There are many who would say that the Taliban control a huge swathe of Afghanistan, and that this decision will mean that the Afghan security forces could be overrun. Will the Minister advise us, as an Afghan veteran? I pay tribute to that service, as I do to all the other veterans, including my own brother, Ronnie, who served two tours in Afghanistan. Can the Minister answer the question that many of them will be asking today: why oh why were they there in the first place, if we have not achieved what we intended to?

I do not accept that we have not achieved what we were there to do in the first place. We went into Afghanistan as a direct consequence of what happened on 11 September 2001. Article 5 was invoked because an attack on one was an attack on us all, and that attack originated in Afghanistan. Since then, there has been no international terrorist attack launched from Afghanistan on the UK, the US or, indeed, any other NATO ally, so in that sense the mission was achieved.

Actually, the mission has gone far further, as we have explored in our exchanges on the urgent question: in the 20 years that we have been there, we have given the opportunity for the Afghan Government to establish and strengthen and for an Afghan civil society to flourish. I truly believe that we have set the conditions within which a political process now has the best chances of success.

I know that the Minister will take back the very strong feelings expressed on both sides of the House that interpreters and other locally employed civilians must not be abandoned to a terrible fate at the hands of our enemies.

When the Minister says that the military process is over, does he not realise that the only thing that will prevent the Taliban from going back to the position they were in before we intervened 20 years will be the threat that if they try to overthrow the Government, they themselves will face a military consequence—if necessary, from outside the borders of the country? If he rules that out, he is basically giving them carte blanche.

As my right hon. Friend will know from his extensive experience of peace processes around the world, it is very likely—indeed, almost certain—that a lasting peace settlement in Afghanistan will involve the Taliban as part of the Afghan Government. It is in all our interests to support the political process as it plays out, but if there is a return to an ungoverned space that gives succour to international terrorism that is a threat to the UK homeland or the interests of our allies, we of course reserve the right to protect our interests, both unilaterally and multilaterally through NATO.

I thank the Minister for responding to the urgent question and answering 31 questions.

We are now going to suspend for a short while.

Sitting suspended.