We have all been shocked by the images we have seen over the last few days and have been asking deep questions as to how this tragedy was allowed to happen.
The UK have only just withdrawn its presence from Germany following WWII. Long after the war, there is a need to build peace, a need to provide support and security, and to assist with stabilisation. We have a presence in countries around the world, doing just that. It is what our Armed Forces put on their uniforms each day to do, to ensure that the freedoms that have been won hold.
Just seven years after one of the most brutal conflicts of modern time, where 457 UK personnel lost their lives and with countless more experiencing the physical and mental scars of the violent combats they partook in, the world could look to Afghanistan and see relative peace and freedom. For the first time, girls went to school, women worked, and took roles as doctors, judges and journalists; women sat in Afghanistan’s Parliament.
While many of us must question the reason to enter this 20-year war, which was a reaction to the most heinous of acts which saw 2977 civilians fall with the twin towers on 9/11, we have even more questions to ask as to why, on the twentieth anniversary of this tragedy, should that have been the basis for withdrawal. The wisdom of both decisions must be scrutinised through an independent public inquiry, not least after what the Prime Minister said and didn’t say in the debate in Parliament on 18 August 2021.
I attended the full debate in Parliament, hoping to speak, but along with 79 other colleagues was not called due to the debate being heavily oversubscribed. I had questions to put not least over the handling of the withdrawal process. Initiated by Donald Trump, when he was President, he negotiated a deal with the Taliban, by-passing the Afghan Government and believing that they would honour such agreement. All they needed to do was bide their time.
Meanwhile the UK, the second partner in the allied forces operation, stood back and did nothing. It should have stood its ground and refused to support; but it did not. Government, as ever were slow to respond and not across the detail. There is no point in claiming the ‘Global Britain’ influence if there is none, there is no point pretending that we had any influence over the US if we did not attempt to use it.
However, this agreement provided us 18 months to respond. We could have built a security coalition to maintain a presence of other allies, including from the EU, to maintain the peace and stability. We should have worked through all the possibilities, scenario played, and realised that unless we acted, that things would not end well. The warnings were given, yet Government seem surprised. If Trump was unresponsive, then we should have worked on Biden to change course. Government did not.
In any event, Government should have prepared for the worse, ensured that there were processes in place to deal with all eventualities. It did not do this either; Government did nothing. Over time, Labour exposed this absent approach, and we called for action. Government failed to assess the growing risks nor act.
As things were coming to a head this month, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary were both on holiday, not on the job. As if dazed from the sun, the Foreign Secretary returned, but by then it was all too late; the Taliban had swept the country, released terrorists from jail, and had started making lists of targets, persecuting local people and prosecuting violence. The Afghan people simply ran for their lives, those that could. There were no plans in place.
Worse, again, Government had cut Overseas Development Aid to Afghanistan, 45% in the last year and 77% over the last 3. Even on the day of the House of Commons debate, to a great fanfare, the Prime Minister did not restore aid to even 2019 levels which was £292m when his offer was just £286m. Compare that to the £37bn spent on the conflict, you soon get a sense of how poor his response is. There was no mention of the scale of support he would provide neighbouring countries, now in receipt of 10,000s refugees, and when millions are on the move.
However, Government has also failed to process applications under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP). This should have enabled Afghan civilians who have worked for UK Armed Forces and the British civilian presence as interpreters and guards. They have been failed, contractors providing these services excluded and their families abandoned. Until Labour pressured the Government, the Chevening Scholarship students were also being denied the opportunity to come to the UK. In the Parliamentary debate, we heard MPs from around the country talk of how their constituents are unable to get clearance to come to the UK, as Government are insisting that they apply using the ‘normal’ process and provide biometric data.
Government also announced that the UK would accept 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan over many years, starting with 5,000 in the next year. They have also said that this depended on local authorities providing the support to these placements. We know that following the pandemic, local authorities are cash-strapped, they have no money left and are carrying huge debts. We know that they have no spare housing as demand for social housing is rising. They cannot just wait for private homes to come available, they must act and provide the temporary and long term support these people need and, instead of capping the numbers, seek to play its part.
But people cannot leave, as there are road blocks in place, and they cannot reach the airports. The need for routes into neighbouring countries is growing by the hour, but unless there is dispersal and support from across the globe, mass refugee camps will line the edges of Afghanistan. It will soon be winter; it gets bitterly cold.
This is now a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented scale. Not in my lifetime, have I witnessed such catastrophic consequences from a Government that has simply failed to get to grips with the diplomatic and military situation in a country; nor have any plan.
So what can we do? I will be raising your concerns with the Foreign Secretary, and when Parliament next returns will speak up for the people of Afghanistan. I have been asking questions about the situation for some time and will continue to do so. However, locally, I have written to the City of Sanctuary, Human Rights City and the City of York Council to call a meeting to discuss how we as a city respond. I know that people across York will want to be generous, as they have been on so many occasions. We will make it clear that ‘Refugees are Welcome’ in our city. I will do all I can.
Women and girls across Afghanistan are looking to us to give them hope and a future. Religious minority communities are needing us to get them out safely. LGBT+ people know that their only lifeline will be to leave their country. Journalists, politicians and judges need sanctuary too.
When you embroil yourself in the affairs of another country, I believe you have a ‘forever’ commitment to the people. 1/4m people have lost their lives in this conflict; over 150,000 UK forces have served; many mentally and physically scarred and 457 families are grieving. We owe it to our Armed Forces, we owe it to the people of Afghanistan to step up in our time. Now is not the time to retreat, for that is not our calling, it is time to step forward with the scale of humanitarian support necessary to respond to the scale this tragedy in Afghanistan demands.