Skip to main content

Afghanistan: Inquiry into UK Withdrawal

Volume 703: debated on Monday 15 November 2021

8. If he will make an assessment of the potential merits of an independent inquiry into the UK withdrawal of personnel from Afghanistan. (904129)

The Ministry of Defence has carried out extensive and robust lessons-learned exercises in response to events in Afghanistan, including for Op Pitting, the non-combatant evacuation operation, and those lessons have already been recycled into our NEO plans. It has also done the same with the decisions to withdraw from Afghanistan in the first place. Moreover, numerous inquiries are already taking place across Government to scrutinise both the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and our campaign in Afghanistan more generally, including the inquiry being undertaken by the House of Commons Defence Committee, which the Secretary of State gave evidence to on 26 October.

Does the Minister accept, though, that there is confusion and contradiction in the UK Government’s portrayal of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, with the former Foreign Secretary saying that the Taliban takeover was “faster than anyone anticipated” while the Prime Minister was saying that it had been “clear for many months” that the situation could change quickly? Army personnel faced the heart-breaking task of turning back thousands of Afghan citizens, including many who worked with groups such as the British Council. Surely this House and our constituents have a right to know what went wrong and why. Does the Minister not appreciate that only an independent inquiry can tell us that?

The hon. Lady conflates two issues. The first is the decision-making process around why British forces left Afghanistan. I do not think there is much to unearth there; the Doha agreement that was signed by President Trump put us in a position where a decision would need to be made this year, either to re-engage the Taliban in full-on fighting or to leave. That was the deal that was done, and we have been very clear with the House about that at every opportunity. As for the delivery of Op Pitting itself, I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s characterisation of what I think was an extraordinarily successful military operation.

I very much agree with the Minister that Op Pitting was a superbly successful operation, no matter what else one might say about Afghanistan. It is only right that we in this House and across the Palace should thank and welcome the people who carried out that operation, and Members of all parties and staff throughout the Palace will be able to do so on Wednesday 24 November, immediately after Prime Minister’s Question Time, when 150 soldiers who carried out that brilliant operation will march through Carriage Gates and halt outside the great north door of Westminster Hall. I hope that all Members will be there to welcome them and thank them for what they did.

I did not spot a question in there, but I think that we are all looking forward to that event as much as my hon. Friend.

There is no question that the bravery and professionalism of UK armed forces personnel certainly got the Government out of a hole when it came to Op Pitting, but one issue that we need an inquiry to look at is why, in May, the French were so much better prepared than the UK to the extent that they commenced evacuating Afghans who supported the French efforts in Afghanistan, along with their families, 90 days before the fall of Kabul. It is quite clear that similar intelligence was available to NATO allies in advance of operations commencing, so what went wrong with the analysis of that intelligence in the United Kingdom? An inquiry must establish whether the UK Government were guilty of rose-tinted assessment, complacency or general dysfunction.

The hon. Gentleman might want to check the date on which the Foreign Office advice to leave Afghanistan was changed to be that, because it was actually very much aligned with the French timeline that he mentioned. From that moment onwards, the resettlement scheme for moving MOD-entitled civilian contractors out of the country had commenced. It is a source of regret, I think, for many who were eligible for the scheme that they chose not to leave at the first opportunity and they waited, but the MOD was not in a position forcibly to remove people from the country. The scheme was open; we were bringing people back. From memory, I think we removed about 1,500 people before Kabul fell. I wish that more had taken the opportunity to leave when the Foreign Office advice was changed, but the Foreign Office advice was changed in a timely way and the MOD capacity to move people was in place from the spring.