[Relevant document: Oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 26 October 2021, on Withdrawal from Afghanistan, HC 699.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposal for an inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the NATO-led mission to Afghanistan.
This could be a very short debate if the Minister intervened and said, “Yes, we are going to have an inquiry”; then we could all go home. However, I suspect we will have to work a little bit harder than that.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate on Afghanistan. This was one of the longest military campaigns in modern history. Over 100,000 armed forces personnel were deployed to Afghanistan, and 435 did not return alive. Thousands did return, but with life-changing injuries, and over 3,500 personnel from other NATO forces were also killed. About 70,000 Afghans lost their lives, although I do not think the true number will ever be known.
The campaign cost the international community trillions, but after two decades we decided to exit before the job was done, handing back the country to the very insurgency we went in to defeat. The country is now run by the Taliban, but they are not in control. It is in freefall, and the freezing winter that is approaching is likely to cause the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation. The list of challenges we faced, and the lessons to be learned, are huge, yet the Government stubbornly refuse to hold an independent inquiry. Do they think that there is nothing to learn, or—more importantly—to explain to those who served, and to the families of the bereaved? What was it all for?
It is clear that our world is getting more dangerous, and global insecurity is increasing. Our decision to leave Afghanistan added to that. If we have any aspiration, as spelled out in the integrated review, to be a problem-solving, burden-sharing nation, we need to understand how the most powerful military alliance ever formed could not complete its mission after 20 years. If we do not analyse, appreciate and learn from our mistakes, we are likely to repeat them. More critically, this House of Commons is—let us be honest—not so versed in the details, and it will have no confidence in voting to send our troops into harm’s way, fearful of a similar outcome. We will become more risk-averse, and we will end up steering clear of overseas engagements and having no appetite to intervene. Our competitors will enjoy our self-inflicted weakness.
The first rule of war is: know your enemy. That is a prerequisite for any engagement. On my various visits to Afghanistan over a decade, I was always taken aback by the limits of international forces’ local understanding. Yes, they knew their local mission, but how that fitted into the higher commander’s intent was not clear. There seemed to be a national plan to kill the enemy, but that did not knit together with any form of strategy relating to governance, or development programmes outside Kabul. Had we done our homework, checked the archives and visited that famous Foreign and Commonwealth Office map room, we would have reminded ourselves of what and who we were taking on. We would have been in a better position to advise our allies and offer alternative solutions to courses of action that it was, frankly, a schoolboy error to pursue.
Afghanistan gained its independence from Great Britain. We learned the hard way, through three separate engagements over a century, that it is a deeply tribal country, where local loyalty trumps alliances to the centre. Policy cannot be shaped from outside the country. Since Ahmad Shah Durrani founded modern-day Afghanistan in the 1700s, it has not been run from the centre. Warlords enjoyed federated power; tribes and sub-tribes enjoyed autonomy. Why on earth did we, with all our experience of Afghanistan, believe we knew better?
In 2001, in our haste to seek retribution for 9/11, we lost our way. We allowed other agendas to blinker both our historical experience and current military doctrine, and that made a tough mission all the tougher. We ignored Afghanistan’s history, which we helped to shape, and believed that we could once again impose a western model of governance from scratch. The objective of hunting down and destroying al-Qaeda after 9/11 was widely supported, and it triggered NATO’s article 5 for the first time. That morphed into taking on the Taliban, who harboured al-Qaeda. This brings us back to that first rule of war: know your enemy.
To understand the Taliban and its origins, we must understand the mujaheddin; to understand the mujaheddin, we must understand the Soviet occupation; and to understand that occupation, we must understand that it was US foreign policy to remove the Soviets in the 1980s. That is wisdom not from history books, but from events in our lifetime. The last king, Zahir, was overthrown in 1973, and that triggered a power struggle between two diametrically opposed movements: the Communist party and the Islamist movement—the mujaheddin. Both grew in strength, with the former gaining the upper hand, but radical socialist changes sparked significant unrest, which the Soviets eventually sent in troops to try to quash. That prompted the United States, along with Inter-Services Intelligence in Pakistan, with support from China and indeed the United Kingdom, to support the mujaheddin—Charlie Wilson’s war.
From 1980 to 1989, £3 billion of covert military assistance went into east Asia to back a radical insurgency based in the Pakistani mountains. It mobilised tens of thousands of holy warriors who were willing to die for their cause. Out of the disunity of the mujaheddin rose the Taliban. It was not some distant extremist group that we knew little about, but arguably a product of western making.
Of course, the obstacles to success in Afghanistan were daunting: widespread corruption, intense grievances, Pakistani meddling and deep-rooted Afghan resistance to any foreign occupation. However, there was the colossal blanket of NATO security, and a huge development budget often described as an international aid juggernaut; US spending alone peaked in one year at $110 billion. Sadly, however, opportunities to secure long-term stability were squandered, and the west, especially the US, became over-confident following early victories.
In simple terms, where did it go wrong? First, we created an over-centralised model of governance. Secondly, we denied the Taliban a seat at the table in December 2001 at the Bonn talks. How different life would have been had they been included. Thirdly, we made no real effort to start training an Afghan indigenous security force until 2006. Fourthly, we opened up another front in Iraq—an unnecessary and costly distraction. Fifthly, we had no real development strategy to improve livelihoods and leverage the country’s vast resources.
I recall a visit to Afghanistan in 2008, when Mark Carleton-Smith, the current Chief of the General Staff, was in charge of 16 Air Assault Brigade. They took a turbine from Helmand—from Camp Bastion—to the Kajaki dam. A decade later, I flew into Kabul, and I looked out of the window and saw the same turbine lying next to the dam in its bubble wrap. That was analogous to the problems in that country.
Finally, we lost our way. We forgot why we were fighting and who we were fighting for. How could we claim that our intervention was about defending and upholding international standards and the rule of law when we crafted methods to bypass international law, such as creating detention camps, including at Guantanamo Bay?
For the first four years, Afghanistan was deceptively peaceful, as the Taliban retreated across the Pakistani border, but that time was squandered; the Taliban retrained, regrouped and rearmed. Slowly but progressively, they began their attacks, and by August 2009, General McChrystal observed, in his 60-page analysis, that we did not understand the people,
“whose needs, identities and grievances”
can differ “from valley to valley”; that the international security assistance force was “poorly configured” for counter-insurgency operations, designed instead for conventional warfare; that we were killing the enemy but not shielding the people; and that not enough was being done to train indigenous forces.
By 2014, Afghan forces were finally taking on more responsibility, and most NATO combat operations had ended, but still no formal talks had begun with the Taliban. Negotiations began in earnest in 2018, but when a deal was finally signed in February 2020, the agreement was between the United States and the Taliban; this time, the Afghan Government were not at the table. However, a US election was fast approaching, and the President, Donald Trump, wanted an announcement: “Bring our troops home.” Candidate Biden did not disagree.
The deal was done; all the Taliban had to do was wait for US troops to depart. The decision to withdraw was made, and we did not even have the courtesy to inform the Afghan forces when we departed camps such as Bagram air base. As the US forces withdrew, they took with them their contractors, who supported the Afghan forces. Of course, without ammunition, the Afghan army and the Afghan police cannot do their work. It did not take long for the Taliban to exploit the void and rout the country.
It is now clear to see what an operational and strategic blunder it was to retreat at this time. The Taliban are not a Government in waiting; they are not a monolithic organisation, so local reprisal attacks are taking place, which the Taliban themselves cannot control. As societal norms are removed, the banking system collapses and international support flees the country, we are seeing a terrible humanitarian disaster unfold. Once again, Afghanistan is a potential breeding ground for terrorism.
I noticed when I met the Taliban in Doha a couple of weeks ago just how frail they are. They say that because they are not enforcing such a ruthless interpretation of sharia law, many of them are leaving the ranks of the Taliban to join ISIS-K. That is what we have left behind. The decision to withdraw was absolutely the wrong call.
I end by looking at the wider consequences of our departure. What is the US’s commitment and staying power to defend the international rule of law? What of NATO’s function, with or without US lead? Twenty years since 9/11, are we still no better at preventing the radicalisation of individuals who believe they will be rewarded if they kill westerners? What next for those 40 million Afghans that we left behind? How do we work with the Taliban to prevent a humanitarian crisis? Finally, after this humiliation and retreat by the west, should the UK seek to play a more active role on the international stage?
I hope that our departure from Afghanistan is not the high tide mark of western post-world war two liberalism. We are seeing the erosion of western influence, the loss of faith in the idea of a liberal world order, and the rise of a rival superpower, China, which is advancing a competing ideology that could see the world splinter into two competing spheres of influence.
I encourage the Government to see the bigger picture—how on the one hand our world is becoming increasingly unstable, but on the other, the west, including Britain, has become more risk averse. We are in for a dangerous decade, and Britain should have more confidence in itself, in what we stand for, what we believe in and what we are willing to defend. As the last century illustrated, it was once in our DNA to do just that. We have the means, the hard power, the connections to lead. What we require is the backbone, the courage, the leadership to step forward.
I say directly to the Minister that cutting the defence budget last week sent the wrong signal about our commitment and our resolve. This is not the time to cut back on our troop numbers, our tank numbers and our plane and ship numbers, but that is exactly the consequence of what is happening. We have some serious questions to ask about our place in the world and what global Britain means, and that should begin with an inquiry into Afghanistan.
I commend the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for that tremendous tour de force of what has happened over the last few years. I want to comment on some of the aspects that should be brought out in the inquiry, and to share with the House several other thoughts.
The sort of things that I would like to know are these. Others have asked before me, but I need to know: did the Prime Minister know what President Biden was planning before the withdrawal of American forces was announced? If so, was a risk assessment carried out? Only last month, there was a meeting of global leaders about Afghanistan. Macron was there, Merkel was there, Biden was there and Mr Trudeau was there, but the Prime Minister was not. I regard that as unfortunate. As the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East indicated, in so many ways, as the catastrophe unfolded after we withdrew, it was absolutely predictable what would happen. Did the Prime Minister think the same at the time? I wonder.
I want to put on the record my and my party’s thanks, and I am sure those of everyone in the Chamber, for the sterling efforts made by the Secretary of State for Defence to secure evacuation of British and Afghan workers and civilians. I have personal cause to be grateful to the Secretary of State, but it seemed that No. 10 did not move to ensure some sort of EU involvement in Afghanistan to help secure that work after the US withdrew. I have touched before in this place on the actions of the then Foreign Secretary. I expressed my concern then and I will leave it at that.
Aside from an inquiry, one side point I want to make is that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) has been calling for a corridor to get refugees out. There has not been so much talk of it of late in the press, but I fully support that, as I am sure we all do. I have friends who served in the armed forces who are still trying to get interpreters out. Good work has been done. I put on record my thanks for a second time to the Secretary of State for Defence, as well as to other Government Members who have been very helpful in securing people’s safety, but there is work to be done. We must not lose sight of the need for a safe corridor.
The scope of the inquiry has to be very wide. I utterly endorse what the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East said about the recent Budget. It was a tax and spend Budget—one with extra money. The 1.4% cut in defence spending over the next four years is deeply worrying. Several times I have expressed my concern at the cut in the size of the British Army. Perhaps the cut has ramifications for the other services as well—I know not. One thing I would like to see from the inquiry is an investigation into what assessment, prior or immediately prior to the intervention in 2001, was made of the military’s capability to intervene and maintain our defences at the level required. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and I have mentioned that point several times. There are states out there, for example China, that are not there for the good of the United Kingdom. What assessment was made into whether we could do that?
Whatever the rights and wrongs of what was done—the inquiry will bring that out—where does it leave our standing as a military power, which I have just touched on with regard to the defence cuts, and as a soft power in the world? We are incredibly lucky that English is one of the great languages of the world. That, via our media—the BBC and so much else—gives us soft power that we can use. On a lighter note, it is astonishing how many people around the world watch “The Crown” of all things, but that demonstrates what we can do as a country. We lose that soft power at our very, very great peril.
The Government’s decisions, as the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East said, were too hasty. Yes, they were brought about in part by an American President and the candidate to succeed him, but things could have been done so much better and they were not. What does that leave, in terms of what is happening in Afghanistan? I shall rest that point there.
I want to end with an anecdote I always remember. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I was a Member of another place. I do not mean the other place next door to here—that day will never happen—but that I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament. In 2009, the NATO conference took place in Edinburgh. In previous years, I had got to know the then Russian consul general in Edinburgh, Vladimir Malygin. One day his office called me to say, “The NATO conference is on. We have two serving Russian major generals in civvies who are observers at the conference and they would like to look around the Scottish Parliament. Could you organise it? Could you make it happen?” So we showed the two Russian generals, plus an interpreter, around the Scottish Parliament. The generals were taciturn individuals, but when we had finished the tour, I said, “Would you like a glass of whisky?” and they cheered up greatly at that prospect. What I will never forget is that while they were enjoying a drop of Scotland’s finest, they suddenly said to me, “What on earth are you doing in Afghanistan?” This was in 2009, eight years after we went in. One of them said, “I lost three of my best friends there. One was horribly mutilated.” That question—what were we doing there—has always stayed with me.
There is a space for the United Kingdom to do good in the world, provided we work out why we are doing it and, as the right hon. Member said, what our aim is. People in the armed forces I talk to say, “Identify your aim and be sure of it”. I will leave my comments there.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), the Chair of the Defence Committee, on securing the debate, and commend him for the leadership he has shown in the weeks and months since the withdrawal was undertaken.
It would perhaps seem strange if we did not acknowledge the acres of empty Benches around us. Less than three months ago, this House was recalled from its summer recess to discuss the very issue we are discussing now, and today we have started the wind-up speeches only minutes after the Chair of the Select Committee got to his feet. That worries me and speaks to the reason why we need the inquiry that he has come here to ask the Government to instigate—a case he prosecuted forensically.
The SNP supports the right hon. Gentleman’s call for an inquiry. I think he is right that it is important to those who served. It is important to their families. In particular, it is important for those who went to Afghanistan and paid with their lives, whether they were UK armed forces or those who served alongside them. It was fashionable at the time of the initial withdrawal not to acknowledge the international coalition, but I think we should. Above all, we owe it to the people of Afghanistan, not just those who have lost their lives or been maimed or injured over the course of the west’s time there, but those who now face the long dark night of Taliban rule that stretches out before them. Yes, that includes in particular women and girls, minority groups, journalists and academics, but also all who tasted freedom over the past few years and have now had it rather abruptly snatched away.
It is notable that although there have been some other inquiries in different coalition countries, it is only the Norwegians who have set up a fully independent inquiry. That is something we need to do here. Yes, inquiries are expensive, necessarily so. Inquiries are slow, necessarily so. We have not had that many of them, necessarily so. But if the Government will not bring forward an inquiry on Afghanistan, then goodness knows what they will ever bring forward an inquiry on in future. They need to look at the long stretch of the mission, the motivation for why we went there in the first place, and the chaotic withdrawal, which we were recalled for less than three months ago.
I would like to put on record—the Minister and I exchanged on this last night—that I had actually thought this was a Ministry of Defence debate. As my party’s defence spokesperson, I wanted to put on record my thanks to the Defence Secretary for his conduct in the aftermath of the withdrawal. I do not think he and the Government got everything right, and the Foreign Secretary certainly did not, but I do not want to rehearse that this afternoon. It is important to acknowledge that the Defence Secretary seemed to be the only Minister who grasped the issue’s importance at the time—I will rephrase that: the only Cabinet Minister, because I do not want to be unfair on the Minister before us.
The right hon. Member for Bournemouth East touched on a broader point about political will and assessing exactly where we are with the implementation of our values. The Minister and I will disagree on much about defence and foreign policy, but fundamentally, our agreements are underwritten with the same kinds of values—on openness, tolerance and solving big issues in alliances with other countries.
I am a committed internationalist. Multilateral fora such as NATO and the European Union are, by a country mile, the best parts of the international architecture for advancing values of tolerance, liberal democracy and openness. If they did not exist, we would want to create them, and I would want Scotland to be in them and all the countries around us to be part of them. They are by the far the greatest vehicles for the kinds of values that we in this House all share. However, we must all reflect, and NATO at large must reflect, on this defeat—there is no other word for it. If there is a failure to do so and to have the kind of inquiry that the Chairman of the Defence Committee is asking the Government to initiate, those who want to overturn our values, as he mentioned, will take heart from that. Within hours, China was talking about the weakening of the west. Russia was in Kabul barely days after it had fallen, while we, in concert with others, were desperately scrambling—and failing in too many cases—to get people out quickly and alive.
Alongside an inquiry, the challenge is this: we must have a political discussion with other capitals that we are allied with about how we renew and reinvigorate the international architecture that underpins and drives the order that we have all benefited from and want to see us continue to benefit from. If we do not do that, who will benefit? It will be those who stand in opposition to our values. So the question is: what does Afghanistan and that withdrawal become? Does it become a low point for the liberal international order that we all believe in, or does it mark the point of no return? The Minister will have to answer that when he gets to his feet. If we do not have a full, independent inquiry, properly funded and properly prosecuted by a judge, with full powers of subpoena and all the rest of it, I fear that this will be a point of return, and I am sure that nobody in this House wants that.
The right hon. Gentleman has the full backing of my party for his proposal for an inquiry. Let us not shrug this off this afternoon. The debate will now, necessarily, be depressingly short; perhaps the acres of empty green Benches scream out that we need the inquiry that he asks for.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support. Is it worth his clarifying this point, which I did not? We have in our mind, as a yardstick, that an inquiry looks like Chilcot. Nobody is asking for Chilcot, but we are asking for something that I believe should be the norm: after every long-term military engagement, there is an assessment of what happened so that we can learn for the better. However, it does not need to take the legal approach that Chilcot was all about. That had a very different, complicated requirement.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I believe that the Defence Committee has started its investigation, and we on the Foreign Affairs Committee have started ours. Parliament has a role to play in doing its job and scrutinising what Government have and have not done, and making recommendations for the future. That is right and proper, but he rightly asks for something above that that can do the necessary job. I get entirely why Chilcot provides a rather unhelpful shadow over this discussion, but it cannot be used as an excuse to shrug off what the right hon. Gentleman asks us to do. This is up to the Government and up to us all. What we have shown through the lack of hon. Members’ presence in this debate is that Parliament cannot be left as the only institution to scrutinise the matter.
The hon. Member is making a most excellent speech. The point made by the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) was that, whatever the rights and wrongs, this place will sadly, from time to time, have to commit people to defend or fight, and the whole of the decision making from the Government or this place will be compromised and corroded unless we have a full inquiry that gets everything out in the open and that we learn from. I hope that this is a low point from which we rise again one day.
Indeed. Can the hon. Gentleman imagine what a slap in the face it will be to those who put on the uniform so bravely—for whom we wear the poppy at this time of year—if we do not take the time to learn lessons, as the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) said we would be expected to after such an enormous military campaign?
Is this a low point or a point of no return? I hope that the Minister will tell us this afternoon that it is a low point from which we will learn—
And turn—and even if the hon. Gentleman suggests that we rise again, I suggest that this should perhaps be something from which we learn and get to what we really need, which is the reinvigoration and assessment of what the liberal international order is actually for and how it will lead to change, as it is being contested and challenged like never before.
I thank the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for securing this important debate and for his commitment and leadership as Chair of the Defence Committee. I also thank right hon. and hon. Members and their staff across the House for the hard work and professionalism that they have shown, given the tremendous difficulties that they have faced in getting their constituents, family members and other vulnerable people out of Afghanistan over the past few months. Parliamentarians and caseworkers alike can be enormously proud of their efforts, which have shown the House at its best.
Of course, the real heroes of Operation Pitting are the British and American servicemen and women, and those from other allied countries, who worked around the clock in unimaginably difficult circumstances to stand up for the values that we as a nation hold dear by evacuating British nationals, along with the brave Afghans who have supported UK operations in Afghanistan and who have stood up and campaigned for the values that we cherish and hold dear. We all saw the harrowing images from Kabul. It is clear that our country, and particularly our Government, owe those members of our armed services and our diplomatic corps a tremendous debt of gratitude for the work of not just the past few months, but the past 20 years.
The right hon. Gentleman made an eloquent case for the need for a wide-ranging inquiry into Britain’s role in Afghanistan. We agree with the principle of the need for an inquiry, but it is our firm view that the failures that need investigating are primarily those of political leadership that started with the Trump-Taliban Doha agreement. Let me set out why.
First, there is broad agreement that the decision for Britain to join the NATO-led and US-led invasion of Afghanistan was utterly just and right as a response to the most devastating and brutal terrorist attacks on liberal democracy in modern times. Those attacks killed 2,977 innocent civilians, including 67 British citizens, and we were right to defend our national security.
We must never underestimate the pivotal role that our armed forces played in ridding Afghanistan of al-Qaeda, in removing the Taliban from power and in succeeding in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It can never be said enough that while there was a British presence in Afghanistan, there was not a single terrorist attack on the west from Afghan soil. That is a fine collective achievement of which we should be truly proud.
What our servicemen and women did kept the rest of us safe—it is as simple as that. They also gave Afghan women and girls a level of freedom, education and empowerment that they would never previously have imagined. Let it never be said by anyone that those British soldiers died in vain. We must be absolutely clear on their achievements and their contribution.
Secondly, reports by the Select Committee on Defence already cover in detail the events on the ground in Afghanistan prior to the Trump-Taliban Doha agreement; its fourth report, “Operations in Afghanistan”, has proved particularly valuable to gaining insight and learning lessons. Of course, the armed forces may wish to undertake their own investigation into events to learn lessons from a military, operational and tactical perspective, but I believe that this House has a duty to focus on the political leadership and decision making that took place in the run-up to the Trump-Taliban Doha deal and afterwards, up to the present day.
Thirdly, the time and scale of an inquiry spanning 20 years would be almost unmanageable. I know that the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East said that we cannot use Chilcot as a yardstick, but the reality is that we are not clear on what other yardstick we would use, which is why Labour proposes a very defined scope, based on the milestone of the Trump-Taliban deal. The Chilcot inquiry into Iraq covered eight years of UK activity, beginning in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq; it took seven years to complete. If a similar model were applied to Afghanistan, an inquiry could take up to two decades to complete.
We cannot wait for two decades. Justice delayed is justice denied, so we must prioritise and use the time as effectively as possible. We know that removing the Taliban and defeating al-Qaeda was the right thing to do, but we know that the Doha agreement and events since have been utterly catastrophic, so let us focus on that important and in some ways deeply regrettable chapter in our history. We know that the Taliban are the root cause of the death and destruction that, unfortunately, has come to define Afghanistan since the 1990s, but we need to understand why they were able to defeat the Afghan army at such a shattering scale and pace.
What should the inquiry into the period from February 2020 onwards focus on specifically? Labour proposes the following. First, it must concentrate on learning the lessons from the Doha agreement up to 31 August. Why was there such a failure of diplomacy and of political leadership? Perhaps, on that point, the Minister can help me with a few of the questions that should certainly form part of the inquiry. We know that the Defence Secretary welcomed the Doha agreement between the Taliban and Donald Trump, but what did the UK Government know about that agreement ahead of time? The then Foreign Secretary said that
“we are following the negotiations”—[Official Report, 4 March 2021; Vol. 690, c. 415],
so clearly the UK Government were not at the table, but were Ministers even consulted on what was being discussed in Doha?
Despite our Prime Minister doing everything he could to cosy up to Donald Trump, it seems that our Government were left out in the cold. What does that say about the Prime Minister’s ability to build and maintain relationships with our key strategic defence and security partners?
Why were the Afghan Government not only locked out of the negotiating chamber, but completely blindsided by the result of the negotiations? Imagine an Afghan soldier on the ground in Afghanistan seeing the US sidelining their democratically elected Government to do a dirty deal with a misogynistic and murderous bunch of tyrants. No wonder morale collapsed in the Afghan army from that time onwards.
Did the UK Government challenge President Trump on his decision to fatally undermine the Afghan Government and military? We need to know what communications the UK had in the months before the 31 August withdrawal date and what concerns it expressed about the risks that UK and US forces faced.
On 20 April, Labour’s shadow Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), told this House:
“Now, with the full withdrawal of NATO troops, it is hard to see a future without bloodier conflict, wider Taliban control, and greater jeopardy for those Afghanis who worked with the west and…women”.—[Official Report, 20 April 2021; Vol. 692, c. 853.]
Why were Ministers not listening to our shadow Defence Secretary? On 8 July, the Prime Minister said:
“I do not believe that the Taliban are guaranteed the kind of victory that we sometimes read about.”—[Official Report, 8 July 2021; Vol. 698, c. 1107.]
Complacency was rife. Naivety was rife. The consequences were tragic.
Why did the then Foreign Secretary ignore messages from the UK ambassador to Afghanistan, the courageous Laurie Bristow, that made it clear that the Taliban advance was imminent? Warnings began in early July, but the message of most significance came on 2 August, when the ambassador wrote:
“The gloves are off. We are entering a new, dangerous phase of the conflict.”
Previously, on 22 July, the principal risk report by the then Foreign Secretary’s own Department had warned of rapid Taliban advances. Why did he feel that the most appropriate response to those messages was to go on holiday and refuse to make vital calls to his counterparts in other countries?
Secondly, the inquiry should focus on the immediate aftermath of the withdrawal—the months that we are living through right now. Why have so many colleagues failed to get adequate responses from the Foreign Office and Home Office helplines on behalf of their constituents? How many more vulnerable Afghans do the Government have on their list of people who need to be supported to leave the country? Why is the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme still not open for applications? Is it because the Government actually have no intention of ever opening it for applications? Are they in effect pursuing an operation of tapping on the shoulder, rather than opening the scheme up for applications, because the response would be so overwhelming? If so, the Minister should inform the House. Transparency is vital in this matter—lives are at stake.
Have the Government done enough to engage regional powers such as Pakistan to secure safe passage for those who are attempting to flee? How can we ensure that we direct financial and humanitarian support directly to Afghan services such as hospitals and schools, so that we can bypass the illegitimate Taliban regime? What leverage do we have as a result of the frozen £10 billion of reserves that the Afghan Government would have had in the west? What should we be demanding from the Taliban? What conditions should we be insisting they fulfil in return for the unfreezing of those funds?
Finally, the inquiry must focus on understanding the full implications of the Afghanistan withdrawal for Britain’s place in the world, and how it might affect our defence, foreign policy and national security. The British Government’s actions over the past 18 months have not been befitting of a country that has always been an influential voice at the top table of global affairs and that rightly prides itself on being one of the world’s major military powers. We therefore need to know the impact of the Taliban takeover and of the resurgence and insurgence of ISIS-K on the security of the British people.
What strategy are the Government putting in place to deal with terrorist threats from abroad, in Afghanistan and beyond? We need a laser-like focus on countering terrorism if we are to avoid a return to the days before 9/11.
What impact have the Conservative Government’s actions had on the reputation of Britain internationally, and the levels of trust between the UK and its allies, and how can we rebuild our reputation as an alliance maker rather than an alliance breaker? Are we still a country that is genuinely committed to defending the international rules-based order? Are we happy to see the world descend into anarchy? Will the UK be trusted to stand up for places such as Taiwan as China seeks to further its authoritarian influence?
Britain can still look forward to being a proud internationalist country with a proud internationalist future, but this isolationist Conservative Government appear to be intent on diminishing our great nation and diminishing the alliances that are so important to the status and the voice that we have. We therefore commend the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East for his call for an inquiry, while urging him to look at the possibility of narrowing its scope in terms of the specific timeframe that we are discussing, because we believe that that is the best way to hold accountable those who should be held to account, and to ensure that we use all our resources as effectively as possible, because justice delayed is justice denied.
I am grateful to my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for securing the debate, and I pay tribute to his long-standing commitment to Afghanistan, including what he has done in his current role as Chair of the Defence Committee. I am also grateful for the thoughtful contributions from other Members, including the hon. Members for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) and for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) and, indeed, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). It is my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government.
Before I do so, however, I want to record my thanks to all British service personnel who were deployed to Afghanistan over the course of our commitment there, and also to the countless diplomats, development experts and others who served there out of uniform. I want to thank our allies, and I very much want to thank the brave Afghans who worked shoulder to shoulder with us all over the last 20 years.
As a result of our collective efforts and those of our international and Afghan allies—as the hon. Member for Aberavon pointed out—no major terrorist attacks against the UK or, indeed, any NATO country have emanated from Afghanistan over the last 20 years, and that is something for which we should rightly be grateful. As a result of our efforts and those of our allies, secondary school enrolment rose from 13% of children to almost 60%. Over 8 million more children, including 3.6 million girls, were attending school than in 2001. Basic health services reached 85% of the population, and the proportion of people with access to clean water and sanitation doubled. As a result of our efforts and those of our allies, life expectancy rose by an incredible eight years. Over those 20 years, maternal mortality nearly halved, and infant mortality decreased faster than in any other low-income country. In short, our efforts over 20 years made the UK safer, and gave Afghans health, education and a degree of hope. Those achievements should be a matter of great pride to us all, and our focus now is on protecting them.
My right hon. and gallant Friend focused very much on the NATO mission. NATO allies went into Afghanistan together, and they left together. The 11 September attacks were the only occasion in NATO’s history on which it has invoked article 5, its collective “self-defence clause”. The UK played an active role in NATO collective decision making throughout the mission, and that includes the collective NATO ministerial decision on 14 April this year that NATO troops could not stay without American forces.
Since mid-August, we face a new situation, but we have enduring interests, and a continuing commitment to the Afghan people. Today, we have four major objectives. They are, first, to preserve the counter-terrorism gains that we have achieved, and ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a source of threats to the region or beyond, including here in the UK; secondly, to provide humanitarian support for the Afghan people, who are facing extreme hardship—42% of the population, more than 18 million people, are suffering crisis or emergency levels of severe acute malnutrition; thirdly, to press for inclusive politics and respect for human rights, especially the full and equal rights of girls to go to school and women to go to work; and finally, to ensure that the events in Afghanistan do not destabilise the region, for example, through uncontrolled outflows of refugees or the export of narcotics.
Through our presidency of the G7, our role in the Security Council and the G20, and our partnerships with countries in the region, we have helped to build global support for those four goals, and—just as important—we will continue to assist British nationals and eligible Afghans who are trying to relocate from that country. To pursue those goals, we need to have pragmatic engagement with the Taliban. Officials have had a number of meetings with the Taliban leadership since August, for instance, during a visit to Kabul by Sir Simon Gass, the Prime Minister’s High Representative, and meetings with the Taliban hosted in Doha. Thanks to those exchanges, the Taliban are clear about the fact that the eyes of the world are upon them and we are watching their actions closely. They know what they must do if we are to co-operate. That includes allowing girls to go back to secondary school and women to go back to their jobs, and preventing the movement of foreign terrorist fighters.
We are also offering practical support to Afghans, without benefiting the Taliban. The Prime Minister has said that we will double humanitarian and development assistance for Afghanistan this year, to £286 million. On 31 October, he announced the allocation of £50 million of that to fund emergency humanitarian support. The money will help to provide 2.5 million people with life-saving healthcare, food security, and shelter. We are working with other donors and the World Bank to continue the provision of basic services for the Afghan people, through non-state-run channels. Strong primary healthcare is vital if we are to protect Afghan women and children.
My right hon. and gallant Friend has argued that we must learn lessons from the NATO mission, from our broader campaign and from the way that it ended. He is, of course, right. We must, and we will. Our main focus right now is on ensuring safe passage for anyone remaining in Afghanistan who needs to leave, supporting the thousands of new arrivals in the UK, and continuing to provide assistance for the Afghan people who remain in Afghanistan—but, of course, we are always learning lessons: learning lessons from Afghanistan has been a continuous process. That is why, after the conclusion of Operation Herrick in 2014, the Army conducted a thorough internal review. We also incorporated lessons from that in the integrated review that we published earlier this year. Departments are undertaking their own Afghanistan lessons learnt exercises in their areas of expertise and contributing to NATO’s lessons learnt exercise, all of which will inform our defence strategy and future UK military operations.
In addition, the Government welcome the inquiries of this House’s Foreign Affairs Committee and of my right hon. Friend’s own Defence Committee. We welcome the debates in the House and the interest of the Intelligence Security Committee, the International Development Committee, the Home Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy, among others.
As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I can tell the House that we are proceeding with our inquiry on this. However, I submitted a number of written questions to the Minister’s Department when the previous Foreign Secretary was still in post. I do not want this to come across as personalised, but it is important for Parliament to understand what Ministers were and were not doing during the month of August. There has been a lot of public debate, particularly about the Foreign Secretary’s movements and actions. I submitted a whole series of questions asking for ministerial engagements on each of the days on which the Taliban were advancing across more and more of the country. The Foreign Office will not give me answers to those questions, so how is Parliament supposed to have any confidence that the Government take Parliament’s inquiry seriously when we cannot even get basic things such as call logs to tell us who Ministers were talking to as the Taliban were getting Kabul ever closer in their sights?
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office takes very seriously the inquiries from Members from every part of the House, and we seek to answer them in a way that informs Members without compromising security or, sometimes, the discreet work that the Department has to do.
The simple fact is that multiple inquiries are being conducted by the Committees of the House into the functions of the Government. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East is leading the inquiry by the Defence Committee that will cover what happened after the US agreement with the Taliban in February 2020—the exact period of time that the hon. Member for Glasgow South mentions. It will also cover the planning and execution of the withdrawal of UK forces and the evacuation of UK nationals and Afghanistan nationals who worked with the British armed forces.
The Government’s view is that these initiatives offer ample scope to address the most important questions. The hon. Member for Aberavon, who knows that I have a huge degree of respect for him, has suggested a more limited inquiry—one that would be limited to a timescale that would prevent it from looking at the role his party might have played when it was in government. While the final stages of the deployment are important, if his proposal were to be taken forward, I think that people might see it as partisan and cynical. As the Prime Minister told the House on 8 July, we do not think an inquiry in addition to those multiple other inquiries is the right way forward.
I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being very generous. Just to be clear, what I said in my remarks was that there had already been multiple inquiries into the Afghan intervention preceding 2010—some by the Defence Committee. He himself is commending the work of the Defence Committee in making inquiries. We are saying that it is important to prioritise and that we need something that does not take a massive amount of time, as Chilcot did. We are saying this in a genuine spirit of bipartisanship; I am certainly not attempting to be cynical or party political in any way.
I will take the hon. Gentleman at his word. Being an honourable Member is not just some loose title; he is genuinely an honourable gentleman and I take him at his word.
The Government welcome the close interest in these events that the House has taken. We will study recommendations of the inquiries by the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Defence Committee and others with great care. The military campaign in Afghanistan over the past 20 years claimed the lives of 457 British service personnel, but we must never forget that it saved the lives of countless others. We can be proud of what we achieved, in step with our NATO allies, and today we are doing everything we can with our partners to protect those gains, to ensure the UK’s security and to help the Afghan people in their time of greatest need.
I am grateful for all the contributions that have been made today on this important issue. I am also grateful to the Minister, who has worn the uniform and who I know takes these matters very seriously indeed. However, we have raised more questions than we have had answers to, which is exactly why we need an inquiry. I believe that there should be a default position that whenever this country goes to war or is involved in a long-term conflict, there should be some form of formal wash-up provided by the Government. If I had a private Member’s Bill opportunity, I would put one forward, but I would be worried that the Government would whip against it and that it would not get through. That is another matter, however.
The Minister talked about terrorist attacks from Afghanistan, and he was absolutely right, but we are no longer there so that threat is now very much back on the cards. The humanitarian assistance was significant, but it has been diminished because we have decided to depart. On NATO, he was right to say that there was an all in, all out approach, but that did not anticipate Donald Trump coming very close to taking the United States out of NATO. That was not the way forward that anybody imagined.
Okay, I will continue. I will conclude the debate, because I know another one is following this one.
I would argue that if there were a free vote on whether we should have an inquiry, many Members of this House—particularly Conservatives, but also Members from all parts of the House—would support it. It is the right thing to do. There is work to be done on the special relationship, and we need to show that we understand the world and that we can offer alternative points of view. We will be asked to do something similar in the future, potentially in Mali, Yemen, Lebanon or Afghanistan. A Kurdistan area could develop north of the Hindu Kush, because the Taliban are not in control of the whole country. The music has not stopped there, and resistance will build up in the next couple of years. We need to understand how we can do things better and understand the political decision making that went on.
My final words are to the brave people who served and to the bereaved who still miss the loved ones who did not return. They are scratching their heads—we know that because we have talked to them—and wondering what on earth it was all for. I spoke to the Taliban in Doha, and they know that the societal change that we introduced over 20 years is too much for them to reverse. The country has moved on, and it is too large. It is demanding too many new, modernised things for the Taliban to turn back. If there is a modicum of justice there, it is that we have advanced the country a long way forward. It has been handed over to the Taliban, but the spirit of what is now there in Afghanistan will be bigger than anything the Taliban can do to undo it and turn it back to what we saw in the 1990s. We can say thank you to our troops for achieving that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the proposal for an inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the NATO-led mission to Afghanistan.