There can be no doubt that the events in Afghanistan are the biggest disaster of UK foreign policy since the Suez canal invasion. The Western mission has fundamentally failed in Afghanistan and this will have profoundly negative consequences for us, both at home and abroad.
Before I consider that, I must confess I feel a tremendous amount of anger and grief for the UK soldiers – including several from this constituency – who fought and died in this conflict. You may recall a young man from Hyde, Corporal Harvey Holmes, was killed in Sangin during the 2010 General Election. I referenced Harvey in my maiden speech and became the Secretary of the All Party Group on the Armed Forces 2010-2015. I took the time to visit Afghanistan. Whatever people feel about this conflict and the outcome now before us, the British armed forces deployed to Afghanistan did an exceptional job in the most difficult of circumstances. Whether the political conditions in Afghanistan ever existed to sustain their success in driving out Al-Qaeda and then the Taliban is something we must now assess frankly and honestly. It is clear there has been a catastrophic miscalculation of the capacity and legitimacy of the Afghan government under President Ghani. But I do not believe this was inevitable.
The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have been almost entirely absent as this disaster unfolds, but there are many questions we need answers to. They include:
1) Where are the regional neighbours in this? China and Pakistan are increasingly aligned with each other and there is an argument that neither wants the Taliban on their doorstep. But Pakistan has a complex relationship with the Taliban, essentially wanting to keep them onside in Afghanistan whilst banning the Pakistani Taliban and having to deal with terror attacks from them within their own borders. China has extensive mineral interests in Afghanistan and is also engaged in horrific suppression of its own Muslim minority in Xinjiang. Which side will they come down on? China is already suggesting it would recognise a Taliban Government in exchange for them turning a blind eye to their own abuses.
2) What are we saying to the USA? There’s often criticism of American imperialism, but this fiasco is partly the result of American isolationism. Fighting a war and stationing forces to maintain peace are two different things – there are still 70,000 US Soldiers in South Korea nearly seventy years after the Korean War ended, and a good job too. President Biden ordered a hasty retreat to coincide with the anniversary of 9/11. But what signal has this sent to China re Taiwan, or Russia re the Baltic states? The simple truth is we need the US engaged in the world.
3) The immediate priority now must be for the Government to ensure all UK nationals and eligible Afghans get out of the country. I support the deployment of troops to Kabul to provide security and capacity to do this.
4) Our Government has been far too slow to provide sanctuary to those Afghans who have served alongside and supported the British presence in Afghanistan. This is a shameful dereliction of duty. Even now, there are reports of Afghans facing unacceptable bureaucratic hurdles and the Foreign Office suspending scholarships for young Afghans. Our resettlement scheme must urgently be expanded to ensure people to whom we owe a huge debt are not abandoned. A special commendation should be noted for the UK Ambassador to Afghanistan, Laurie Bristow, who I understand has remained at Kabul airport processing visas for evacuees.
5) The Taliban’s return is likely to lead to a refugee crisis. The UK Government must put in place specific safe and legal asylum routes and help support Afghans who are fleeing to neighbouring states. There is a real risk of a humanitarian disaster, particularly for women and girls. It is utterly shameful that the government has slashed development support to the country by 45% just as it faces a grave crisis. The UK must show it is taking immediate steps to ensure aid can reach those in need and prevent a humanitarian crisis. Given the advance of the Taliban and the evacuation of NGO, UN and British staff this will be a complex and difficult task, and one which will require a coordinated international effort to achieve.
6) Unfortunately, the victory of the Taliban will almost certainly encourage extremists and terrorists around the world. Several of the Taliban’s leaders, such as Sirajuddin Haqqani, are amongst the world’s most wanted terrorists. There must be a vigilant UK security response to this, both at home and abroad.
7) Finally, the must be an immediate and coordinated response from the UN Security Council today. Even thought the Taliban appear to have won, conquering Afghanistan is a very different proposition to forming a Government and successfully running the country. There may still be some possibility for a political dialogue to uphold the gains made in human rights, democratic processes and the rights of women and girls. Frankly, this seems to be the best we can hope for right now.
A final thought: the median age in Afghanistan is just 18. This means the majority of the population was actually born after 2001 and have never lived under the medieval barbarism of the first Taliban Government. The Taliban have a very effective social media operation currently attempting to play down what Taliban rule will mean, but I am not persuaded at all. The future for the people of Afghanistan looks particularly tragic even by Afghan standards.