I beg to move,
That this House has considered the situation in Afghanistan.
May I begin by thanking you, Mr Speaker, and all the parliamentary staff for enabling us to meet this morning? Before I turn to today’s debate, I am sure the House will want to join you, Mr Speaker, and me in sending our condolences to the family and friends of those killed in the appalling shooting in Plymouth last week. Investigations are of course continuing, but we will learn every possible lesson from this tragedy.
I know that Members across the House share my concern about the situation in Afghanistan, the issues it raises for our own security and the fears of many remaining in that country, especially women and children. The sacrifice in Afghanistan is seared into our national consciousness, with 150,000 people serving there from across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, including a number of Members in all parts of the House, whose voices will be particularly important today. So it is absolutely right that we should come together for this debate.
As someone who opposed this nation-building intervention, I believe that it now brings its responsibilities. Will the Prime Minister assure me that, in addition to getting our nationals out safely, and in offering a generous welcome to the many refugees, all necessary resources will be given to those Afghans and others who helped the British Council in its work, including the promotion of women’s rights? Many are in fear of their lives—of retribution from the Taliban. The Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme is slow-moving at the moment. Will he commit the necessary resource, because the window of opportunity is narrow and no one must be left behind.
We have got the point. May I remind Members that if you are going to intervene, you have got to be short. If you intervene more than twice, you will understand why you have gone down the list—if there was one. [Laughter.]
I thank my hon. Friend. I can assure him that, as I will be saying in just a few moments, we will be doing everything we can to support those who have helped the UK mission in Afghanistan and investing everything that we can to support the wider area around Afghanistan, and to do everything that we can to avert a humanitarian crisis.
It is almost 20 years since the United States suffered the most catastrophic attack on its people since the second world war, in which 67 British citizens also lost their lives, at the hands of murderous terrorist groups incubated in Afghanistan. In response, NATO invoked article 5 of its treaty for the first and only time in its history, and the United Kingdom, among others, joined America in going into Afghanistan on a mission to extirpate al-Qaeda in that country, and to do whatever we could to stabilise Afghanistan, in spite of all the difficulties and challenges we knew that we would face. And we succeeded in that core mission.
Does the Prime Minister agree that we are ceding back the country to the very insurgency that we went in to defeat in the first place, and that the reputation of the west for support for democracies around the world has suffered? There are so many lessons to be learned from what happened over the last 20 years. Will he now agree to a formal independent inquiry into conduct in Afghanistan?
As I said in the House just a few weeks ago, there was an extensive defence review about the Afghan mission after the combat mission ended in 2014, and I believe that most of the key questions have already been extensively gone into. It is important that we in this House should today be able to scrutinise events as they unfold.
As I was saying, we succeeded in that core mission, and the training camps in the mountain ranges of Afghanistan were destroyed. Al-Qaeda plots against this country were foiled because our serving men and women were there, and no successful terrorist attacks against the west have been mounted from Afghan soil for two decades.
May I take the Prime Minister back to his remarks in the House on 8 July, when he referred to the assessment that he had made? There has clearly been a catastrophic failure of our intelligence, or our assessment of the intelligence, because of the speed with which this has caught us unawares. Can he set out for the House how we may assure ourselves that in future years no terrorist attacks put together in Afghanistan take place here in the United Kingdom?
I think it would be fair to say that the events in Afghanistan have unfolded faster, and the collapse has been faster, than I think even the Taliban themselves predicted. What is not true is to say that the UK Government were unprepared or did not foresee this, because it was certainly part of our planning. The very difficult logistical operation for the withdrawal of UK nationals has been under preparation for many months, and I can tell the House that the decision to commission the emergency handling centre at the airport—the commissioning of that centre—took place two weeks ago.
If I can just make a little more progress, I will certainly give way in a moment.
Alongside this core mission, we worked for a better future for the people of Afghanistan. The heroism and tireless work of our armed forces contributed to national elections as well as to the promotion and protection of human rights and equalities in a way that many in Afghanistan had not previously known. Whereas 20 years ago, almost no girls went to school and women were banned from positions of governance, now 3.6 million girls have been in school this year alone and women hold over a quarter of the seats in the Afghan Parliament. But we must be honest and accept that huge difficulties were encountered at each turn, and some of this progress is fragile.
I pay tribute to our ambassador and the diplomatic team in Kabul and our armed forces on the ground, who have been evacuating people in extraordinary circumstances. One of the consequences of the rapidity of the collapse of Kabul is that many people have been left trapped, unable to access the airport and unable to evacuate, including many of those who should be coming to this country who served us bravely in that country and many women who are particularly at risk. Many of us across the House will have experienced chaos in the last 24 to 48 hours in communicating information through to the ground to get some of those people out of the country. Can the Prime Minister give us some assurances about how we can get that information through so that we can get those brave people out of there, including many whose lives are at risk right now in Kabul?
The hon. Gentleman raises exactly the right question. I spoke this morning to Ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow as well as to Brigadier Dan Blanchford, who is handling the evacuation. It would be fair to say that the situation has stabilised since the weekend, but it remains precarious and the UK officials on the ground are doing everything that they can to expedite the movement of people—those who need to come out, whether from the ARAP scheme or the eligible persons—to get from Kabul to the airport. At the moment, it would be fair to say that the Taliban are allowing that evacuation to go ahead, but the most important thing is that we get this done in as expeditious a fashion as we can, and that is what we are doing. I am grateful not just to the UK forces who are now out there helping to stabilise the airport, but also to the US forces.
Can I just make some progress? The combat phase of our mission ended in 2014, when we brought the vast majority of our troops home and handed over responsibility for security to the Afghans themselves, and we continued to support their efforts. Even at that stage, we should remember that conflict was continuous and that, in spite of the bravery and sacrifice of the Afghan army—we should never forget that 69,000 of those Afghan army troops gave their lives in this conflict—significant parts of the country remained contested or under Taliban control. So when, after two decades, the Americans prepared to take their long-predicted and well-trailed step of a final extraction of their forces, we looked at many options, including the potential for staying longer ourselves, finding new partners or even increasing our presence.
Will the Prime Minister share with the House what assessment UK intelligence services made of the relative fighting capacity currently of the Afghan army and the Taliban, and will he tell us what representations the UK Government made to our US allies with regards to their timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He asks for a commentary on the respective military potential for power of the Taliban and the Afghan forces. It is pretty clear from what has happened that the collapse of the Afghan forces has been much faster than expected. As for our NATO allies and allies around the world, when it came for us to look at the options that this country might have in view of the American decision to withdraw, we came up against this hard reality that since 2009, America has deployed 98% of all weapons released from NATO aircraft in Afghanistan and, at the peak of the operation, when there were 132,000 troops on the ground, 90,000 of them were American. The west could not continue this US-led mission—a mission conceived and executed in support and defence of America—without American logistics, without US air power and without American might.
I note the point that my right hon. Friend is making about the importance of American support for our efforts in Afghanistan and those of our allies, but will he please set out when he first spoke personally to Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO, to discuss with him the possibility of putting together an alliance of other forces in order to replace American support in Afghanistan?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I spoke to Secretary-General Stoltenberg only the other day about NATO’s continuing role in Afghanistan, but I really think that it is an illusion to believe that there is appetite among any of our partners for a continued military presence or for a military solution imposed by NATO in Afghanistan. That idea ended with the combat mission in 2014. I do not believe that today deploying tens of thousands of British troops to fight the Taliban is an option that, no matter how sincerely people may advocate it—and I appreciate their sincerity—would commend itself either to the British people or to this House. We must deal with the position as it now is, accepting what we have achieved and what we have not achieved.
The Prime Minister seemed to be making an argument earlier that he had anticipated something similar to what went on, by having the rapid response force ready and waiting. Why, then, were he and the Foreign Secretary both on their holidays when this catastrophe happened?
The Government have been working around the clock to deal with the unfolding situation. We must deal with the world as it is, accepting what we have achieved and what we have not achieved. The UK will work with our international partners on a shared plan to support the people of Afghanistan and to contribute to regional stability. There will be five parts to this approach.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
In just a minute.
First, our immediate focus must be on helping those to whom we have direct obligations, by evacuating UK nationals together with those Afghans who have assisted our efforts over the past 20 years. I know that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the bravery and commitment of our ambassador, Sir Laurie Bristow.
I thank the Prime Minister for giving way on that particular point. He will be aware that there are 228 missionaries in Afghanistan currently under sentence of death; those missionaries need to be taken out of Afghanistan. Of course, there are tens of thousands of others who are under sentence of death and fear for their lives. Will he assure the House that every effort will be made to bring back to safe haven people whose lives are under threat as a result of the catastrophe in foreign policy that has gone on in that country?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the very needy case that he does. I am sure that colleagues across the House—literally every Member, I imagine—have received messages from people who know someone who needs to get out of Afghanistan. I can tell him that we are doing everything we can to help out of that country those people to whom we owe a debt of obligation. On that point, I repeat my thanks not just to Laurie Bristow, but also to the commander on the ground, Brigadier Dan Blanchford and the entire British team in Kabul.
I want to make some progress.
I can tell the House that we have so far secured the safe return of 306 UK nationals and 2,052 Afghan nationals as part of our resettlement programme, with a further 2,000 Afghan applications completed and many more being processed. UK officials are working round the clock to keep the exit door open in the most difficult circumstances and are actively seeking those who we believe are eligible but as yet unregistered.
Can the Prime Minister explain, then, how many people he thinks are eligible for relocation and are still to sign up? He says that the Government are doing “everything we can” to get these people out, so what does “everything we can” mean? How are they identifying these people and where they are, especially if they are already in hiding in fear of their lives?
That is why it is so important that we maintain a presence at Kabul airport and that is why we have been getting the message out that we want people to come through. As I said earlier, it is important for everybody to understand that in the days that we have ahead of us, which may be short, at the moment this is an environment in which the Taliban are permitting this evacuation to take place. These are interpreters, they are locally engaged staff and others who have risked their lives supporting our military efforts and seeking to secure new freedoms for their country. We are proud to bring these brave Afghans to our shores and we continue to appeal for more to come forward.
The Home Secretary announced this morning that the UK will take 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan but that only 5,000 will be able to come this year. What are the 15,000 meant to do? Hang around and wait to be executed?
That is the 5,000 on whom—we are spending £200 million to bring a further 5,000 on top; I think it will be 10,000 altogether that we bring in under the ARAP and other programmes. We will increase that number over the coming years to 20,000, as I said, but the bulk of the effort of this country will be directed and should be directed at supporting people in Afghanistan and in the region to prevent a worse humanitarian crisis. I tell the House that in that conviction I am supported very strongly both by President Macron of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany.
We are also doing everything possible to accelerate the visas for the—[Interruption.]
The hon. Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) cannot be like a drone in the Chamber, completely above everybody all the way through. I ask her to stand up and down please, and not just hover.
I was telling the House that we are making sure that we bring back the 35 brilliant Chevening scholars so that they can come and study in our great universities. We are deploying an additional 800 British troops to support this evacuation operation and I can assure the House that we will continue the operation for as long as conditions at the airport allow.
As of last week, it was still Home Office policy that we would send people back to Kabul because we thought that it was safe. Will the Prime Minister also confirm that it is not just about people coming out of Afghanistan but about keeping people safe here, and that we will not send people back to this nightmare?
The hon. Lady is entirely right that we will not be sending people back to Afghanistan; nor, by the way, will we allow people to come from Afghanistan to this country in an indiscriminate way. We want to be generous, but we must make sure that we look after our own security. Over the coming weeks, we will redouble our efforts, working with others to protect the UK homeland and all our citizens and interests from any threat that may emanate from a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, from terrorism to the narcotics trade.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must do everything we can to support those who have supported us, like Royal Marine Pen Farthing and his Nowzad charity’s veterinary staff and their immediate families, who now need safe passage back to the UK?
Like many of us, I have been lobbied extensively about the excellent work done by Mr Pen Farthing. I am well aware of his cause and all the wonderful things that he has done for animals in Afghanistan. I can tell my hon. Friend that we will do everything that we can to help Mr Pen Farthing and others who face particular difficulties, as he does—as I say, without in any way jeopardising our own national security. These are concerns shared across the international community, from the region itself to all of the NATO alliance and, indeed, all five permanent members of the UN Security Council. I will chair a virtual meeting of the G7 in the coming days.
Thirdly, we have an enduring commitment to all the Afghan people. Now more than ever we must reaffirm that commitment. Our efforts must focus on supporting the Afghan people in the region, particularly those fleeing conflict or the threat of violence. We therefore call on the United Nations to lead a new humanitarian effort in the region.
I thank the Prime Minister for giving way, and I welcome his commitment to support in the region, and also the Government’s commitment to a resettlement programme. The Home Secretary announced in 2019 that the UK would continue a resettlement scheme of 5,000 refugees a year after the Syrian scheme closed. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the announcement today of an Afghan resettlement scheme is in addition to that existing 5,000 resettlement commitment, as opposed to simply being a refocusing or displacement of that existing 5,000-a-year resettlement programme?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady, because I think that she has asked a question that has formed in many people’s minds about the 5,000. Yes, indeed, the 5,000 extra in the resettlement scheme are additional to those already announced. We will support those people in coming to this country. We will also support the wider international community delivering humanitarian projects in the region by doubling the amount of humanitarian and development assistance that we had previously committed to Afghanistan this year with new funding—[Interruption]—wait for it—taking this up to £286 million with immediate effect. We call on others to work together on a shared humanitarian effort, focusing on helping the most vulnerable in what will be formidably difficult circumstances.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way; he is being very generous with his time. Over the past 20 years, some 50 NATO and partner nations have been involved in Afghanistan. I welcome the measures that have been proposed by the UK and other countries such as the US, Canada, France, Germany and so on, but there are still many countries that have been involved in Afghanistan in recent years which have still yet to step up to the plate and recognise their responsibility in helping these people at this desperate time. Will the Prime Minister inform the House what is being done to encourage these other countries to take up their responsibility and help these people in Afghanistan?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and that is why the UK has chaired the UN Security Council, and asked with our French friends to put a motion together to get the world to focus on the humanitarian needs of Afghanistan. We will do the same thing in NATO, the G7 and other bodies in which we have a leadership role. We want all these countries to step up, as he rightly said, and focus on the most vulnerable in what will be formidably difficult circumstances.
I have given way, I think you will agree, Mr Speaker, quite lot this morning. Thanks to your generosity and that of the House, there is now ample time for debate until later this afternoon, and I think that many Members will be able to get their points across. I therefore intend, with your leave, Mr Speaker, to make some progress.
Fourthly, while we must focus on the region itself, we will also create safe and legal routes for those Afghans most in need to come and settle here in the UK. In addition to those Afghans with whom we have worked directly, I can announce today that we are committing to relocating another 5,000 Afghans this year, with a new and bespoke resettlement scheme focusing on the most vulnerable, particularly women and children. We will keep this under review for future years, with the potential of accommodating up to 20,000 over the long term. Taken together—
I have been very generous with interventions—I think you will agree, Mr Speaker—and I have made my position clear.
Taken together, we are committing almost half a billion pounds of humanitarian funding to support the Afghan people.
Fifthly, we must also face the reality of a change of regime in Afghanistan. As president of the G7, the UK will work to unite the international community behind a clear plan for dealing with this regime in a unified and concerted way. Over the last three days, I have spoken with the NATO and UN secretaries-general and with President Biden, Chancellor Merkel, President Macron and Prime Minister Khan. We are clear, and we have agreed, that it would be a mistake for any country to recognise any new regime in Kabul prematurely or bilaterally. Instead, those countries that care about Afghanistan’s future should work towards common conditions about the conduct of the new regime before deciding together whether to recognise it, and on what terms.
We will judge this regime based on the choices it makes and by its actions rather than by its words—on its attitude to terrorism, crime and narcotics, as well as humanitarian access and the right of girls to receive an education. Defending human rights will remain of the highest priority, and we will use every available political and diplomatic means to ensure that those human rights remain at the top of the international agenda.
Our United Kingdom has a roll-call of honour that bears the names of 457 servicemen and women who gave their lives in some of the world’s harshest terrain, and many others who bear injuries to this day, fighting in what had become the epicentre of global terrorism. Even amid the heart-wrenching scenes we see today, I believe they should be proud of their achievements, and we should be deeply proud of them, because they conferred benefits that are lasting and ineradicable on millions of people in one of the poorest countries on earth, and they provided vital protection for two decades to this country and the rest of the world. They gave their all for our safety, and we owe it to them to give our all to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a breeding ground for terrorism.
No matter how grim the lessons of past, the future is not yet written. At this bleak turning point, we must help the people of Afghanistan to choose the best of all their possible futures. In the UN, the G7 and NATO, with friends and partners around the world, that is the critical task on which this Government are now urgently engaged and will be engaged in the days to come.
I suggest to Back Benchers that we will be starting with a seven-minute limit. I call the Leader of the Opposition.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, and the staff for recalling Parliament for today’s debate.
Before I come to the urgent issue at hand, let me join you, Mr Speaker, and the Prime Minister in condemning the appalling shootings in Plymouth last week. We all send our condolences to the bereaved families. We must resolve to ensure that firearms do not get into the hands of dangerous people, and finally get to grips with the way that hate thrives on the internet.
Turning to Afghanistan, it has been a disastrous week—an unfolding tragedy. Twenty years ago, the Taliban were largely in control of Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda were using the country as a training ground and a base for terror, including plotting the horrific 9/11 attack. There were widespread human rights abuses, girls were denied an education, women could not work and being gay was punishable by death—all imposed without democracy.
Since then, a fragile democracy emerged. It was by no means perfect, but no international terrorist attacks have been mounted from Afghanistan in that period. Women have gained liberty and won office, schools and clinics have been built, and Afghans have allowed themselves to dream of a better future. Those achievements were born of sacrifice—sacrifice by the Afghan people who bravely fought alongside their NATO allies, and British sacrifice.
More than 150,000 UK personnel have served in Afghanistan. They include Members from across this House, including the hon. and gallant Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), the hon. and gallant Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), and the hon. and gallant Members for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) and for Wells (James Heappey). They and the tens of thousands of others deployed in Afghanistan served in difficult and challenging circumstances, and the Labour party and—I am sure—everybody across this House thanks each and every one of them and of the 150,000. Many returned with life-changing injuries and, tragically, 457 did not return at all.
Later today, I will attend the service at RAF Lyneham, outside Royal Wootton Bassett, to commemorate the 10th anniversary, which falls today, of the last repatriation through Bassett. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the message to the people I will see today must be that those young lives were not wasted but played an absolutely essential role in deterring and destroying terrorism and carrying out so many other good works in Afghanistan?
I wholeheartedly agree with that point and will address it in one moment.
For many of those who returned from Afghanistan and other places around the world, mental health has been an all-too-familiar issue. It is raised by veterans time and again. The events of the past few days and weeks will have exacerbated the situation and reopened old wounds—everybody across this House will know of examples—so we must improve mental health services for our veterans.
On the point that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) just made, I wish to address directly all those who served in Afghanistan and their families—especially the families of those who were lost. Your sacrifice was not in vain—it was not in vain. You brought stability, reduced the terrorist threat and enabled progress. We are all proud of what you did. Your sacrifice deserves better than this, and so do the Afghan people.
There has been a major miscalculation of the resilience of the Afghan forces and staggering complacency from our Government about the Taliban threat. The result is that the Taliban are now back in control of Afghanistan. The gains made through 20 years of sacrifice hang precariously. Women and girls fear for their liberty. Afghan civilians are holding on to the undercarriage of NATO aircraft—literally clinging to departing hope. We face new threats to our security and an appalling humanitarian crisis.
For all the reasons that the right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned, does he not agree that President Biden is actually wrong when he talks about American sacrifices in a civil war? The Taliban are not at war with a regime; they are at war with the civilised values of justice, equality and tolerance, which all of us hold dear, and against which it respects no international boundaries.
I agree with the hon. Member and thank him for that intervention.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
Let me make some progress and then I will give way.
The desperate situation requires leadership and for the Prime Minister to snap out of his complacency. The most urgent task is the protection of our diplomatic staff still working heroically in Kabul, and the evacuation of British nationals and Afghans who have risked their lives. Let me be clear: the Labour party fully supports the deployment of troops to that end. We want it to succeed just as quickly and safely as possible.
The Defence Secretary has said that some people who have worked with us will not get back—unconscionable. The Government must outline a plan: to work with our allies to do everything possible to ensure that that does not happen; to guarantee that our troops have the resources they need to carry out their mission as effectively and safely as possible; and to work to provide stable security at the airport in Kabul so that flights can depart and visas can be processed. We all know how difficult that is. We all know how hard everybody is working on the ground and we fully support them.
I raise an issue not by way of criticism, but just to get some reassurance: there are reports from non-governmental organisations that an evacuation plane left almost empty this morning because evacuees could not get to the airport to board that plane. As I say, we are not challenging the work on the ground—we know how difficult it is—but, if that is true, we would like to see that matter addressed at an appropriate moment.
May I take the right hon. and learned Gentleman back to the statement that the President of the United States made the other day? Does he not agree that that took on the terms of a sort of shameful excuse? Given that the President had blamed the Afghan armed forces, who have lost nearly 70,000 troops in trying to defend Afghanistan, and given that corruption had stripped away much of the pay, money and support of those forces, the American decision to withdraw aircraft cover was almost certainly going to lead us to this situation. Does he not think that that is shameful?
The US is, of course, an important ally, but to overlook the fighting of the Afghan troops and forces, and the fact that they have been at the forefront of that fighting in recent years, is wrong. It is wrong for any of us to overlook that or the situation in which they now find themselves.
The urgent task is, of course, the evacuation. Equally urgent is the immediate refugee crisis.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
I will make some progress and then I will give way.
Many Afghans have bravely sought to rebuild their country and they did so on a promise of democratic freedoms, the rule of law and liberty for the oppressed, including women and girls. They are our friends and that was our promise. They are now fearing for their lives. We do not turn our backs on friends at their time of need. We owe an obligation to the people of Afghanistan. There should be a resettlement scheme for people to rebuild their lives here, with safe and legal routes. It must be a resettlement scheme that meets the scale of the enormous challenge, but what the Government have announced this morning does not do that. It is vague and will support just 5,000 in the first year—a number without rationale. Was that based on a risk assessment of those most at need, or was it plucked out of the air? The offer to others is in the long term, but for those desperately needing our help now, there is no long term, just day-to-day survival.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that as well as marking the need for a much bolder and more ambitious resettlement programme, this disaster must mark a turning point for our failed asylum system, in particular by getting rid of the so-called hostile environment and the Nationality and Borders Bill, under which a women fleeing the Taliban with her children on a boat across the channel would be criminalised? Does he agree that that Bill must now be revised?
I will come on to the specifics of the system. Yet again, the Government seem ill-prepared and unwilling, just as they have been too slow to provide sanctuary to Afghans who have served alongside Britain. There have been too many reports of eligible Afghans facing bureaucratic hurdles, and too many are being unfairly excluded. Having known for months that the date of withdrawal was coming, the Home Office is not close to completing the process that it has already got up and running. The process was designed to help 7,000 people, yet Home Office figures this week showed that only 2,000 have been helped so far.
The point that I wanted to make to the Prime Minister was about the situation facing Afghan Sikhs. I know from my constituency casework that there are Afghan Sikhs in the system who are waiting for clearance from the Home Office; I call on the Government to process them as quickly as possible and not leave all those people in the system waiting any longer than they have to at the moment. They are terrified by the idea of being sent back home, and despite the reassurance given to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), I do not see any movement from the Home Office to give them the legal status that they need.
I am grateful for that intervention. Members on both sides of the House have given examples of individuals and groups who are very obviously at risk in Afghanistan and need to come out as quickly as possible. That is why the question arises as to what is behind the 5,000 number, and why others are having to wait so long.
The scale of the refugee crisis requires an international response, but we must lead it, and lead with a resettlement programme that meets the scale of the challenge. The scheme must be generous and welcoming. If it is not, we know the consequences now: violent reprisals in Afghanistan; people tragically fleeing into the arms of human traffickers—we know that that is what will happen—and more people risking and losing their lives on unsafe journeys, including across the English channel. We cannot betray our friends. We must lead.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman speaks of people fleeing, but we have yet to assess whether anyone outside Kabul is able to get to a place of safety. Does he agree that a safe corridor needs to be opened to an international border so that those who are not near Kabul can also get to safety via third countries?
There is huge concern, as all hon. Members will know, about our line of sight beyond Kabul at the moment. Again, that calls into question where the 5,000 number comes from, because at the moment we are not even in a position to assess the position outside Kabul. We cannot betray our friends. We must lead.
Were the Government of this kingdom to be overthrown by a wicked and brutal regime, I venture that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would want a leading role in the resistance. He would not be queuing at the airport, would he?
When I was Director of Public Prosecutions, some of my prosecutors in Afghanistan were at huge risk, working on counter-terrorism with other brave souls there, so I will not take that from the right hon. Gentleman or from anybody else.
Once the immediate challenges are addressed, we face an uncertain and difficult future. The Taliban are back in control and we cannot be naive about the consequences. We have lost our primary source of leverage in political discussions, and everything that we have achieved in the past 20 years is now under threat.
I will make some progress and then give way.
The Prime Minister is right to say that we cannot allow Afghanistan to become a training ground for violent hate and terrorism, but that will be more difficult now that Afghanistan has descended into chaos. If preventing al-Qaeda camps is now the limit of our ambition, we are betraying 20 years of sacrifice by our armed forces and we are betraying the Afghan people, who cannot be left to the cruelty of the Taliban.
My right hon. and learned Friend speaks about the lack of ambition and urgency, and that summarises everything about the Government’s approach to this crisis and many others. Is it not telling that when we had an Afghan Government whom we wanted to support, the UK Government cut the amount of overseas aid that we sent, but now that the Taliban are in charge, the Government are talking about increasing the amount of overseas aid?
I am grateful for that intervention. I will come to the question of aid in just a minute, because it is a very important point in the context of what has happened in recent weeks and months.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
I am going to make some progress and then I will give way.
We have to use every tool that remains at our disposal to protect human rights in Afghanistan. The Government are right not to recognise the Taliban as the official Government—the Prime Minister has made that clear—but that must be part of a wider strategy, developed with our UN security partners and our NATO allies, to apply pressure on the Taliban not only to stamp out a resurgence of terror groups, but to retain the liberties and human rights of Afghans. We must work with Afghans and neighbours to ensure that there is consistent pressure, and there must be a UN-backed plan to ensure that our aid budget is used to support humanitarian causes in Afghanistan, not to fund the Taliban.
This is a difficult task with no guarantee of success, so it should concern us all that the Prime Minister’s judgment on Afghanistan has been appalling. Nobody believes that Britain and our allies could have remained in Afghanistan indefinitely, or that Britain could have fought alone. NATO leaders were put in a difficult position after President Trump agreed with the Taliban that all US forces would withdraw by May 2021. But that agreement was made in February 2020—18 months ago. We have had 18 months to prepare and plan for the consequences of what followed—to plan and to prepare for the resettlement of refugees and those who have supported us; for supporting the Afghan Government in managing the withdrawal; and for securing international and regional pressure on the Taliban and support for the Afghan Government. The very problems we are confronting today have been known problems for the last 18 months, and there has been a failure of preparation.
The lack of planning is unforgivable, and the Prime Minister bears a heavy responsibility. He mutters today, but he was in a position to lead and he did not. Britain holds a seat at the United Nations Security Council. We are a key player in NATO. We are chair of the G7. Every one of those platforms could and should have been used to prepare for the withdrawal of forces, and to rally international support behind a plan to stabilise Afghanistan through the process and keep us safe.
I will give way in a minute.
Did the Prime Minister use those platforms in those 18 months to prepare? No, he did not. What did he do instead? We debated this: he cut the development budget, which was key to the strength and resilience of democracy in Afghanistan. He makes a great deal today of the money he is putting in, but £292 million was spent in Afghanistan in 2019, and £155 million in 2021. That is short-sighted, small-minded and a threat to security.
I will give way in a moment, but I am going to go through this list. The right hon. Gentleman failed to visit Afghanistan as Prime Minister, meaning that his last trip—as Foreign Secretary, in 2018—was not to learn or to push British interests, but to avoid a vote on Heathrow. Hundreds of thousands of British people have flown to Afghanistan to serve; the Prime Minister flew to avoid public service.
The list goes on. In March this year the Prime Minister published an integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy. It was a huge review. He boasted that the review would
“demonstrate to our allies, in Europe and beyond, that they can always count on the UK when it really matters.”
The Afghan Government were an ally, yet the integrated review made just two passing references to Afghanistan. The review did not even mention the Taliban. It did not mention NATO withdrawal or the consequences of the Doha agreement. It did cut the size of the Army—the very force that we are now relying on—and we criticised that at the time. Eye off the ball; astonishingly careless. The question is: why was the Prime Minister so careless? Why did he fail to lead? It comes down to complacency and poor judgment.
I will give way in a moment; I am going to make this case.
There was a calculation that withdrawal would lead to military stalemate in Afghanistan and that that stalemate would accelerate political discussions. Seeing this in July, Members on both sides of this House warned the Government—read Hansard—that they may be underestimating the threat of the Taliban. That was ignored, and the Government’s preparation for withdrawal was based on a miscalculation of the resilience of the Afghan forces and a staggering complacency about the Taliban threat.
The Prime Minister is as guilty as anyone. This Sunday he said:
“We’ve known for a long time that this was the way things were going”.
That was not what he told the House in July, when he stood there and assured Members that
“there is no military path to victory for the Taliban”,
and went on to say:
“I do not think that the Taliban are capable of victory by military means”. —[Official Report, 8 July 2021; Vol. 698, c. 1108, 1112.]
The British Government were wrong and complacent, the Prime Minister was wrong and complacent and, when he was not rewriting history, the Prime Minister was displaying the same appalling judgment and complacency last week.
The British ambassador’s response to the Taliban arriving at the gates of Kabul was to personally process the paperwork for those who needed to flee. He is still there and we thank him and his staff. The Prime Minister’s response to the Taliban arriving at the gates of Kabul was to go on holiday—no sense of the gravity of the situation; no leadership to drive international efforts on the evacuation. The Foreign Secretary shakes his head. [Interruption.] What would I do differently? I would not stay on holiday while Kabul was falling. There are numerous examples of leaders on both sides of the House who have come back immediately in a time of crisis. [Interruption.] The Foreign Secretary is shouting now, but he was silent—[Interruption.]
Order. The Prime Minister was heard and I want to hear the Leader of the Opposition. I do not want people to shout. You may disagree, but you may also wish to catch my eye. Do not ruin that chance.
The Foreign Secretary shouts now, but he stayed on holiday while our mission in Afghanistan was disintegrating. He did not even speak to ambassadors in the region as Kabul fell to the Taliban. Let that sink in. You cannot co-ordinate an international response from the beach. This was a dereliction of duty by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, and a Government totally unprepared for the scenario that they had 18 months to prepare for. It is one thing for people to lose trust in the Prime Minister at home, but when the trust in the word of our Prime Minister is questioned abroad, there are serious consequences for our safety and security at home.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
In one moment.
Recent events in Afghanistan shame the west—and not just the scenes of chaos. What does our abandonment of the Afghan people say to those brave people around the world living under regimes that pay scant regard to human rights but resisting those regimes in pursuit of democracy, equality and individual freedom? What does this retreat from freedom signal to those who are prepared to stand up for it? What does this surrender to extremism mean for those prepared to face it down? What does it mean for those nations who support an international rules-based system when we hand over power to those who recognise no rules at all? That is the challenge of our time.
The British and Afghan people will have to live with the consequences of the Prime Minister’s failure. We have fought for 20 years to rid Afghanistan of terror—terror that threatens our security here in Britain and liberty in Afghanistan. The Taliban are back in control. The Prime Minister has no plan to handle the situation, just as he had no plan to prevent it. What we won through 20 years of sacrifice could all be lost. That is the cost of careless leadership.
I had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan twice, but I recognise that there are others across this House whose experience is more recent, more vivid, more practical, and longer and broader than mine. But when I was there, I was struck by the commitment and dedication of our armed forces serving there and of other British personnel. All were doing what they could to give hope to the people of Afghanistan—people who, thanks to our presence, were able to enjoy freedoms they had been denied under the Taliban.
Twenty years on, 457 British military personnel have died in Afghanistan, and many more have suffered life-changing injuries. Yes, many girls have been educated because of British aid, but it is not just that the freedoms once enjoyed will now be taken away; many, many Afghans—not just those who worked with British forces—are now in fear of their lives. It is right that we should open up a refugee scheme, but we must make absolutely certain that it is accessible to all those who need it.
Of course, the NATO presence was always going to end at some point in time, but the withdrawal, when it came, was due to be orderly, planned and on the basis of conditions. It has been none of those. What has been most shocking is the chaos and the speed of the takeover by the Taliban. In July of this year, both President Biden and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister indicated that they did not think that the Taliban were ready or able to take over control of the country. Was our intelligence really so poor? Was our understanding of the Afghan Government so weak? Was our knowledge of the position on the ground so inadequate? Did we really believe that, or did we just feel that we had to follow the United States and hope that, on a wing and a prayer, it would be all right on the night?
The reality is that as long as a time limit and dates were given for withdrawal, all the Taliban had to do was ensure that there were sufficient problems for the Afghan Government not to be able to have full control of the country, and then just sit and wait.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that President Biden decided unilaterally to withdraw without agreeing and negotiating a plan with either the Afghan Government or the NATO allies, and that the response of the UK Government in the circumstances has been fast, purposeful and extremely well guided to protect the interests of UK citizens?
What President Biden has done is to uphold a decision made by President Trump. It was a unilateral decision of President Trump to do a deal with the Taliban that led to this withdrawal.
What we have seen from the scenes in Afghanistan is that it has not been all right on the night. There are many in Afghanistan who not only fear that their lives will be irrevocably changed for the worse, but fear for their lives. Numbered among them will be women—women who embraced freedom and the right to education, to work and to participate in the political process.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was right to make the education of girls a key aim of his Administration, but in Afghanistan that will now be swept away. Those girls who have been educated will have no opportunity to use that education. The Taliban proclaims that women will be allowed to work and girls will be allowed to go to school, but this will be under Islamic law—or rather, under its interpretation of Islamic law, and we have seen before what that means for the lives of women and girls.
Some of the women who have shown most courage are the 250 women who serve as judges under the attempt that was made to impose a decent, honest legal system on Afghanistan. There is a particular fear that they are targets. The Bar Council and the Law Society have asked the Government to take cognizance of the particular risks they run. Will my right hon. Friend support the call for them to be given priority in being brought to safety, since they put their lives on the line for their fellow women and for their whole country?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As has been said, there are many groups in Afghanistan who have put their lives on the line to support the Afghan Government, democracy and justice in Afghanistan, and it is right that we should do everything we can to support them in their time of need. However, as we know, under the Taliban regime the life of women and girls will sadly not be the same; they will not have the rights we believe they should have or the freedoms they should have.
There are already reports from sources in Kabul that the Taliban is executing collaborators and homosexuals. Does the right hon. Lady agree that complacency is absolutely misplaced, and what does she suggest we do to protect those people who need to get out?
The Government are doing much to protect people in trying to ensure that people can access ways of leaving Afghanistan. A point was made earlier about not just expecting people to get to Kabul, and I hope that is something the Government will be able to look into and take up.
Apart from the impact on the lives of women and girls, we see a potential humanitarian crisis, at least in some parts of Afghanistan. We have cut our international aid budget, but I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary has told me that more funding will be made available to deal with this crisis.
It is not just the impact on the people of Afghanistan that must concern us, however; we must be deeply concerned about the possible impact here in the UK. The aim of our involvement in Afghanistan was to ensure that it could not be used as a haven for terrorists who could train, plot, and encourage attacks in the UK. Al-Qaeda has not gone away. Daesh may have lost ground in Syria, but those terrorist groups remain and have spawned others. We will not defeat them until we have defeated the ideology that feeds their extremism.
One of the most concerning things that is happening is that several thousand al-Qaeda operatives have been freed from prisons in Bagram, Kabul and Kandahar. Is my right hon. Friend concerned that those people will go back to their old ways, or do we hope that they will somehow go into retirement? It seems to me that we are going to restart with a new round of international terrorism.
My hon. Friend has anticipated exactly the point I was about to make. The Taliban has said that it will not allow Afghanistan to become a haven for terrorists again. Yesterday, in the press conference, it said it would not allow anything to happen in Afghanistan that would lead to attacks elsewhere across the world. However, we must look at its actions, not its words, and, as he has just pointed out, its action has been to release thousands of high-value Taliban, al-Qaeda and Daesh fighters. Its actions are completely different from its words, and it is essential that we recognise the probability that Afghanistan will once again become a breeding ground for the terrorists who seek to destroy our way of life.
The right hon. Lady is making exactly the points that I hoped to hear from the Prime Minister and did not. The reasons that we went into Afghanistan in 2001 remain valid today. If the actions taken in recent weeks render a military solution to that problem impossible, we have to have a non-military solution. What does she see that non-military solution as being?
I will refer to that issue later. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the question of a military solution has not been there for some time, because our combat mission ended some years ago, but we have been trying to provide support to enable a democratic Government to take proper control of that country. I would be happy to talk to him sometime about my views. I think that we should possibly have reconsidered the idea of trying to impose a western example of democracy in a country that is geographically difficult and relies a lot on regional government when we were going down that route, but I will not go down that road any longer, despite his temptations.
Order. I am really concerned about the time for Back Benchers. I did suggest that it was seven minutes, and we are now heading to 10. I did not put a time limit on, but I will have to do so after this speech.
I am very grateful for your generosity to me, Mr Speaker.
Another important element of our work in Afghanistan was stopping drugs coming into the United Kingdom. Sadly, that has not been as successful as we would have liked, but we supported a drug crime-specific criminal justice system in Afghanistan, and I assume that will now come to a complete end. Once again, that is another area where withdrawal is not just about Afghanistan but has an impact on the streets of the UK.
What must also be a key concern to us is the message that this decision sends around the world to those who would do the west harm—the message that it sends about our capabilities and, most importantly, about our willingness to defend our values. What does it say about us as a country—what does it say about NATO?—if we are entirely dependent on a unilateral decision taken by the United States? We all understand the importance of American support, but despite the comments from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I find it incomprehensible and worrying that the United Kingdom was not able to bring together not a military solution but an alternative alliance of countries to continue to provide the support necessary to sustain a Government in Afghanistan.
Surely one outcome of this decision must be a reassessment of how NATO operates. NATO is the bedrock of European security, but Russia will not be blind to the implications of this withdrawal decision and the manner in which it was taken. Neither will China and others have failed to notice the implications. In recent years, the west has appeared to be less willing to defend its values. That cannot continue. If it does, it will embolden those who do not share those values and wish to impose their way of life on others. I am afraid that this has been a major setback for British foreign policy. We boast about global Britain, but where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul? A successful foreign policy strategy will be judged by our deeds, not by our words.
I finally just say this: all our military personnel, all who served in Afghanistan, should hold their heads high and be proud of what they achieved in that country over 20 years, of the change of life that they brought to the people of Afghanistan and of the safety that they brought here to the UK. The politicians sent them there. The politicians decided to withdraw. The politicians must be responsible for the consequences.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for facilitating the recall of Parliament. It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), and I hope the Government will reflect very carefully on her words—particularly her remarks at the end of her contribution about the role of NATO in the light of the American decision to pull out of Afghanistan. These are very real issues about the capabilities within NATO. If I may say so, it is about not just the capability of NATO but how we make sure the United Nations has all the tools at its disposal to do what we expect of it. We will have to return to these matters in this House when we come back from recess.
I thank the Government for the briefings we have had over the course of the last few days, and in particular I commend the Defence Secretary for making himself available and for how he has conducted himself. Indeed, that is also true of Ministers in the Home Office—I think particularly of the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and, from the Foreign Office, the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa. When we are talking about human lives being lost, it is important that we in this House work together where it is possible but—yes, of course—that we ask legitimate questions.
There can be little doubt that the chaos and crisis that has been inflicted on the Afghan people is the biggest foreign policy failure of modern times. The sheer scale of that political failure is matched only by the humanitarian emergency that it has now unleashed. As we gather here this morning, the future and fate of Afghanistan has never been more uncertain. Afghanistan, a country that has been through so much, is once again facing a period of darkness. Over the course of the past week we have watched those tragic images from afar. The scenes of Afghans seeking to jump on to moving planes to escape will haunt us for the rest of our lives. We have watched from afar, but we all have a deep sense of sorrow about just how closely the UK has been involved in what has unfolded. Geographical distance does not for a second diminish the moral responsibility that we need to feel for the west’s role in this crisis. Washing our hands of this crisis will not make it go away, and it definitely will not wash away our responsibility to the Afghan people. We all know that acting now will be too little, too late, but better little and late than nothing at all.
Today we have a choice: we can either offer meaningless words of sympathy and stand idly by, or we can start to do the right thing. We can take responsibility and act. The Home Secretary has today talked about evacuating more contacts of the UK Afghanistan operation from the existing resettlement scheme. Let me be clear: there should be no ifs or buts; everyone who has worked with UK forces and who by definition has a vulnerability, must be moved to a position of safety. No one can be left behind. That is our moral and ethical responsibility. All those who work with us are our responsibility. We do not, we cannot, walk away from them. Today I am asking the Government to make that commitment.
That action needs to begin with a co-ordinated domestic and international effort to offer safe passage, shelter and support to refugees fleeing this crisis is obvious. That action cannot wait. If we are to act, we must act with the same speed with which the situation in Afghanistan has developed. I am sad that the scheme announced last night by the UK Government, and today by the Prime Minister, does not go nearly far or fast enough. It can only be right that the number of refugees we welcome here reflects the share of the responsibility that the UK Government have for this foreign policy disaster. This scheme falls way short of that responsibility. The scheme must be far more ambitious, generous, and swift to help the Afghan citizens that it has abandoned and left at serious risk of persecution, and indeed death. The scale of the efforts must match the scale of the humanitarian emergency.
Considering that the Government promised in 2016 to save 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children from Calais, is the right hon. Gentleman concerned that the number who have actually been saved stands at around 380? If those promises can be broken, and among those children were many from Afghanistan, is he concerned that the promises made today may be as unrobust as those of the past?
I agree with the right hon. Lady that it is important the House has the opportunity to reflect on this and consider what mechanisms we need to put in place to protect people in Afghanistan.
The harsh reality is that 3 million people have already been displaced, and 80% of those fleeing their homes are women and children. These people are now crying out for our help.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that yesterday the Nobel laureate Nadia Murad said:
“I know what happens when the world loses sight of women and girls in crises. When it looks away, war is waged on women’s bodies.”
Sadly, she is correct. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we do not act now and go so much further than the Government are proposing to protect women and girls, this political disaster will become a catastrophic moral failure?
I agree with my hon. Friend.
I just reflected on the fact that 3 million people have already been displaced. We need to show a generosity of spirit that recognises the scale of the challenge we face, so that women do not face the loss of their human rights, so that women do not face persecution and, yes, so that women do not face even worse, including death.
It is important to say that, if we are to support the Afghan people, this crisis needs to mark a point of fundamental change in this Government’s approach to refugees. In the past few months alone, this Government have introduced a hateful anti-refugee Bill that would rip up international conventions and criminalise those coming from Afghanistan in need of our refuge. The UK Government have spent a sizeable part of their summer making political play of turning away migrants and refugees in small boats who are desperately making their way across the channel.
Given that Glasgow is the only city and authority in Scotland to be part of the resettlement scheme up until now, will the SNP stick to their rhetoric and start putting forward other authority areas to be part of the resettlement scheme?
My goodness, my goodness, my goodness. I do not think the hon. Gentleman has been listening to anything we have been saying over the past few days. I will talk about this in more detail, because I have been asking for the resettlement scheme to work on the basis of the Syrian scheme that we had in the last decade. I tell the House that the Scottish Government stand ready to work with the UK Government—[Interruption.] We are talking about people who are facing extreme risk, and that is what we get from the Government Benches. They should be careful, because people in the United Kingdom, and perhaps people in Afghanistan, are listening. Perhaps a bit of dignity from the Government Benches would not go amiss.
I want to make sure that every local authority in Scotland has the opportunity to take refugees from Afghanistan, and that is precisely the position of the Government in Scotland, but is has to come with the Government in London and the devolved Administrations working together. There has to be a summit of the four nations to discuss exactly how this will work.
Just to correct the record, my local authority, East Ayrshire Council, has resettled Syrian refugees.
As has mine.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) should correct the record.
My hon. Friend is correct, and my area of the highlands has refugees from Syria, too, and they were made most welcome by the community. In view of the hostile environment that we are seeing once again from the Conservative party, let us reflect on the fact that these are people who came here to receive sanctuary and who have gone on to make a contribution to our life. They were welcome, refugees are welcome and Afghans are certainly welcome in every part of Scotland.
Before the right hon. Gentleman was rerouted by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), he was making a powerful point about those who come across the channel in boats, and the Government’s proposals for them. Does he recognise that, according to organisations such as Safe Passage, 70% of the unaccompanied minors crossing the channel come from Afghanistan, and to criminalise them is a criminal act in itself?
Yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Government must reflect carefully on this over the course of the summer, and change their ways before we come back and debate these matters again.
I will make some progress before giving way again.
We have just had it demonstrated that the hostile attitude and approach to refugees truly exists and extends to those from Afghanistan. Since the most recent conflict began, in 2001, the Home Office has rejected asylum for 32,000 Afghans, including 875 girls. The total number of Afghans in the system stands at 3,117, so if we are to have any confidence that this is a turning point, this UK Government need to rethink radically how they respond to the refugee crisis unfolding before our eyes.
No one in this House can fail to be moved by the scenes from Afghanistan we are seeing on our television screens, and I am delighted to hear that the Scottish Government stand ready to do their part. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm how many refugees the Scottish Government are ready to resettle?
I will discuss that a little later on—[Interruption.] I have to say to Government Members that these are serious issues. I welcome the hon. Member’s intervention, and I will give the real-life example of what happened with Syria. Scotland took 15% of the refugees who came from Syria—
Twenty per cent.—so we have done our bit, and we stand ready to do our bit again. I commit myself as leader of the SNP here, and I commit my Government to work with the Government here in London—but they have to extend the hand of friendship to us.
Let us hope that refugees do not become a political football in this place. All of us—all of us—care desperately about giving these people safe haven. We welcome them in the highlands, we welcome them everywhere, but does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the proper finance to support our local authorities must be forthcoming from the UK Government and the Scottish Government, because without it our councils will struggle?
Yes, I agree, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because I know that he will associate himself with me in saying that we will extend 100,000 welcomes to those who wish to come to the highlands of Scotland.
We have called for a four-nations summit to integrate our efforts across the United Kingdom. I hope that the Prime Minister will respond positively and take the opportunity to meet the devolved Administrations to discuss this. Perhaps he will indicate now that he is happy to do that.
We have it on the record that the Prime Minister is happy to do that—that he is happy to have a four-nations summit. I am grateful.
There has been much focus today on making sure we offer sanctuary for people from Afghanistan, but last night I was speaking to my Carmyle constituent Mohammad Asif, who is originally from Afghanistan. He wants to make sure that we also offer humanitarian protection to those who are already seeking asylum in the City of Glasgow. On the point made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), yes, the City of Glasgow has done its fair share to welcome refugees and we stand ready to do a lot more, but I have to say to him that 30 refugees per parliamentary constituency is a paltry number that he should be ashamed of.
At the end of the day, it is important that we all do what we can. I commend Glasgow City Council and Glasgow’s MPs and MSPs, but it is the people of Glasgow who have done so much to welcome asylum seekers to their city.
We believe that the resettlement scheme should emulate and exceed the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. It must also be enacted and deployed much more quickly than the Syrian scheme. Afghan refugees should not—and cannot—wait for up to five years for safety. They need safe passage and they need it now. The scheme should be open to Afghans who supported UK Government-funded programmes and who worked for the UK and other international organisations. It should have a minimum commitment to welcome at least 35,000 to 40,000 Afghan refugees in the UK, in line with the population share of refugees welcomed from Syria.
Three thousand of those Syrian refugees have made Scotland their new home. They have contributed to our economy and our communities. They were Syrians; they are now part of Scotland’s story. They are our friends and neighbours. It is only right that we offer the same warmth and welcome to Afghan refugees facing the same dangerous and desperate situation.
The crisis has thrown into sharp focus the disaster of the overseas development cuts, which were rammed through before the summer recess. When the Prime Minister talks about the increase in spending in Afghanistan, it still does not take us to the level of spending that was previously committed. The cuts to overseas aid were immoral and shameful before this humanitarian emergency. It is now a policy—
Do I not listen? I am afraid that the person who is not listening—maybe he is still on holiday—is the Foreign Secretary. You have not taken the spending back to the level where it was. [Interruption.] No, you are not doubling it.
Order. We do not use “you”, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, because I do not take responsibility, and he would not expect me to.
You certainly do not want to take responsibility for a Foreign Secretary who cannot realise the facts of the matter. You have taken spending to below where it previously was. If you cannot accept that, you cannot even count.
Order. The right hon. Gentleman keeps using “you”. He must come through me. I am the Chair. The Foreign Secretary is not the Chair.
Indeed, Mr Speaker.
It is important that the cuts to overseas aid are reversed in their entirety. [Interruption.] I know that the Foreign Secretary is trying to wind me up. When the rest of us were doing what we could in the past few days, he was lying on a sunbed, so I will not take any lectures from someone like him. People are facing the worst situation imaginable and we have a Foreign Secretary who sits laughing and joking on the Government Front Bench. He should be ashamed of himself. He demonstrates that he has no dignity whatsoever. He can carry on saying that the amount has been doubled—
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We have had 20 minutes of speech and we now have a private conversation between Front Benchers. Should we not be debating the subject, Sir?
That is for me to decide and I have referred twice to both sides trying to antagonise each other, which is not a good idea. Whichever Front Bench it is, they should not be responding. I am sure that Mr Blackford is coming to the end of his speech. He did say that he would not take too long.
Mr Speaker, this is an important matter. Aid spending in Afghanistan is still below what it was meant to be and the Foreign Secretary does not have the decency to understand and accept that. It just shows that he is out of touch with what people want, in the House and across these islands. Perhaps the Foreign Secretary will get a chance to intervene later on, but continuing to chunter from a sedentary position shows, really, that he has no dignity. He ought to have some self-respect.
When it comes to aid, it is telling to reflect on the chasm between the amount invested in this conflict and the amount invested in development. Since 2001, the UK Government have spent around £27.7 billion on military operations in Afghanistan. Over the same period, they have spent approximately £3.8 billion in aid. That amounts to eight times as much spending on military action as on supporting communities or helping to rebuild the country. Those figures alone should make this House seriously reflect on all the priorities, policies and political decisions that have ultimately resulted in this failure, and the failure rests on the shoulders of the Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary. Billions have been invested to support these failed military decisions, and it is the Afghan people who are left paying the ultimate price.
I have concentrated my remarks on the here and now because we understand that the immediate priority must be to do everything that we can to protect lives. But in time there must also be a chance to review how the UK’s involvement in the region went so badly wrong. It is right to put on record today that there must be a future judge-led inquiry into the war in Afghanistan. We owe that to the brave men and women in our military who were sent there—many of them not returning; many of them making the ultimate sacrifice. Let me thank each and every one of those who have given so much to secure peace in Afghanistan.
As we exit Afghanistan, it is our forces that have to go back to facilitate our departure, putting themselves on the frontline once again. It is little wonder that so many of our service personnel and their families are asking what their involvement in Afghanistan was for. We have let Afghanistan down by the nature of our departure, but we have also let down our military. We should salute each and every one of them. They are right to be angry at the political failure. We owe that inquiry, too, to the many professionals and volunteers who were led to believe that they were there to support the Afghan people in building their nation; and we owe it to the future that such a massive foreign policy failure is never again repeated.
It is clear that Afghanistan did not go from relative stability to chaos overnight. The current situation is an acceleration of an existing state of affairs, of which the UK, the US and the Afghan Governments were seemingly unaware. The exit strategy was not properly planned, so it appears that the only people who were planning were the Taliban. There remain so many massive questions for the Prime Minister and his Government. How did the 300,000 men of the Afghan national defence and security forces seemingly vanish overnight? Why was so much trust placed in an Afghan Government that disintegrated the moment that foreign troops left? Why did the UK Government not push for a United Nations-led exit strategy, rather than silently sitting on the sidelines as the US made their decisions? Although history may well cast the final verdict on many of these questions and decisions, we also need the answers and accountability that only a judge-led inquiry can ultimately bring.
I began my remarks by saying that we are witnessing a humanitarian emergency from afar, but the sad reality is that this is by no means close to the first tragedy experienced by the Afghan nation. The story of Afghanistan is of a country and a people torn apart by tragedy time and time again. Over the years, great powers and vast armies have come and gone. It is the Afghan people who have always been left behind. There is, sadly, no evacuation and no escape for them from foreign policy failure. I am sure that many Afghan citizens simply see a cycle endlessly repeating itself. As an international community, we have collectively wronged these poor people for the best part of a century.
We asked the citizens of Afghanistan to work with us. We watched as girls were able to receive an education, as women were able to excel in so many fields, so that a light could be lit, pointing a path to a brighter future for so many to benefit from freedom of opportunity. That light has been extinguished. The future for so many women and girls is dark and forbidding. We have let them down. It is time to do the right thing. For those deserving and in need of our aid and our support, now is the moment to act; now is the moment for leadership.
I am now starting the seven-minute limit. I say to hon. Members: please think of others and try to see if you can shorten your speech, so we can get as many as possible in today.
While the best still apply to join our Royal Navy, the Army, the Royal Marines and the Royal Air Force, we can have hope for the future. We weep for the losses; we acknowledge mistakes; we will remember them. When I, like other MPs, have visited our armed forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Falklands and the former Yugoslavia, I was with ordinary people, working together to achieve remarkable results, of significance to us and often of lifesaving importance to others.
Those who were here for the Saturday debate on the Falklands found, I think, a rather different style of debate, when people were united on what we ought to try to achieve. As Enoch Powell said, the reason to intervene in the Falklands was not that we were guaranteed to succeed, but that the mission was capable of success. That would not have been the case if we were trying to resist, say, China taking Hong Kong.
Our experience in Afghanistan in the 19th century, and in the 20 years’ conflict that has now come to an end, will make people think about whether what was aimed for in Afghanistan after the initial targets were achieved was going to have an end that could be happy or content. I do not think it was an example of trying to resist nationalism, because the forces within Afghanistan are multifarious and have their histories, which I will not go into now.
The second debate, which I have read up on a number of times during my parliamentary service, was the Norway debate, where again there were some speeches of most remarkable intelligence and experience, and others that, frankly, I think people should have been slightly ashamed of. We have to learn that what this Parliament can do is not to be Government but to try to question Government, support Government where appropriate, and get them to change at times.
On the question whether there should be an inquiry, it would be interesting to hear the views of the Chairmen of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees, either today or some other time, because I think that would be useful.
I do not want to spend too much time, because I want to make up some of the time that was used by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), who when he said he was concentrating seems to have lost his concentration once or twice, and when he said he was being wound up, some of us thought ought to have been wound down. [Laughter.]
The key issues are obvious: what is happening now, what happens now and then what lessons can be learned. On what is happening now, the reports given by Ministers both in this House and to Members of Parliament across the Chamber are important and valuable; please can those continue? What can happen will be determined in large part by those who are presently in command in Afghanistan—whether they control Afghanistan is a separate issue—but people may look back and say that the speed of transition, in the end, might have been better than a prolonged start to a civil war. But that is in the future; we cannot judge that and I will not try to do that.
I end by saying this. If we decide that we are not going to get involved in world affairs, the world will be worse. If we decide that we are going to have the capability to work with others when we can, and occasionally on our own, that is fine. But as a Parliament, we ought to be aware that we probably made a mistake in backing Government over one of the Iraq wars. In my view we certainly made a mistake in not backing Government over Syria. If we look at the number of people who have died in Syria and the number of refugees around the world and make the comparison with Afghanistan, I think we probably should be ashamed of our vote over Syria.
I stop now, as an example to others.
It is an honour to follow the Father of the House.
I strongly agree with what was said by the Leader of the Opposition and by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), who speaks with the experience of having served as Prime Minister. I particularly agree with what she said about the threat of terrorism and the need fully to reinstate our aid budget, the issues for NATO and the proud legacy of our troops.
We have all looked on in horror as the events in Afghanistan have unfolded. I join everyone who is urging the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to do everything they can to help UK nationals, including my constituents, who are stranded and in hiding in Kabul, desperately needing to get back home to the UK. We urgently need to evacuate those who worked with us, who thereby feel that they are vulnerable and to whom we have a moral obligation. The Government are setting up a refugee resettlement programme. I urge them to make a realistic and generous assessment of the scale of the need and to work with all local authorities that want to play their part in giving a warm welcome to those who are fleeing. The Government also need to work, of course, with NATO countries and more widely on an international resettlement programme.
We need to think about those who cannot or do not want to leave, particularly women and girls. When the Taliban were last in control, there were literally no girls in school. Now—at least, up until the Taliban took over again—40% of schoolchildren are girls; over the last 20 years, there has been a whole generation of girls who have been educated, and a whole cohort of young women who have been able to work and want to continue to do so.
When the Taliban were last in control, there were no women in public life—no women to speak up for other women. Women were silenced. Now there are 69 women Afghan MPs. Indeed, three years ago, one of them—Elay Ershad—came to this Chamber to speak from the Front Bench while participating in our Women MPs of the World conference, and was welcomed by the former Prime Minister to No. 10 Downing Street. The President has fled but Elay is staying in Kabul with her daughters, in solidarity, she says, with her people. What courage. The Afghan army has retreated, but so many Afghan women are standing their ground. All those women politicians and activists are determined not to let the progress of the last two decades be crushed. They now face great jeopardy. I know that the whole House, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary will express publicly our solidarity with and admiration for Afghan women MPs, who, as parliamentary pioneers—having stepped forward into public life to make a reality of democracy for that half of the population of Afghanistan who are women and girls—are now, in the face of such an uncertain future, determined to protect and defend those rights.
As to what we can do, I would say: do not just listen to the male leaders about what we need to do for women. I say to the Foreign Secretary, do not just speak to the men; pick up the phone to those women Afghan MPs, ask them what we can do to support women and girls in Afghanistan, and then do it.
Like many veterans, this last week has seen me struggle through anger, grief and rage—through the feeling of abandonment of not just a country, but the sacrifice that my friends made. I have been to funerals from Poole to Dunblane. I have watched good men go into the earth, taking with them a part of me and a part of all of us. This week has torn open some of those wounds, has left them raw and left us all hurting. And I know it is not just soldiers; I know aid workers and diplomats who feel the same. I know journalists who have been witnesses to our country in its heroic effort to save people from the most horrific fates. I know that we have all been struggling. If this recall has done one thing, it has achieved one thing already. I have spoken to the Health Secretary, who has already made a commitment to do more for veterans’ mental health. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
This is not just about us. The mission in Afghanistan was not a British mission—it was a NATO mission. It was a recognition that globalisation has changed us all. The phone calls that I am still receiving, the text messages that I have been answering as I have been waiting, putting people in touch with our people in Afghanistan, remind us that we are connected still today, and Afghanistan is not a far country about which we know little. It is part of the main. That connection links us also to our European partners, to our European neighbours and to our international friends, so it is with great sadness that I now criticise one of them, because I was never prouder than when I was decorated by the 82nd Airborne after the capture of Musa Qala. It was a huge privilege to be recognised by such an extraordinary unit in combat. To see their commander-in-chief call into question the courage of men I fought with, to claim that they ran, is shameful. Those who have never fought for the colours they fly should be careful about criticising those who have. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
What we have done in these last few days is demonstrate that it is not armies that win wars. Armies can get tactical victories and operational victories that can hold the line; they can just about make room for peace—make room for people like us to talk, to compromise, to listen. It is nations that make war; nations endure; nations mobilise and muster; nations determine and have patience. Here we have demonstrated, sadly, that we—the west, the United Kingdom—do not.
This is a harsh lesson for all of us, and if we are not careful, it could be a very, very difficult lesson for our allies, but it does not need to be. We can set out a vision, clearly articulated, for reinvigorating our European NATO partners, to make sure that we are not dependent on a single ally, on the decision of a single leader, but that we can work together—with Japan and Australia, with France and Germany, with partners large and small—and make sure that we hold the line together. Because we know that patience wins. We know it because we have achieved it; we know it because we have delivered it. The cold war was won with patience; Cyprus is at peace, with patience; South Korea, with more than 10 times the number of troops that America had in Afghanistan, is prosperous through patience. So let us stop talking about forever wars. Let us recognise that forever peace is bought, not cheaply, but hard, through determination and the will to endure. The tragedy of Afghanistan is that we are swapping that patient achievement for a second fire and a second war.
Now we need to turn our attention to those who are in desperate need, supporting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Programme and so many other organisations that can do so much for people in the region. Yes, of course I support refugees, although I am not going to get into the political auction of numbers. We just need to get people out.
I leave the House with one image. In the year that I was privileged to be the adviser to the governor of Helmand, we opened girls’ schools. The joy it gave parents to see their little girls going to school was extraordinary. I did not understand it until I took my own daughter to school about a year ago. There was a lot of crying when she first went in—but I got over it—[Laughter]—and it went okay. I would love to see that continue, but there is a second image that I must leave the House with. It is a harder one, but I am afraid it is one that we must all remember.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend could say a bit more about that second image.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who was watching the clock more than me.
The second image is one that the forever war that has just reignited could lead to. It is the image of a man whose name I never knew, carrying a child who had died hours earlier into our firebase and begging for help. There was nothing we could do. It was over. That is what defeat looks like; it is when you no longer have the choice of how to help. This does not need to be defeat, but at the moment it damn well feels like it. [Applause.]
Order. Please, this is a very serious debate, and that was a very emotive and very important speech. We must recognise that we have to get through.
It is a genuine honour to follow the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). I thank him, on behalf of the whole House and the whole country, not just for his powerful speech today but for his service and the service of men and women in our armed forces who showed his courage in Afghanistan. I agree with him wholeheartedly that if we are going to look forward, we need to work with our international partners in Europe and across the world. We need to forge new relationships and not be over-dependent on one ally, however important and powerful that ally is. The failure to do that—indeed, the backward steps that this Government have taken in that regard in recent years—is one of the reasons our nation is weaker today, and it has been for far too long.
We are deeply proud of our armed forces, our diplomats and our aid workers who have done so much in Afghanistan, so it has been heartbreaking in the last few days to listen to the families, particularly of the 457 British soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice, asking the question “What was it all for?” and to listen to veterans remembering their comrades. Captain James Kayll, who made two tours of duty in Afghanistan, said on Sunday:
“After years and years of incredibly hard work from remarkable armed services in the country, I don’t know how I could ever, ever look the parents of fallen soldiers in the eye and say that what they did was worth it.”
Will the Prime Minister look our injured veterans and the families of the fallen in the eye and tell them it was worth it, after his foreign policy catastrophe?
The American decision to withdraw was not just a mistake; it was an avoidable mistake, from President Trump’s flawed deal with the Taliban to President Biden’s decision to proceed—and to proceed in such a disastrous way. The human impact on the lives of millions of Afghans, especially women and refugees, is the most obvious and alarming consequence, but the impact on global politics and on Britain’s national security will be so negative that I fear this mistake will affect the lives of millions around the world for years to come.
Coalition forces were in Afghanistan for the protection and security of American and British people just as much as for Afghans. For well over seven years, coalition forces have not been doing the vast bulk of the fighting; the Afghan army has. Like others, when I heard President Biden blame Afghans for not fighting for their country, I could not believe it. He showed no awareness that more than 69,000 members of the Afghan forces have been killed.
I cannot hold President Biden to account in this House, but I can hold our own Government to account. Our Prime Minister and his Cabinet cannot escape their culpability for this disaster—for both the mistaken decision to withdraw, and how the withdrawal has turned into such a catastrophe. From the Prime Minister’s self-evident lack of influence and clout in Washington, to his negligent inability, yet again, to master his brief and plan properly for the withdrawal, today’s occupant of No. 10 has become a national liability.
If the Prime Minister wants to dispel that growing view of him, let him answer the following questions. What role did the British Government play in the negotiations with the Taliban that led to President Trump’s flawed deal with them? Did the Prime Minister raise any concerns with President Biden about the wisdom of withdrawal from Afghanistan? If he did, what impact did he have in changing anything about President Biden’s policy? Either the Prime Minister has a close relationship with the US but failed to exploit it, or he has no close relationship and nothing to put in its place. Frankly, his foreign policy is a total disaster.
On Britain’s withdrawal planning, will the Prime Minister explain why he so misjudged the situation in Afghanistan that he told the House back on 8 July:
“I do not think that the Taliban are capable of victory by military means”?—[Official Report, 8 July 2021; Vol. 698, c. 1112.]
The Prime Minister appears to have had no understanding of the security and defence situation in Afghanistan as recently as last month. Despite being warned in this House and elsewhere that the Taliban would move rapidly on Kabul, his failures, along with President Biden’s, have led directly to the crisis that is unfolding before our eyes.
Afghans who have risked everything to help our soldiers and aid workers are now desperate for our help to escape. Refugees are fleeing in fear of their lives. Women and girls are seeing their futures stolen. Last night’s announcement that the Government are willing to take only 5,000 refugees in the next year utterly fails to respond to this crisis or to meet our obligations to so many Afghans.
Finally, there is the frightening failure to achieve the aim of the whole mission: to keep British people safe from international terrorists trained in Taliban Afghanistan. Where is the worked-through strategy, internationally agreed, to prevent Afghanistan from returning to the vector of terrorism that it once was? There isn’t one. Despite the Government’s having 18 months to prepare, they have not prepared a counter-terrorism strategy with our allies. I guess that that is why this Prime Minister will not ever be able to look the families of the fallen in the eye.
I do not often mention my brother Jonathan, who was killed by an al-Qaeda affiliate in Bali in 2002. That prompted my personal interest in Afghanistan, a distant country that I visited a dozen times over the past two decades to better understand what we were doing to help to rebuild that troubled country. I pay tribute to our armed forces for what they did, and to what the Secretary of State for Defence and the armed forces are doing today in the evacuation.
It is with utter disbelief that I see us make such an operational and strategic blunder by retreating at this time. The decision is already triggering a humanitarian disaster, a migrant crisis not seen since the second world war and a cultural change in the rights of women, and it is once again turning Afghanistan into a breeding ground for terrorism. I am sorry that there will be no vote today because I believe the Government would not have the support of the House.
The Prime Minister is not in the Chamber, but he says that the future of Afghanistan is not written. Well, its future is very much more unpredictable because of our actions. I do not believe for a second that there will be a peaceful transition to the Taliban. They are not universally liked in the country. The Uzbek and Tajik warlords are regrouping as we speak. The Northern Alliance will reform once again and a bloody, terrible civil war will unfold.
Does my right hon. Friend have any advice for the Government on how they could take action to try to prevent the recurrence of a terrorist threat under Taliban control?
My fear is that there will be an attack on the lines of 9/11 to bookend what happened 20 years ago, to show the futility of 20 years. We should never have left—I will come to that in a second—because after 20 years of effort, this is a humiliating strategic defeat for the west. The Taliban control more territory today than they did before 9/11.
I was born in the United States; I am a proud dual national and passionate about the transatlantic security alliance. Prior to him declaring his candidacy, I worked directly with President Biden on veterans’ mental health issues. He was the keynote speaker at a veterans reception here in the House of Commons, as my guest, so it gives me no joy to criticise the President and say that the decision to withdraw, which he inherited, but then chose to endorse, was absolutely the wrong call. Yes, two decades is a long time. It has been a testing chapter for Afghanistan, so the US election promise to return troops was obviously a popular one, but it was a false narrative.
First, the notion that we gave the Afghans every opportunity over 20 years to progress, and that the country cannot be helped forever so it is time to come home, glosses over the hurdles—the own goals—that we created after the invasion. We denied the Taliban a seat at the table back in 2001. They asked to attend the Bonn talks but Donald Rumsfeld said no, so they crossed the Pakistan border to rearm, regroup and retrain. How different the last few decades would have been had they been included. Secondly, we did not start training the Afghan forces until 2005, by which time the Taliban were already on the advance. Finally, we imposed a western model of governance, which was completely inappropriate for Afghanistan, with all the power in Kabul. That was completely wrong for a country where loyalty is on a tribal and local level. That is not to dismiss the mass corruption, cronyism and elitism that is rife across Afghanistan, but those schoolboy errors in stabilisation hampered progress and made our mission harder.
There is also the notion that we cannot fight a war forever. We have not been fighting for the last three years. The US and the UK have not lost a single soldier, but we had a minimalist force there—enough assistance to give the Afghan forces the ability to contain the Taliban and, by extension, give legitimacy to the Afghan Government. The US has more personnel based in its embassy here than it had troops in Afghanistan before retreating. Both the US and the UK have long-term commitments across the world, which we forget about. Japan, Germany and Korea have been mentioned. There is Djibouti, Niger, Jordan and Iraq, and ourselves in Cyprus and Kenya, for example, and the Falklands, too. It is the endurance that counts. Success is not rated on when we return troops home. Such presence offers assurance, represents commitment, bolsters regional stability, and assists with building and strengthening the armed forces. That is exactly what we were doing in Afghanistan.
Last year, the Taliban were finally at the negotiation table in Doha, but in a rush to get a result, Trump struck a deal with the Taliban—by the way, without the inclusion of the Afghan Government—and committed to a timetable for drawdown. All the Taliban had to do was wait. The final question is about whether the UK can lead or participate in a coalition without the US. Where is our foreign policy determined—here or in Washington? Our Government should have more confidence in themselves.
The right hon. Gentleman makes perfectly reasonable and justified criticisms of the way the American Government came to a decision to leave in such haste, but like a number of other right hon. and hon. Members, the implication of his speech is that we somehow could have had an independent Afghan policy without the Americans. Can he explain how?
First, the Americans are not leaving Afghanistan. This is a complete myth. The CIA will remain there, as will special forces and the drone oversight. Why? Because they will be haunted by another terrorist attack. It is the political inclination and the leadership that is disappearing—because of an American president, or two American presidents—and we could have stepped forward and filled the vacuum, but we did not. We need to have more confidence as a Government in ourselves, as we did in the last century. I thought that this was in our DNA. We have the means, the hard power and the connections to lead. What we require is the backbone, the courage and the leadership to step forward, yet when our moment comes, such as now, we are found wanting. There are serious questions to ask about our place in the world, what global Britain really means and what our foreign policy is all about.
We must raise our game. Why? Step back. We seem to be in denial about where the world is going. As I have said in the House many times, threats are increasing. Democracy across the globe is under threat and authoritarianism is on the rise, yet here we are, complicit in allowing another dictatorship to form as we become more isolationist. What was the G7 summit all about? The western reset to tackle growing instability, not least given China, Russia and Iran. Take a look at a map. Where does Afghanistan sit? Right between all three. Strategically, it is a useful country to stay close to, but now we have abandoned it and the Afghan people as well. Shame on us.
I hope that the Government think long and hard about our place in a fast-changing world. Bigger challenges and threats loom over the horizon. We are woefully unprepared and uncommitted. We—the UK and the west—have so many lessons to learn. I repeat my call for an independent inquiry. We must learn these lessons quickly. The west is today a little weaker in a world that is a little more dangerous because we gave up on Afghanistan.
First, I pay my respects to all those military personnel who lost their lives, all those who still have mental health trauma, all those who still suffer from life-long injuries, and all those diplomats, journalists and 69,000 Afghani soldiers who lost their lives during the last 20 years.
In 2001, we went into Afghanistan to say to the people that we would get rid of the military, medieval regime and bring them up to speed as regards what we believed their living standards, education and living systems and style should be. We promised all those women that they could move forward—that they could be judges, politicians and teachers—and that they could learn. We said they could do what we could do—they could do everything that they wanted to do. That was right, because they should be able to do that.
Now, will all those women, and all those judges who wanted to put the system right in Afghanistan, be able to do that? The Taliban are saying, “We will treat everyone fairly, but under Islamic jurisprudence.” Does anybody understand what Islamic jurisprudence is? It is applied by individuals—the people who are in charge in that place. It is applied by those who sit in judgment. Their jurisprudence can be different from that of anybody else in that area. We can say that we have been given these guarantees, but we need to look at what those guarantees will mean to those women and how they will be treated.
Over the past 12 years, we have taken no real action in Afghanistan. The Obama Government dithered over what they wanted to do. The Trump Government did not know what they were doing; they tried to do, and did, backdoor deals with the Taliban. The Biden Government have just come in and, without looking at what is happening on the ground, have taken a unilateral decision, throwing us and everybody else to the fire. They have decided to withdraw in a manner that no military person of any rank would perceive as fit for the arena in which they serve.
What did we do wrong during that period? As the right hon. Members for Maidenhead (Mrs May) and for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) said, we did not understand government there—we did not understand how it worked. Kabul has never been Afghanistan’s only entity. The people who ran the Government we placed there were totally corrupt, with hardly any mandate, and there for themselves. As we have seen, the current President has run away, leaving all those brave women to stay and believe in what they believe in. That was the Government we supported. Had we looked at the regional possibilities, the regional government that was in place and what the regional warlords were playing at, we would have understood the force of the Taliban, their training and how many people had been gathering in their ranks. We did not do that, and that is why we are suffering the consequences.
President Biden has decided to pull out because he does not believe that there is now a direct threat to the US. I do not know where he has got that intelligence from, but let us see how that goes. He needs to understand that this is about not just terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan, but the economic war going on in the region. By vacating Afghanistan and not speaking to its neighbour Pakistan, he will now provide a clear corridor for China and Russia to come through. It is not about a 20-year war, but about the current situation, the economy and the area’s geographical position. I hoped that he would understand that but, unfortunately, I do not think that he has managed to.
We need to ensure that we address the refugees fleeing into Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of people are crossing the border, but the Prime Minister did not once mention what relationship he has with Pakistan, what work he is doing with it, what support he will give it, or how he will speak to it about what to do. If we do not support those refugees and we do not understand what is going on, they will be left to the people traffickers who want to exploit them. Children will lose their lives in the seas and God knows where else.
We need co-ordination. We know enough to move forward and not make mistakes that we have already made. We need to work this properly, look to the region, support the people at source and resolve these issues, not leave it all until the very end.
I want to make three broad points about what has gone on over the past week. I want to talk about this place’s responsibility towards those who serve, and our Afghan friends and partners. I also want to speak, if I can, for veterans of the conflict to whom I have spoken over the past week.
When it comes to responsibility, I urge Ministers to be very careful about talking exclusively about the Americans. We are very clear, and it is well understood, that the US is, or was, the framework nation in Afghanistan, but people who join the military from council estates in Plymouth, Newcastle, Stoke or Birmingham do not serve the American flag; they serve the British flag. They are proud to do so, and they do it at the behest of Ministers in this place. It dishonours their service simply to say, “The Americans have left—we are leaving.” We do not spend £40 billion a year on a tier 1 military for it to be unable to go out the door without the Americans, and the taxpayer does not expect that. I urge Ministers to take responsibility for the decisions that they make, particularly when talking with the families.
I wish to talk about our Afghan friends and partners. I am pleased with the announcement today on refugees; it is a good start. People can talk numbers; they can say that they want more or that they want fewer, but the reality is—this is basic maths—that we will not get out of Afghanistan all those whom we promised to get out. We can say that we want more, or that we want fewer, but that is the reality. The truth is as well that we have to be honest in this place. For many, many years, people have campaigned against this relocation scheme and the previous intimidation scheme and said that it was not good enough. Decisions made by Ministers in this House have made this situation harder, so, although I welcome this change today and our onward progression, let us not kid ourselves about what has happened in the past and let us treat with a little more respect those who, with no self-interest, campaign for these people.
Finally, I want to speak to veterans and for veterans. Over the past few days, it has become clear to me that we are dealing with new feelings—Help for Heroes put out something on this yesterday. We are not trained to lose and we are not trained to deal with the way that Ministers are choosing to be defeated by the Taliban. Was it all for nothing? Of course, it was not for nothing, and we must get away from that narrative. Whether we like this or not it is a fact that, for a period of time, Afghans—the average age in Afghanistan is 18 years old—will have experienced the freedom and privileges that we enjoy here, and no one will ever take that away from them, which is incredibly important. What are we here to do if it is not to be good, honourable people, to fight for the oppressed, to keep our families safe and to live to a higher calling? Our veterans did this over many years in some of the hardest conditions and against as dark an enemy as this nation has ever faced. We often look to our forefathers for inspiration. They emulated them. They did them proud, not in scale but in the same amphitheatre, They can be forever proud of what they did when the nation called. I say to them, “You played your role, but you cannot control what is happening now—remember that. What folk like me saw you do—the courage, the sacrifice and the humanity—will never die and it has defined us as human beings. You did that and nobody will ever take that away. I will never forget you. Every day the sun comes up, I will make sure that this place and this country do not forget you and your sacrifice on the altar of this nation’s continuing freedom.”
The Government must now step up and support this group of bereaved families and veterans. We will see a bow wave of mental health challenges. We are not trained to cope with the feelings that we have now. I have done everything that I possibly could to support all the brilliant staff at the Ministry of Defence, the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, and the NHS, which works tirelessly supporting veterans up and down this country, but I must say to the House with a heavy heart that the Prime Minister has consistently failed to honour what he said that he would do when he was trying to become Prime Minister. He must not wriggle out of his commitments on this issue. He knows that the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is nothing like it was designed to be: the paltry £5 million funding was slashed after less than a year, there was a lack of staff, and there was not even an office from which to work. Even today, the brilliant staff at the Office for Veterans’ Affairs simply cannot cope with the scale of the demand. While his predecessors may get away with a certain degree of ignorance in this space, I am afraid that the Prime Minister has no excuse on this issue; it is a political choice. The ambivalence needs to end, and he needs to step up and listen to the charities and to the veterans, not to those whom he chooses to employ around him who do not believe veterans’ issues are worth the political capital required. The nation cares, and we will make this Government care. The scale of the challenge of dealing with this Afghan generation is only just beginning. I pay tribute to everybody who has spoken up in this debate, but particularly to those who do not have a vested interest in Afghanistan and can see the inherent injustice of what is happening now. Thank you, Mr Speaker, for recalling the House today.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), as it is the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). They all spoke with great eloquence.
Like many hon. Members, I am wracked with a profound sadness at the catastrophe that has unfolded in Afghanistan. Above all, it is an unspeakable tragedy for the people of that country, who, after generations of conflict, now live under a terrible cloud of fear and repression. Who could fail to be moved by the agonising scenes from Kabul airport just this week? How desperate must someone have to be to want to cling on to the side of a moving aircraft? These past 20 years have been a struggle for peace. We tried to break the cycle of war, and to give hope to women and girls. We tried to give the Afghans a different life—one of hope and opportunity—but the catastrophic failure of international political leadership and the brutality of the Taliban have snatched all of that away from them. The new Administration in Kabul should know that they will be judged not by their words, but by their actions. The world is watching.
I want to reflect on the service and sacrifice of our brave servicemen and women, who have showed outstanding professionalism and courage throughout. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View said just a moment ago, recent developments have hit them hard, and they are grappling with the question of whether all the effort and sacrifice was really worth it. They are again grieving for fallen comrades who did not come home. Whatever the outcome in Afghanistan, those men and women, and their families, should be proud of their service, and we must be proud of them.
Many of us who served in Afghanistan have a deep bond of affection for the Afghan people, and I had the honour of serving alongside them in Helmand. We trained together, fought together and, in some cases, died together. They were our brothers in arms. I shudder to think where those men are now. Many will be dead, and I know others now consider themselves to be dead men walking. Where were we in their hour of need? We were nowhere. That is shameful, and it will have a very long-lasting impact on Britain’s reputation right around the world.
The hon. Gentleman—a fellow litigant—is absolutely right in his description of the Afghan armed forces. Will he add that many of them are more heroic and better soldiers than they are given credit for around the world?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, as always, and I completely agree with the point he made. It was particularly distasteful and dishonouring of President Biden to make reference to the lack of courage and commitment from those Afghan soldiers, who have served with such bravery and distinction.
We have to be pragmatic, and at this difficult point we must think about what our next move will be. We should understand that the character of our country is defined, for better or for worse, by moments such as this. We should also understand that we face a moral and humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions, and the response from the international community and the British Government needs to meet the magnitude of the moment. We must step up the statecraft and engage with international allies and alliances, and with regional partners. Although it is a particularly bitter pill to have to swallow, we must engage diplomatically with the new regime in Kabul. It is in our cold-headed national interest to do so, because right now our armed forces are deployed on an operation to recover UK nationals and other entitled personnel. It is in their interests that we engage to try to ensure the safe passage of those who want to leave.
We also know that many, many more will want to get out, and with our allies we need to work to establish safe routes to get them to safety. We must show compassion and genuine generosity to refugees, while accelerating and expanding the ARAP scheme to support those who supported us.
We also need to defend the hard-won progress of the past 20 years or so—girls in school and women in Parliament and the judiciary. We must ensure that Afghanistan does not slide back to where it was pre-9/11. Then, when the dust settles, we need to look at what went wrong and learn the lessons of this failure: why, despite all the effort, could we not build an Afghan state free of corruption, with the legitimacy and competence to balance the competing forces in that country, and what does that now mean for our foreign and defence policy in this country?
Regardless of all that, we must remain engaged; we must show leadership; we must use whatever influence we have to try to make things better. That is in our own national interest, it is in line with our values, and it is the right thing to do. We owe it to the people of Afghanistan and we owe it to ourselves.
It has been said that there are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades pass. What we are seeing in Afghanistan this week is decades, and they will shape the rest of my lifetime and that of many in this Chamber. This was a wholly preventable tragedy, and I and many colleagues around me are so very, very angry.
Our Government called for NATO allies to help us build a new coalition in Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban recapturing it, and we were let down. Only Turkey was willing to stand alongside us because they know what a failed state looks like. They have seen the refugees they support; they have seen the terrorists on their doorstep; they have seen the conflict and the suffering. It is bitterly disappointing and there is much we must learn from this. The UK could not have saved all those lives on our own. Multilateral collective responsibility should mean something, but I believe that too often today, it does not.
I have spent the last few days listening to our veterans, many of whom live in Rutland and Melton. I say to them now: many of us in this place will never truly understand the scars you carry, and we will never understand all you encountered, but all of you left me with one request—get the people out. That is what I, along with so many of my colleagues in this place, have been fighting for over the last few days: the veterans, the interpreters who supported families, those who identified IEDs, the female journalists fighting for their lives who have already had mines blow up their stations, and those who negotiated for their fellow Afghans against the Taliban. I must thank the Defence Secretary because he has been constant in his support, every hour over the weekend, to help me to get those people out. I thank him for his time.
Getting people out must be our priority. I welcome the Prime Minister’s G7-led multilateral refugee programme. We have to get non-combatant evacuations proceeding at pace, but we are operating only with the consent of the Taliban—most certainly at the airport—and that can be withdrawn at any time, so my primary concern is those safe routes to the airport. The air bridge must be operational at all times and we must negotiate departures, and not just from Kabul. Land convoys must be considered humanitarian corridors.
Once we get those people out, we must ensure that refugee families are welcome to our country so that they can build the lives they never asked for. The kindness of the British people is great, and Melton Borough Council and Harborough District Council have both already stepped up to the plate and said that they would like to take as many refugees as they can. The MOD is working with me to identify MOD housing stock in Rutland and across the constituency of Rutland and Melton, but I call on the Government to consider creating an initiative that allows British nationals to open their homes, their spare bedrooms and their second homes to those Afghans, similar to the private sponsorship route that already exists, because the British people want to step up and help.
Beyond the immediate life-saving operations, there is much that we must talk about. First, the British Government and the international community must recognise that the withdrawal is emblematic of a changing American posture. The comments that we have seen over the last few days have rattled me to my core, and yes, we are not meant to speak ill of our friends and allies, but in this case, we have no alternative but to call out the comments against our Afghan allies.
Secondly, the views of European allies such as the UK may no longer hold the same sway in Washington under this presidency. That means that we must take greater responsibility for our defence around the world. Global Britain means that we must act autonomously, but through multilaterals on the world stage with other partners, and we must convince our NATO allies that we can all stand together without the Americans. Yes, they bring the kit; yes, they bring the money; yes, they bring the numbers, but this is something that we can and must do. We must shift from the model of being over-reliant on the US.
Thirdly, we must fix our broken international system because it is not saving lives. The UN has failed to enable a political solution. There is no meaningful method or tactics to prevent the worst excesses of the Taliban, and the system is being undermined by hostile money flooding fragile states. There are hostile states sitting on the human rights and women’s councils of all the organisations of the multilateral world. It is the UK’s duty to fix the international system, because we can do it. I have sat at the negotiating tables, and it is the UK that brings countries together behind the scenes and provides the bureaucracy and systems that allow coalitions to be effective. We must recognise our unique expertise and step up.
We must also look hard at our strategic goals in south Asia, because China is most certainly doing that. Its goals are securing influence against Pakistan, stripping minerals and creating an alternative, superior democratic track. Its plunder diplomacy is well under way, and it is already using the situation to threaten Taiwan. It is saying, “Look what the Americans will do. They will leave you.” By recognising the Taliban, China has taken the first step towards creating an alternative international mechanism. The gravitational shift is towards it, and we must stand strong against that.
I also urge caution about our posture towards the Taliban. I must confess that I see what is being laid before the international community as simply platitudes—little more than a tactic to allow the Taliban to consolidate its control, avoid sanctions, keep the aid money rolling in, root out all those on its hit list and avoid UN Security Council measures. Perhaps I am wrong, but Pashtunwali tells us that Taliban intent includes justice or revenge as one of the core tenets of its society and way of life. We must also adequately monitor al-Qaeda.
The human cost of this withdrawal is monumental, but the strategic consequences risk being so much greater if we do not learn the lessons of the past few decades. We must properly focus on atrocity prevention. The new conflict centre, which I fought for, must lead our way in deciding how we become more strategic. We cannot be everywhere in this world and we cannot rescue every mission, but we can work on two core principles. The first is to protect our nation, our people and our prosperity. We must be single-minded in our focus on that and incredibly strategic. The second is that we must live up to our promises so that we can look in the eye those to whom we and our veterans have made promises, and stand squarely behind them. We cannot go wrong if that guides our foreign policy.
Finally, I thank our armed forces, our border staff, our Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office staff and Sir Laurie Bristow for the heroic work they are doing to get people out. I have worked in a crisis centre and I know the hours they are working. We are grateful for all they are doing. They are putting their lives at risk for the duty and responsibilities of this House.
We speak today in a changed world. I have no doubt that we will open our hearts to the people of Afghanistan. Together, we in this House must mourn those who are left behind and those who will not make it. Our singular purpose must be atrocity prevention in the future. We must recognise where the threats to this country lie and ensure that we are single-minded in our focus on challenging them and protecting our people. We must ensure that, in a world that has become darker and more uncertain this week, at least we know the light that we will follow.
We in this House and our constituents have all seen the chaos and speed of the Taliban takeover. One of the questions that we have to address today and in the days to come is: how did it happen and what lessons are to be learned?
The points that I want to make this afternoon are about the people we, the British people, cannot let down. First, we cannot let down the British veterans who, over 20 years, fought in Afghanistan, particularly in Helmand—one of the most dangerous provinces to fight in. I can do no better than quote Jack Cummings, who has been quoted in recent days.
He is a former British soldier who lost both legs on 14 August 2010 while searching for improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan. They are a few simple sentences, but they are worth repeating. He said:
“Was it worth it, probably not. Did I lose my legs for nothing, looks like it. Did my mates die in vain. Yep.”
We as a House of Commons and as a Parliament should not and cannot let down Jack Cummings and those 457 British soldiers who died in Afghanistan. As a Parliament, we will have to continue this debate to understand the lessons to be learned from what is happening to Afghanistan at the present time.
The other people we cannot let down are the people of Afghanistan. We know how many of them have died. We know that even as we speak, there are women and girls in their homes, in hiding or running away who are frightened for their future, their prospects and their lives under this Taliban regime. In the political solution, the debate and the discussion with NATO allies we must have the future of those Afghan women and girls at the centre of everything we are talking about and trying to do.
In the past 20 years, it is not just that 457 British soldiers died—although that is tragic, which is why I mentioned it—it is that we gave those women and girls hope. We gave them hope of a better future and of the prospects that women and girls all over the world, including here in Britain, have. We cannot just sit back and have them see that hope snatched away. We cannot let down the people of Afghanistan and we cannot let down those women and girls.
Finally, we cannot let down the refugees who we know will be pouring out of Afghanistan. The debate on refugees in the British Parliament is sometimes a little complex and difficult, and sometimes people have more to say about the burden of refugees than about our moral responsibility to them, but, speaking as someone who was in this House 20 years ago when we voted on an Adjournment for this military intervention, we have an extraordinary moral responsibility to these refugees. We have a responsibility to towns and cities all over this country, including in Scotland, that may well need more support and finance from Government, but we cannot let down those refugees. Our political and moral responsibility is too great.
It has been tragic to see the chaos of the Taliban takeover, but, if we do the right thing by our veterans, the Afghan people and refugees, we can at least know as a country that we have followed on from the initiative we took 20 years ago to intervene in that region to bear down on terrorism and disorder. I did not vote for the intervention in Afghanistan 20 years ago; I am afraid it was foreseeable that it would end like this. However, it is not inevitable that we as a country and this as a Parliament will not do the right thing. I urge colleagues on both sides of the House to address the important issue being raised today, so that we can go forward in pride and confidence in our own understanding of our moral responsibilities.
In his speech of self-justification after the collapse of Kabul, President Biden reduced a complex military issue to only two stark alternatives. It was a gross over-simplification for him to pose a devil’s dilemma between either a massive troop surge on a never-ending basis or a ruthless, chaotic and dishonourable departure. It is ruthless because people who trusted NATO will pay a terrible price; chaotic because of a lack of foresight to plan an orderly and properly protected departure; and dishonourable because even if our open-ended, nation-building, micromanagement strategy was wrong, as I think it was, in 20 years we created expectations and obligations which those who relied on us had a right to expect us to fulfil, as the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) has just said.
It has been pointed out correctly that for 20 years, NATO operations in Afghanistan succeeded in preventing further al-Qaeda attacks on the west from being launched under Taliban protection. That was indeed the key outcome, but unless we choose a better future strategy, the threat of its reversal is all too real. Not only may sanctuary on Afghan soil again be offered to lethal international terrorists, but other Islamist states may also decide to follow suit. How, then, should we have handled a country like Afghanistan when it served as a base and a launchpad for al-Qaeda, and how should we deal with such situations in the future?
These are my personal views on a defence issue unrelated to the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee. For the past 10 years, I have argued both inside and outside this Chamber, very often to the dismay of my parliamentary colleagues, that a form of containment rather than counter-insurgency is the only practical answer to international terrorist movements sheltered and sponsored by rogue regimes like the Taliban. Containment, as older colleagues will remember, was the policy that held the Soviet Union in check throughout the cold war until its empire imploded and its ideology was discredited. Islamist extremism has a subversive reach similar to that of revolutionary communism, and our task is to keep it at bay until it collapses completely or evolves into tolerant, or at least tolerable, alternative doctrines.
In Afghanistan, the task of overthrowing the Taliban and driving al-Qaeda into exile was quickly accomplished in 2001, and at that point NATO arrived at a fork in the road. The option selected was, as we know, an open-ended commitment to impose a western version of democracy and protect it indefinitely in a country that had a strong sense of its own political and social culture and which was known to be politically allergic to foreign intervention.
Yet there was another option available to western strategists in response to the 9/11 attacks. Having achieved our immediate objectives of putting al-Qaeda to flight and punishing the Taliban, we should have announced that we were completely removing our forces but would promptly return by land and air to repeat the process if international terrorist groups were again detected in Afghanistan. When the Taliban regain full territorial control, they will lose their shield of invisibility. If they then choose to pose or facilitate a renewed threat—a terrorist threat—to western security, they should expect both their leadership and their military capability to be hit hard by our mobile land and air forces. That cycle would be repeated until the threat was removed, but we should not and would not allow our forces to be sucked in again.
My right hon. Friend is making some very important points. Has the game not changed slightly, though, with the immediate recognition of the Taliban Government by China and Russia? As they are permanent members of the Security Council, it will be very difficult to get any UN-led action in the way he describes.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right but, of course, this was a NATO intervention, and it is to NATO that we have to look when there are serious threats to international security, particularly those affecting western interests.
The point is that it has to be flexible, because al-Qaeda itself is very flexible. An active containment policy of this sort can track and match the flexibility of the terrorists. Such a policy depends on the maintenance of integrated and highly mobile land forces, positioned in regional strategic base and bridgehead areas.
My right hon. Friend is Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and for this strategy to be successful it requires excellent intelligence with good analysis so that Ministers can make sound decisions. In this case, I fear that has not been the case. Does his Committee have any plans to investigate the intelligence failures in this case so that we can deliver the strategy he is so excellently setting out?
I am glad that my right hon. Friend approves of the strategy, but I said earlier that this speech on defence is, if anything, in my capacity as a former Chairman of the Defence Committee. I am not in a position at this stage to say anything publicly about what the ISC might or might not agree to do, but obviously his suggestion is pertinent.
The point about strategic base and bridgehead areas is that they contain integrated forces that are ready to strike and then withdraw, and then to strike again whenever and wherever needed––in Afghanistan or in any other susceptible state that becomes what our Defence Secretary and now our Prime Minister have rightly described as “breeding grounds” for al-Qaeda or similar international terrorist groups. Proportionate military initiatives could be taken, and interventions made, without undue logistical complexity and without getting sucked into full scale counter-insurgency campaigning while the terrorists redirect their efforts to neighbouring countries, leaving us mired in the original countries from which they operated.
Active containment is the hard-headed solution to an otherwise intractable dilemma: whether to allow terrorists to attack us with impunity or whether to shoulder the unending burden of indefinitely occupying every reckless rogue state that shelters and supports them. It is okay for people to say, “This is over. There is no way we are going back into Afghanistan.” However, I do not want to be here, in the years or months to come, after another spectacular al-Qaeda type attack on a western country, with people looking around once again for a strategy because we are in a situation, as it seems we are, where the President of the United States can see only total withdrawal on one side or endless commitment on the other.
There is a flexible middle way, and it is an adaptation of the way in which we successfully saw off our cold war confrontation. It worked then, in a very different context, and it would work now in this context, too.
There are, obviously, a great many colleagues trying to catch my eye. After the next contribution, I will have to reduce the time limit to five minutes.
Today, as we look on at the situation in Afghanistan, we think first and foremost of the plight of the people of that beleaguered country. It is my view that today is not a day for political point scoring. It is a day for this House to reflect on what we need to do, as a Parliament and a Government, to respond to this crisis. While people have made valid points in this debate, and while I respect that, I think that the people in Afghanistan—the desperate people at Kabul airport—do not want to hear our point scoring. They want to know what we are going to do to help them, and that is what we must turn our mind to.
I also want to pay tribute today, as have other right hon. and hon. Members, to our brave servicemen and women and others who have served our countries, in particular those who have sacrificed their lives in Afghanistan. I want to recall in particular the nine service personnel from Northern Ireland who gave their lives in Afghanistan during operations there. I am going to name those individuals, because I think it is worthy that we remember who these people and their families are at this time: Channing Day, a young woman from Comber in County Down who was killed in action; David Dalzell, 20 years old, from Bangor in County Down; Aaron McCormick, 22 years old, from Macosquin in County Londonderry; Stephen McKee, 27 years old, from Banbridge in County Down; Nigel Moffett, 29 years old, from Belfast; David Patton, 38, from Aghadowey in County Antrim; Neal Turkington, 26, from Craigavon in County Armagh; and in my own constituency, Stephen Walker, from Lisburn, 42 years old, and Captain Mark Hale, 42 years old, from Dromara in County Down.
Almost all the counties in Northern Ireland—indeed, probably all of them—are represented by that roll call. We are very proud of our armed forces and the fact that during the campaign in Afghanistan more reserve forces were deployed from our region than from any other part of the United Kingdom. The willingness of our men and women to give up their time to volunteer to serve in our armed forces needs also to be recognised, and we support them. I certainly do not adhere to the view that their sacrifice was in vain. We applaud what they have done, even though now we look upon political failure in Afghanistan.
We need to learn the lessons from that. We need to understand what has gone wrong, but first and foremost we must look to the humanitarian assistance that is now urgently required, especially for those men and women who supported our armed forces in Afghanistan. I, like many in this House, have been contacted by veterans who know interpreters and civilian staff who worked in Camp Bastion and other military bases occupied by the British armed forces. They are desperate to know what we are going to do to help those men and women, who now face—well, goodness knows what plight they may suffer at the hands of the Taliban. We need to step up now. As they stepped up for us during the war in Afghanistan, we now must step up for them and offer sanctuary to these courageous people and their families.
We need also to consider the plight of religious minorities, to which my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) referred earlier, including Christians, who now face massive persecution in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is ranked second only to North Korea in terms of religious persecution against Christians and others. We must not lose sight of that in the midst of all this.
Then of course there is the threat of international terrorism—the reason why we entered Afghanistan in the first place. The Prime Minister is right: we must now take all reasonable steps to ensure that Afghanistan does not once again become a location for the training of extremist terrorists—a base from which to launch attacks on the western world. We must ensure that our intelligence capacity is enhanced. I look on with trepidation when I consider some of the intelligence failures that we have witnessed in recent times. We must do more to resource our intelligence services to ensure that we know and understand what is happening in Afghanistan, particularly in relation to the Taliban and their links to extremist Islam, and the potential for international terrorism now having a safe haven from which to operate.
My final point is on overseas aid. I am not going to point score, but I simply make say that we cannot seriously at this time contemplate cutting our international aid budget when people are in absolute desperation. It is a mark of this country that it is strong in its humanity and its desire to help others, and we must do that now. Stepping up to the mark does not mean just in military terms. It does not mean just in defence or political terms; it means with our heart as well. We must reach out to those in need and ensure that they have the support and resources they require. Yes, there will be time to look at what went wrong, and a time perhaps for political recrimination. But now is the time for this country to stand tall, step up, and do what is necessary to help the people in Afghanistan, especially those who helped us during the war.
The visions on television sets the other day very much were redolent of 1975. No matter what Secretary of State Blinken said, the parallels with the Americans’ departure from Saigon were shocking, but also very true. My point is that the way we withdraw matters almost as much as the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan—I will return to that in a moment. The chaotic, ghastly departure, the way that people were falling off aircraft in their determination to get away, and the helicopters shipping people out, say terrible things about the values that we hold and those we wish to protect. This is a shame on all of us, not just America, but also the whole of NATO and here for us in this House.
We know that US support for the military in Afghanistan had evaporated and there was pressure to leave, but there was a better way. The US non-partisan Afghanistan study group came forward and said that over the past 18 months the US had suffered no casualties at all. It had withdrawn directly from the frontline, and the same for the UK. We were giving support, help and aid to those on the frontline, including the 70,000 members of the Afghan forces who died and of whom we should be incredibly proud today.
The Prime Minister reminded the House that the Afghans lost 70,000 men whom we helped to train and whom we fought alongside, even though some of them were not paid for many months because of endemic corruption in Kabul. Does my right hon. Friend agree that to imply, as some have, that they basically ran away, when for 10 years and more they had done precisely the opposite, is shameful?
There is no question but that is an infamous statement to make. Those men and women lost their lives trying to uphold what we had brought to Afghanistan, and we should be proud of them. I say to the American President—the Government and even the Opposition leadership are perhaps reluctant to say this—that he has no right to use excuses and base them on people who have lost their lives, and done so bravely. The withdrawal of air support was critical at that moment. The moment that went, the Taliban got a green light and knew they were going to go in and that the Afghan forces could not be supported. That was a critical decision. It was done in a hurry, and it was wrong.
As I said earlier, the Afghanistan study group said that there was no need for this precipitative departure by America. It could have kept a number of forces there at a much lower cost, supporting those on the frontline, and we could have supported it in doing that. I ask my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, did we at any stage demand that the US Government review their decision? Did we say to them that this was wrong, or that we must find a way to support what we have started in Afghanistan? I am proud of what our troops achieved and I know they will feel deserted at this point. I did not serve in Afghanistan, but I served in Northern Ireland and I know what the feeling is. However, I say that today those who died rise in glory because they gave something to the Afghans—hope. We must find a way of ensuring that it is not dashed.
On the point about hope, I think of the 45-year-old woman in Kabul on Sunday who spent 20 years being oppressed and having access to education reduced, then spent 20 years with good fortune, raising a family with women and girls, and now faces all that being taken away. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to offer her hope as well?
We do. The problem is that we and the Americans have pulled out. We now have to find a way to support people. Those who need to come here must come, the doors must be open and we must do what we have to do.
The west, upholding democracy, the rule of law and human rights, is in retreat. We have now opened the door to the Chinese and the Russians, who by the way kept their embassies open, fully staffed, throughout the whole of this, with permission from the Taliban. The Chinese have recognised the Taliban and we see the Chinese Foreign Minister meeting them. What are we dealing with here? Let me read what the Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Government, said yesterday about Taiwan:
“From what happened in Afghanistan, those in Taiwan should perceive that once a war breaks out in the Straits, the island’s defense will collapse in hours and US military won’t come to help.”
That will have gone out according to President Xi’s directive. The Chinese know what they are dealing with. They now believe that we will not stand up for freedom and democracy. We have encouraged totalitarian and terrible, oppressive states to believe that we are in full retreat.
After Saigon, America left the global stage for a decade and there were terrible consequences, including in Iran. We cannot allow that to happen again. I criticised America for what has happened, but I also know that they are our greatest and best allies, and the best hope of freedom. We need to bring them back. The British Government’s job is to bring the Americans back to realise their commitment. All those years ago, John Kennedy said:
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
That should enshrine our purpose.
Democracy and human rights are delicate flowers. They are not the natural state of being unless they are defended, and we must defend them wherever they are. Yes, there are costs and there is a better way in Afghanistan, but in the chaotic rush and despicable retreat from Kabul, we have heartened and emboldened those who would bring democracy down.
When pressed about the matter, President Reagan said:
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction… It has to be fought for”.
I hope the US listens to that quote. We in this House take liberties for granted. We must speak out. America must come back and we must send a signal immediately that we will not give way, that the totalitarian states of China and Russia cannot win in the end and that Islamic extremism cannot find a bolthole. Yes, we want to say that the Taliban must step up, but what will we do about it? We must put means behind words. The House must make that happen.
We have heard many sobering words in this debate already. I pay particular tribute to the words from our colleagues who have themselves served in Afghanistan, to all their colleagues over many years and to all those in our armed forces, particularly those who have lost their lives, including two brave soldiers from Castleford, Rifleman James Backhouse and Bombardier Craig Hopson. I also pay tribute to those who have worked in our aid agencies and for partner organisations to support development and education projects and to try to rebuild a future for Afghanistan, and to all those who have rightly worked so hard and made it possible for families to live in some semblance of security and for girls—children—to be able to go to school for many years.
That is what makes it so disturbing, shameful and distressing to watch the events in Afghanistan right now: people who worked with us and helped us now hiding, their lives at risk; women and girls forced to hide in their homes simply because they are women and girls; hard-line extremists and terrorists back in charge, creating a security risk across the globe; and no evident strategy from the US, the UK and our allies, but what instead looks like just a chaotic retreat. We have a responsibility to respond, so I want to focus particularly on some of the practical things that should and can be done now to address the humanitarian crisis that we face.
First, I turn to those who have put their lives at risk by working with us. I welcome the Afghan relocation and assistance policy, but it is too narrow. It refers to directly employed staff. For the last 20 years, much of the work of the UK Government, including aid work and nation rebuilding work, has been through contracts with UK agencies and organisations. The Taliban do not recognise the complexities of a contracting-out process, so many of those lives are also at risk.
Some organisations have been in touch with their staff and former employees. One has told me that a woman who worked on the UK aid programme for three years and is now in hiding in Kabul has said this weekend:
“only 3 weeks ago one of my neighbours told me that when they come he would tell them who I am and who my family is. A couple of days ago, a strange man told me in the streets, ‘I know where you work and who you are.’
I fear seeing my kids tortured in front of my eyes or having my skin peeled off while I am alive. We remain locked inside, fearful of even looking out of the window—every time the door knocks fear goes through my whole body and I fear they are coming for me.”
Another, who provided secure accommodation for UK embassy staff and British aid workers, has said:
“Taliban fighters arrived at my father’s home this week asking for me by name. I just left my home city three days before and my father told the Taliban I had gone abroad for medical treatment. The fighters still forced their way into the house and searched every room.”
We have obligations to these people.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend, along with many other Members across the House, have been contacted by people desperately worried about loved ones in Afghanistan. One of my constituents has contacted me, saying that his pregnant wife is in Afghanistan now. The Taliban have taken out the communication signals, so he is unable to contact her. He did not put in an application for her to come to this country because of the English language requirement on the application form. Surely now is the time to relax that rule temporarily to allow these people to come to our country.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. This is the kind of flexibility that the UK Government could adopt right now. We need such measures for those who have families at risk, but we also need urgently to review and broaden the scope of the relocation scheme. The Home Secretary said in interviews this morning that those who have worked for NGOs that delivered UK aid programmes would also be included. I say to the Foreign Secretary that that is not happening on the ground right now; it is not reflected in the guidance that the Government are operating at the moment or in the application process, and people are being turned down as we speak. People have been turned down this weekend, even though they are at risk and have worked on UK-funded programmes. I urge the Government urgently to look at the relocation scheme. People cannot wait for the resettlement scheme to be in place.
Let me say something about that too. I welcome the Government’s commitment to a resettlement scheme. The Prime Minister confirmed to me earlier that the pledge to help 5,000 people this year is in addition to the commitment made in 2019 to resettle 5,000 people a year from across the world, not instead of it. That existing resettlement scheme is not fully reinstated after covid and it urgently needs to be, but the fact that that infrastructure, those systems and that funding is in place should make it possible for us very urgently to put in place an Afghan relocation scheme, and to accelerate and be more ambitious than the announcement that the Home Secretary made this morning. Again, I urge the Government to work urgently with the agencies on the ground, which can identify straightaway the people who are at most at risk, and to recognise the position of those who are currently here, whose applications for asylum may have been turned down before circumstances escalated. Please can those cases be urgently reviewed rather than refused on out-of-date grounds? Finally, I urge the Government to do more to support refugees in the region, because we know more people will flee.
We have a responsibility not to turn our backs. The situation may be bleak and the circumstances difficult, but we have a duty not to disengage.
Above my desk in my constituency office there is a picture of Sir Winston Churchill, under which are the words:
“We are all of us defending…a cause…the cause of freedom and of justice, of the weak against the strong, of law against violence, of mercy and tolerance against brutality and ironbound tyranny.”
Sir Winston Churchill was speaking in 1942, but in many ways his words speak of Afghanistan throughout the centuries, and certainly in the 21st century.
When we think of Afghanistan, we think of our heroes—of the soldiers who went to serve and who did not return, or who were injured, their lives changed forever. We think of heroes such as Flight Lieutenant Alan Scott, a former Loughborough University student, or Guardsman Jack Davies of Loughborough, who was only 23 at the time of his death. We think of the Royal Anglian Regiment, whose members were awarded the freedom to enter the borough of Charnwood in 2006, in recognition of their service to our country and our town.
Sadly, I remember 9/11 very well and can understand the need at the time to, as the President of the USA said, “degrade the terrorist threat” and to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks against the United States could continue. Given that no more terrorist attacks on that scale have been launched from Afghanistan in the last 20 years, it is clear that the intervention achieved its aims. However, the President also justified the fast-paced withdrawal of military personnel by claiming that the USA
“did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build.”
Despite that being the case, the USA, with the support of NATO and the UK, has moved the nation forward. That is demonstrated by the fact that today millions of girls in Afghanistan go to school and women hold more than a quarter of the seats in Afghanistan’s parliament, in stark contrast with the situation under the previous Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in which no girls attended school and women were excluded from governance. We absolutely must not sit back and allow that progress to be undermined.
I do not advocate the imposition of our western society on any other society—countries should of course be free to do as their people wish—but I do advocate democracy and the people of every country being afforded their basic human rights, including free will and the choice to determine how they live and the environment in which their children grow up. As such, the UK Government continue to play a role as we transition to a new phase of international support for Afghanistan. We must be clear with the Taliban that if they continue to abuse domestic human rights, they cannot expect to enjoy any legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people or the international community. A small number of my constituents have relatives in Afghanistan, and I would like their applications for refugee status, or discretionary right to remain in the case of spouses, to be dealt with swiftly and positively.
For 20 years, the work of our armed forces has protected the Afghan people and denied terrorists a safe haven from which to launch attacks against the UK. Those same forces have enabled development to take place that has improved the lives of millions and transformed Afghan society. I thank our armed forces for their huge sacrifice and the contribution that each has made, and I ask that those who helped our armed forces to deliver that help and support in Afghanistan also be helped and supported here in the UK.
Four hundred and fifty-seven UK service personnel, in excess of 3,000 coalition forces, nearly 70,000 Afghan Government troops and police, aid workers, journalists, humanitarians and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed over the past two decades. Many, many thousands more have been injured or brutalised. I hope—it is only hope—that all that pain and suffering was not in vain, but I fear greatly when I see the current scenes at Kabul airport.
Before I start properly, I wish to make an observation. The right hon. Members for Maidenhead (Mrs May) and for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) both mentioned intelligence. I do not know whether there was a failure of intelligence or of intelligence assessment, whether those who had the facts had the access or the confidence to speak truth to power, or whether the Ministers who were in receipt of those assessments understood them or ignored them, but when the autopsy on this situation is complete, we need to know whether there was in any way an intelligence failure.
Let me put the Afghan situation into a slightly broader regional context. On 2 August 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. On 16 January 1991, 700,000 troops, including from the UK, launched Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Sabre and destroyed Iraq’s air defences, communications, Government buildings, weapons plants, oil refineries, bridges and roads. Iraqi resistance collapsed on 28 February, but Saddam Hussein was left in power, and uprisings by the Kurds and the Shi’ites in the south were brutally suppressed.
On 20 March 2003, the Iraq war started when allied forces, including UK forces, launched an attack on Iraq. Although the fighting was mainly over by 1 May, it would be six more years until UK combat operations came to an end. The war would cost at least $1 trillion dollars—some say between $3 trillion and $6 trillion—and perhaps a million people would lose their lives. It would see the rise of ISIL—Islamic State—which at one point would control a third of the territory of Iraq. By the time that conflict was ending, Libya had a revolution, or a civil war or, more accurately, a NATO-backed insurrection. A second civil war followed and there were at least 10,000 dead people and two competing Governments. Of course, I could add that the UK and others are supporting rebel forces in the ongoing tragedy that is Syria.
Within a decade of the start of the first Gulf war, we had 9/11. There were four planes: one went into the north tower of the World Trade Centre and one into the south tower; one went into the Pentagon; and one went into a field in southern Pennsylvania. In the World Trade Centre, 2,600 died; 125 died in the Pentagon; and 256 died on the planes. The US death toll was bigger than that at Pearl Harbour.
On 7 October 2001, the bombing of al-Qaeda and Taliban positions by US and UK forces started, with conventional ground forces going in 12 days later. That action was completely justified. By November 2001, the Taliban were in retreat. By 5 December there was an interim Government and by 9 December the Taliban had collapsed. One would have thought we were coming towards the endgame.
It took more than another 10 years for combat missions to stop. We then did not heed the warnings as province after province fell and the Taliban began to control more and more territory. We did not heed the warnings in 2018, when 115 died in suicide attacks in Kabul. We should have heeded the warnings and seen what was going to come next and the rapid way in which the Taliban took over almost the whole of Afghanistan.
Is that not why it is so important that the UK Government maintain and increase their aid commitment? No matter what the Foreign Secretary says about doubling aid, the reality is that less aid money will go into Afghanistan this year than was previously planned—a direct result of the unfortunate decision to cut aid from 0.7% to 0.5%.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that the aid budgets must at the very least be maintained at their previous level, and probably increased. I also agree with all the calls today that it is not simply UK citizens and those who work directly for us who are at risk; it is many, many of us whose lives are at risk from the Taliban, and we, the west, must do everything that we can to evacuate all—all—of those who put their faith and trust in us and whose lives are now in jeopardy.
I have a question, which I know many members of the public have. Why is there always the political will and the funding to go to war, but rarely the foresight to work out what the consequences for ordinary people will be, although those consequences are always the same; and why are there never the resources to rebuild and reconstruct, and never a plan to win the peace?
We have all in Parliament been horrified by recent developments, from the harrowing scenes at Kabul airport to the reports of retribution from the Taliban, the shambles of an exit strategy and the failure of the international community at this critical point. It is self-evident that our mistaken intervention now brings its responsibilities, and whatever the strategic long-term lessons, the first priority now must be to save lives. So I welcome what the Government are doing to get our nationals out, but I urge them, as many hon. Members have done today, to be generous in our welcome of the many refugees who are fleeing in fear of their lives.
I do worry about arbitrary figures—an extra 5,000—at this point, because we simply do not know the scale of the humanitarian disaster. I urge the Government to keep an open mind on that. We have to be generous. If other nations will not do their fair share, we have to go beyond our fair share in ensuring that we live up to those obligations and responsibilities. That is a product of our 20-year intervention.
I would also urge the Foreign Secretary, please, to do what he can to help all those who have assisted the UK in Afghanistan—not just the military. As he knows, I chair the all-party group on the British Council, and we are particularly concerned about the slow progress of the ARAP scheme, which seems to be creating a backlog. There is a narrow window of opportunity here and I urge the Foreign Secretary to reinforce what the Prime Minister assured me from the Dispatch Box today, that sufficient resources are committed to ensure that no one is left behind who wishes to leave.
Of course we are grateful to the Government for making the commitment to welcoming new refugees to the UK, but does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, alongside the UNHCR definition of what is required to be a refugee, the UK Government have introduced additional requirements, which will make the process far more complex and make it far more difficult to prove that these refugees are genuine?
I can assure the hon. Member that many, if not all, on the Government side, and no doubt on both sides, of the House will press the Government as best they can to ensure that our welcome of refugees is nothing short of very generous, given the circumstances of the case. We owe it to those people; we need to stand by them. Of course the usual terrorist screening and so on must take place, but I have got the message across, I have had a response from the Prime Minister, I know that the Foreign Secretary is a man of his word and I, as chair of the all-party group, have made this representation very strongly in the House today and fully expect that the Government will honour it. There are too many people trapped, at the moment, in the bureaucratic mess in Kabul airport, despite the wonderful work that our ambassador is doing there—in the airport—and we need to commit sufficient resources. I think I have made that point strongly enough, and if the hon. Lady does not mind, I shall quickly move on and make a couple of other points.
I would argue that this has proved to be yet another mistaken intervention, which will sit alongside Iraq, Libya and Syria. The fundamental error that we made here—it has been alluded to in one or two very good speeches—is that we allowed the initial, limited and very successful mission of expelling al-Qaeda in 2001 to morph into a much wider intervention of nation building, which meant fighting the Taliban. That was unnecessary, given that the 2001 intervention had proved that we could achieve our goals of combating terrorism through limited interventions.
As one of the few Conservative MPs at the time to oppose the wider intervention and to vote against it, I suggest that the mission was born of ignorance, was over-ambitious and, from the very start, was thoroughly under-resourced. If we are not prepared to put in the resource to see this through to the end, we should not be surprised at the sort of exit shambles that we have recently seen. The policy was defended by too many—for too long—who should have known better, whatever their purposes, including a few in this place. I pay honour to our service personnel. They did their job in buying time—it is up to the politicians to come up with the solutions—and they achieved their missions. They can be proud, and we can be proud of them.
While the priority now is to save lives, the scale of the error is such that, I believe, the many bereaved families and service personnel who are still paying the price of this intervention, including those of the eight fusiliers killed from my regiment, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, and the 30 or so wounded from the regiment who are living with life-changing injuries, deserve an apology from the Prime Minister on behalf of previous Governments, even though the exit strategy was not of No. 10’s making. I think that that is the very least we can do. They can be proud, we can be proud of them, but I think that an apology is certainly due.
I was elected to the House in 2001, which was the year of the NATO intervention in Afghanistan. I recall very clearly that the objective clearly stated by the then Government was to stop Afghanistan being a safe haven for terrorists. In the short term, we were successful in that objective, but it was clear early on that there was a crying need to work with the Afghan people to change the nature of the country, to create a democratic system in which women had equality and real opportunities, and where the rule of law held firm. Only then would the country never again be a safe haven for terrorists. That was the argument that was clearly made and which was accepted in the House.
I wish to pay tribute to the armed forces, some from my constituency, many of whom lost their life or suffered life-changing injuries. In particular, I refer to Sergeant-Major Michael Williams of my home village of Bedwas, who lost his life in combat with the Taliban. We are proud of them all. There is, I believe, a widespread consensus emerging in the House that it was a huge mistake to leave Afghanistan in the way we did and in the time we did. The question now is what did our Prime Minister say to President Biden to try to dissuade him from this catastrophic course? The House deserves a clear answer to that fundamental question.
Today, the danger is that Afghanistan may once again become a safe haven for international terrorists we have seen in action in the past. Let us not forget that one of the first actions of the Taliban was to release thousands of prisoners, many of whom were terrorists. Once a terrorist, it is quite possible that someone will be a terrorist again. The Taliban leaders say they have changed their colours, but I have to say that is unlikely. Certainly their public relations have improved, but I doubt fundamentally whether they have changed. I say that because already we can see widespread atrocities in Afghanistan outside Kabul, we can see thousands of Afghans who understand what the Taliban are all about desperate to leave their country, and we must recognise that the Taliban are a diverse group; many of them outside Kabul are very different from the PR-slick Taliban leaders we see on our television screens.
Of course we are most concerned about the situation at Kabul airport. British citizens need to be brought out as quickly as possible, and I pay tribute to the soldiers who are helping to facilitate that and to our British ambassador. We also need to bring out as quickly as possible those who have worked with us; we need desperately to stand by them. We must recognise that the Afghanis who are vulnerable must be given support and sanctuary in our own country and many others. Indeed, we must be generous in our support. That is our responsibility as a nation.
In addition, we must be prepared for the refugee crisis that is, unfortunately, likely to emerge. That crisis will be global in character, but it will particularly affect the nation states around Afghanistan—Iran and Pakistan in particular—and we must re-examine the cuts to our aid budget to give maximum support. In essence, it is vital that this House collectively sends a message to the people of Afghanistan and, indeed, to the world that we will stand by the people of Afghanistan in this, their hour of need.
It is a privilege to follow so many distinguished hon. Members who themselves fought on the frontline in Afghanistan.
President Biden said this week that his
“only vital national interest in Afghanistan”
was to prevent a terrorist attack. Even if that is the case, both he and President Trump should be deeply ashamed—I say this with great sadness—because their actions have returned to Afghanistan to the very Government that harboured the 9/11 bombers.
The truth is that 457 British servicemen and women did not lose their lives simply to reduce the terrorist threat, although they succeeded in that with great distinction. They paid their price in defence of a set of values—values that said that girls should be entitled to the same education as boys, that courts should be independent of clerics, that journalists should not be imprisoned if they speak truth to power. If President Biden believes in those values, it is time the world heard it—and it is time we heard the same from the British Government, too.
Although it is not possible to stay in Afghanistan without US support, we are the second power in a western alliance. For all the failures of this week, and not just in Afghanistan, but in Iraq and even Vietnam, that western alliance has delivered more freedom, more prosperity, more respect for human rights across the globe than at any time in human history. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) just said, those gains are now at risk, not just because of what happened this week but because of the rise of an authoritarian and wealthy China that actively opposes the open societies we believe in.
As a former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend is right to scrutinise our American allies, but will he acknowledge that the lack of support, commensurate to their sizes, from European NATO partners has also led to the situation we are facing today?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that. It is not sustainable to ask America to spend 4% of its GDP on defence when the entirety of Europe spends no more than just over 2%.
The threat we face is a threat that all of us face. For 15 consecutive years, the number of free countries in the world has been in decline. Since 2013, according to Reporters Without Borders, press freedom has been in decline. This decade, for the first time in any of our lifetimes, the largest economy in the world will not be a democracy, when China overtakes the United States.
We are proud of our country not just because of what we have achieved and not just because of our wealth, but because of what we stand for. When those values are under threat, and when the Atlantic partnership appears to be fraying, we should be stopping at nothing to rebuild them. That means investing in our armed forces, reversing the aid cut, developing our own technology and rebuilding our global alliances. There is something we can do right now: cut through bureaucracy and ensure that we look after every single Afghani who took risks for themselves and their families because they believed in a better future and trusted us to deliver it.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I am just coming to my conclusion.
We cannot reverse what happened this week, but we can limit the damage and learn from what went wrong. That means not just grieving silently at the actions of a close ally, but recognising the threats we face and roaring defiantly in defence of the values we share.
Watching the scenes at Kabul airport this week left me and many others with feelings of overwhelming grief and anger: grief for the millions of Afghan women and girls in particular who were promised a brighter future and the opportunity to learn, work and pursue their dreams; and anger that the many pledges made to the Afghan people over the past 20 years have been broken as they were abandoned to their fate.
The stories being told by terrified Afghans are heart-rending. There are the women students who are now hiding their diplomas and certificates for fear of punishment, and in the belief that in any case their qualifications will be useless as they will not be allowed to use them. There is the female mayor who says that she is now waiting for the Taliban to come for people like her and kill them. There is the Afghan journalist, now in hiding with his family, who said:
“There was a lot of promise, a lot of assurance. A lot of talk about values, a lot of talk about progress, about rights, about women’s rights, about freedom, about democracy. That all turned out to be hollow.”
That journalist is in danger of being proved right.
We have to do whatever we can now to honour our commitments to the people of Afghanistan. That starts with fixing our failed refugee and asylum-seeking system. For all the hand wringing of Government Ministers in the last few days, the reality is that their actions over the past few months have left thousands of ordinary Afghans in terrible danger. Interpreters and contractors who worked side by side with UK forces have been refused resettlement on the grounds that they were technically subcontractors. That is shameful.
I fear for the thousands of ordinary Afghans who supported the UK in delivering aid and supporting other projects, often in the interests of our foreign policy objectives. They are now at real risk of being seen as collaborators working against the Taliban’s interest. The NGOs they worked with are now powerless to help them, but the UK Government are not, yet we have heard very little about what the Government are doing to persuade and support them. Many are not covered by the Afghan relocation and assistance programme because they worked for UK organisations other than the Government—for NGOs and other civil society organisations, even though they were paid by UK aid. They are in extreme danger, so that ARAP programme must be expanded to encompass them, too. The scheme was far too late to get off the ground and only started in April when Taliban advances and atrocities were already all too apparent, and it has been drawn all too narrowly. It must be amended to allow visas for the family of people who would have been eligible but who have died, and for people who have fled Afghanistan but would have been eligible had they remained in country.
The resettlement scheme announced by the Government last night is welcome, but it is not enough. Places must be based on need, not on numbers. There should be no artificial cap. When the Government are already failing to achieve their existing target of settling 5,000 refugees a year, we need to hear an awful lot more about how Ministers are planning to deliver for Afghan refugees and guarantees that local government will be properly funded to work with them.
Does the hon. Lady agree that it is vital for local councils that have been willing for some time to take on additional refugees, such as mine in St Albans, to be given additional finance? For local government to support those refugees, it needs funding to help with finding furniture, relocation and connecting with utilities. All that support is needed so that the council itself can support refugees.
I absolutely support the hon. Lady’s comments. Such support is vital.
I call on the Home Secretary today to abandon the resettlement-only plans set out in the Nationality and Borders Bill, which would criminalise, or deny full refugee status to, those who make their own journeys to seek asylum in the UK. I call on her to grant immediate asylum to Afghans already waiting for status in the UK, release all Afghan nationals from detention, and urgently expand the family reunion route so that Afghans can be joined by other members of their family, including siblings and their parents. I was contacted by a constituent who used to work for the EU delegation in Kabul and whose siblings all worked for allied forces. He has asylum here in the UK and his siblings have asylum elsewhere, but his mother is left alone, desperate and very much a target. We absolutely need to widen the family reunion rules.
We also need not just to properly restore aid, but to increase it. The Foreign Secretary said that it is being doubled; I welcome that, but it is still less than the 2019 figure. We need to recognise that the need today is so much greater than it was even in 2019.
There are many lessons to be learned from this disaster. It looks as if our intelligence might well have been inadequate, our promises to the Afghan people worthless and our duty of care to ordinary Afghans who worked with us patchy and unreliable. More than that, this Afghan tragedy should be the catalyst that finally forces us to rethink how the so-called war on terror is fought. The debacle in Afghanistan, with the loss of almost a quarter of a million lives, is just one of four failed conflicts in the past 20 years. Western military action in Libya and Iraq and the air war against ISIS in Syria have all failed to achieve their objectives: ISIS is still active in Iraq and Syria, ISIS and al-Qaeda are active across the Sahel and eastern Africa, and there are still links with Afghanistan.
We urgently need to learn the lessons of failed wars of intervention and take an honest look at the objectives behind our foreign policy. For too long, protecting British interests has been about stability and safety through access to oil, maintaining the current balance of power and a very inconsistent approach—to put it mildly—to human rights and democracy. When we ally ourselves with countries such as Saudi Arabia, our moral credibility to speak about human rights is fundamentally undermined. We need a longer-term approach, including stopping arms sales to oppressive regimes that do not abide by international law, and a more consistent approach to democracy across the world.
The Government like to boast of our country being global Britain. If that is to mean anything, it surely has to be an opportunity to finally develop the ethical foreign policy that we have spoken about for so long, focused on seeking to build international consensus with co-operation, security and human rights at its heart.
Afghanistan today is a tragedy backlit by defeat—even the name of Operation Enduring Freedom has already exuded a sense of irony—but lest we rewrite history, let us remember why we went. We did not go to Afghanistan out of a sense of philanthropy towards the Afghan people; we went out of a hard-headed sense of protection of our own national security. Were we successful? Yes, we were: we were able to take down al-Qaeda networks in the region and beyond, and we did not see a repeat of 9/11. We owe an immeasurable debt to our armed forces. Those who say that their sacrifices were in vain utterly misunderstand the sacrifices that were made.
Are we safer than we were a week ago? Probably not. Under the Taliban, 5,000 of our most committed, vicious and determined enemies are out there once again, and they will seek their moment. We also need to understand that the strategic weakness of our alliance will have been noted not just in Kabul, but in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Islamabad.
Did we know that the Afghan Government would fall so swiftly? No, we did not. Many people today claim to have predicted it when they absolutely did not. The removal of 2,500 American troops, along with 8,000 coalition troops and 18,000 of those in support, brought about a catastrophic drop in morale among both the Afghan forces and the Afghan Government. It has been mentioned many times today that 70,000 Afghan police and armed forces died in the struggle to protect their own country. For anyone to say that they would not fight is a slight that is not worthy of any politician in a free country. But the question we must ask is: why, oh why, would anyone choose to remove their troops—even if they had decided to do so—during the fighting season, when the Taliban were at their greatest strength? The answer is that it was not a decision made for foreign policy or security reasons; it was done to suit a domestic political timetable. When security decisions are taken for political reasons, there is likely to be a detrimental outcome, and we would all do well to remember that lesson.
Although we did not go primarily for philanthropic reasons, rebuilding Afghanistan and giving its people a real chance of all the benefits that we take for granted became the main case used to maintain domestic public support for the mission in Afghanistan, and it was the main reason given to justify the continued sacrifices of our armed forces. They brought prosperity, political stability, human rights and the rule of law to the people of Afghanistan. It was an immense achievement, even on that timescale.
As one of the Defence Secretaries during the Afghan conflict, who had to send handwritten letters to the loved ones of those who died in action and visited many of the severely injured in hospital, including friends, I understand how raw the anger may be at the events of recent days. As several Members have said, those veterans will require extra support. For their sake and for its own sake, we must do all we can in concert with our allies to give support and sanctuary to all those who remain vulnerable in Afghanistan. Time is of the essence: the Taliban are already going door to door with their lists looking for victims. We must do everything we can as quickly as we can.
In Europe in recent days, there has been a lot of talk about how it is vulnerable to American decisions and has to ride on American coat-tails. The irony seems to be completely lost on those who refuse to build up their own security capacity that, in the end, they will actually become more dependent on American foreign policy, rather than less. Listening to our NATO allies who talk about why they should be spending—high-spending, big states in Europe—while American taxpayers carry the burden of security, one would think that they might have learned their lesson by now.
Finally, we can ultimately win the war in Afghanistan or against any similar oppressors only by winning the war of ideas, and we have to begin by believing that what we offer as a society is not just different from theirs, but better. We need to believe that democratic government is better than totalitarianism, that an impartial rule of law is better than theocracy, and that freedom and human rights are better than oppression and prejudice. Freedom will not come for free. There is a political and financial cost to be paid for it. If we are unwilling to pay for it, we have to accept the consequences.
Order. There are still enormous numbers of colleagues trying to catch my eye so, after the next contribution, I will have to reduce the time limit to four minutes.
In this sombre and very serious debate, there are two fundamental points I want to make. First, we have all been inundated overnight and in the past couple of days with emails from constituents and many others who are very worried about the plight of those who are trying to get out of Afghanistan, the numbers of people who ought to be supported and the approach that the British Government have taken. Members will have seen letters from the National Union of Journalists concerning journalists and their safety, from the University College Union concerning their students in this country and their fears, and from many, many others, including people representing trade unions in Afghanistan.
As well as that, I ask the Government clearly what their strategy is for allowing people to come to this country, because it is clear that all those who have worked for the British Army or any other organisation in Afghanistan should be allowed to come here. That is the case, likewise, for non-governmental organisations, but I would add to that those who have worked for contractors that have been contracted to the British or American services. They will be just as vulnerable in the future.
If we are serious about ensuring that all those refugees who wish to come here are able to get in, the Government have to do two things. First, they should respond to the very generous offers made by a lot of local authorities—I saw a letter last night from the leaders of Labour London borough councils—of doing everything they can to support refugees coming to this country. However, they need financial support to be able to house those people, accommodate them and ensure that they can be integrated into our society. There must also be a change in the Government’s rhetoric about refugees in general. We cannot hold out a hand and say that we are going to welcome all the Afghan refugees here—I hope we do—when, at the same time, we are passing legislation that will criminalise those who save the lives at sea of people trying to get to this country, a place of safety. If we are an open society that welcomes refugees, we should mean that wherever refugees come from—not just Afghanistan. I hope the Government will bear that in mind and give us a clear outline of how people will get out of Afghanistan, how they will get here and how they will be processed when they get here.
Too many of us represent constituencies where refugees who do not have enough support are living. They are begging, homeless and street-sleeping while their applications are endlessly processed. That is not the sign of a society or a Government who are holding out a hand of friendship towards refuges.
The war has cost the United States $1 trillion and this country tens of billions of pounds. It has cost the lives of tens of thousands of Afghan people. It has driven many of them into asylum or refugee status in all the neighbouring countries. It has taken the lives of American soldiers, and soldiers of almost every other nationality that got involved, including 457 British soldiers. At the end of it, the trauma of those who served there and were injured there, and the mental health issues that pertain for soldiers coming out of service, are huge and likely to be exacerbated by what has happened over the past few days. We need to ensure there is proper support for those who have served and suffered in Afghanistan, and we also need a serious appraisal of how we got there in the first place.
Any examination of the longer-term history of Afghanistan will show that wars there fail. There were three in the 19th century and a number later. The great game of the 19th century was about preventing Russia from getting control of Afghanistan. Later, the cold war took over and the Americans supported the opposition to the Soviet Union, thus forming the mujaheddin, which morphed into the Taliban and so much else. There are some serious historical lessons to be learned about how we take major foreign policy decisions. It is beyond disappointing that the Prime Minister’s response this morning appeared to be that he is not prepared to countenance a serious inquiry into all this.
I can hear my friend, the late Paul Flynn, speaking about the number of soldiers who died in Helmand. I can hear all those who spoke up against the intervention, not because they supported the Taliban and not because they were not serious about human rights, but because they were serious about a long-term peace in a world that recognises the historical position that we have got ourselves into. Now surely is the time for a sober reflection on the disaster that has happened in Afghanistan.
Like others, I have been to Afghanistan—not as a solder, but as a 16-year-old teenager in 1978. It was in the last days of President Daoud’s regime. A couple of days after he returned from Islamabad, where my father was working, Daoud was overthrown, executed and strung up. Afghanistan has been a failed state since, which is tragic because it is a beautiful country. I remember it as vibrant and developing fast.
Much has been made and will be made in this debate about the tremendous sacrifice of our armed forces in Afghanistan. I know that many soldiers who served cared passionately about the Afghan people, and the job they were trying to do to bring about peace and security. We should not forget that our involvement in Afghanistan secured 20 years of freedom for its people. I can only hope that, from the ruins, some sense of how that feels will remain, and it will not totally revert back to extremist Islamic rule under the new Government.
The past 20 years have not been wasted. We have seen 40% of girls in education—9 million girls where there were none—with literacy rates of 56% and 70,000 female teachers. Four thousand midwives have been trained, up from 400 in 2001, and female MPs make up 28% of Parliament—we only make up 34% here, so they were doing incredibly well. That is what has been achieved, and that is what our brave men and women have died for, but, like many in this House, I am a realist and hope is not much of a safeguard. The chance of any sort of progressive shift by the Taliban, now in complete control, seems remote. As co-chair of the all-party group on women, peace and security, I have spoken in this House several times in the past few months expressing my concern about the future of women in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of NATO troops. The premise of my concern has always been the encroachment of the Taliban, which has been going on for many years, and no one should have been surprised by its entry into Kabul. In the face of Taliban rule, my concern now has turned to deep anger and frustration that women and girls may again face subjugation in Afghanistan, despite the words of the Taliban leaders.
Will my hon. Friend join me in the work to try to ensure the protection of the Afghan women’s orchestra, which came to this country in 2019 and made a big impression on the UK, and is now seriously under threat?
Absolutely. There are many women’s organisations that have come to the fore over the past 20 years, and it would be very sad if they disappeared.
Those brave women who joined the Afghan army now fear beheading. Girls face having their education taken away from them and women their rights to go and do as they please. There is the fear of sexual violence. There will be no women teachers, no women police officers and no women in political life. Women face being wiped from the face of Afghanistan unless they are prepared to subject themselves to Taliban rule. There are already signs that Afghan women have no faith whatsoever in any lessening of the Taliban grip. In Kabul, there are reports of nail shops blackening out their windows, music shops, destroying stock and women not going to work or walking alone. These mundane, simple, everyday things that all women in the world should have the right to do are all at grave risk. Although the feeling of impotence in this place is palpable, there is no reason to give in or to give up on Afghanistan and its people. We must do all we can to engage with the new regime and any country that has influence with it, and I am particularly focused on what Pakistan can do as a country that harboured Taliban leaders, plus any Gulf backers that have been supporting this group.
Afghanistan will need aid. Delivering it must come with stringent conditions on honouring women’s rights, human rights and those of the ethnic minorities as well. This will need global consensus, and I hope that the Government are working extremely hard in this regard right now to ensure that the Taliban has the international community breathing down its neck from day one.
My one final thought is how lucky I am to stand here in the House of Commons able to say what I think, and, in honour of those brave Afghan women fearing the very worst right now, I will not forget it.