The devastating scenes we have witnessed in Kabul and across Afghanistan have been utterly heart-breaking – not least for those brave members of our armed forces who have given so much in the quest to rid of Afghanistan of terrorist cells, and to build peace and stability in that troubled land.
The images distressed us all. From babies being passed over barbed wire, to harrowing footage of Afghan citizens clinging onto US military aircraft in an attempt to escape – only to fall hundreds of feet to their deaths – and then the devastation and more than 200 deaths caused by suicide bombers.
Yet even after those killings brave Afghans stayed at the airport, showing their desperation to flee Taliban oppression and persecution, only to learn that they would be left behind while 200 animals were rescued on a half empty plane.
Let’s be clear: the responsibility for these tragic events lies squarely at the feet of the brutal, murderous, and misogynistic Taliban, who now threaten to reverse the progress towards a more a more tolerant and liberal Afghanistan in which women and girls have a chance in life. Now their rights to education are under threat, and they live in fear of Taliban brutality.
But the American government must live up to the reality that the withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a chaotic and disastrous failure, based on a catastrophic failure of intelligence combined with the absence of any contingency planning and compounded by an obsession with sticking to arbitrary dates and self-imposed deadlines.
But blaming Washington for everything – as the UK government has tried to do throughout this crisis – is the very definition of a cop-out. Boris Johnson’s failure to challenge the abrupt and naïve nature and timing of America’s withdrawal plans is a damning indictment of his complacent and incompetent style of government.
The Prime Minister simply must respond to questions about whether or not he used his close relationship with Trump to challenge the cut-and-run deal which was negotiated with the Taliban in February 2020, behind the back of the Afghan government – a deal that was such a sell out that it didn’t even secure a ceasefire, let alone a plan for how Afghanistan was to be governed once the international military presence had departed.
We also deserve to know whether Johnson questioned the Biden administration’s scenario planning ahead of the withdrawal of troops this year. It seems that the only plan was for a best case scenario whereby the Afghan military would stand firm and the Afghan government would not crumble. Johnson, Raab and Wallace failed to challenge the hyper-optimistic assumptions on which the withdrawal plans were based, and in so doing they laid the groundwork for the series of disasters which inevitably followed.
The Prime Minister, who was asleep at the wheel and his Foreign Secretary was asleep on a deckchair, while the Taliban walked into Kabul. On 17 August Johnson claimed that he had predicted the pace of the Taliban surge. So why didn’t he take action? Why were he and Dominic Raab on holiday if they knew that the most serious international crisis since Suez was about to occur?
The UK Government’s immediate priority must now be to do all it can to secure safe passage out of Afghanistan for those remaining British nationals, and for those brave and heroic Afghan workers and contractors who have supported the UK’s military and humanitarian efforts over the past 20 years but who have been left behind amid the chaos. We owe these men and women – and their families – a huge debt of gratitude which must now be honoured through the promise of physical safety. In reality, this now means working with regional powers to make sure that each country allows those who qualify for Britain’s resettlement schemes out of Afghanistan if they can reach the border. It also means using what leverage we have over the Taliban to assert influence – such as the fact that Western countries are currently freezing Afghan government funds in bank accounts.
The Conservative government must also plan for the long-term, and this means placing a laser-like focus on ensuring that Afghanistan under the Taliban does not revert to being the safe haven for international terrorism that it was pre-9/11. How will he strengthen our intelligence-gathering capabilities, both in Afghanistan and here at home? What methods will he consider using to defeat terrorist cells that threaten the security of the British people?
Because, let’s be clear, for those luckily enough not to remember the events of 9/11, there was a compelling rationale for why the UK supported the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. It was because the Taliban had offered safe haven to Al Qaeda – a terrorist cell which murdered 2,977 innocent citizens in cold blood on a single day, including 67 Brits.
Many will look back at the events that unfolded – the lack of long-term strategy and skin-deep understanding of Afghanistan’s complex politics and culture – and feel that the invasion was not worth it; that 457 British personnel died in vain. But I do not believe this to be the case. I feel that does a huge injustice to their critical work in ridding Afghanistan of terrorism for 20 years – making the world a safer place by driving back the Taliban and succeeding in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
The tragedy did not come in the response to 9/11 – it came in the events of the past 18 months; a botched withdrawal that pulled the rug out from under the feet of the Afghan population and which threatens to undo the hard work of the British military – just ask those Afghan women and girls who now fear for their future.
If Afghanistan does return to being the global hub for international terrorist networks the West will need to be ready. And that will require far better planning and leadership than we have seen for the US and UK governments thus far. We can’t undo the past, but we can still shape the future. This must start today, with an ambitious humanitarian programme, alongside a plan to counter terrorist threats.
Stephen Kinnock is the MP for Aberavon and Shadow Minister for Asia & the Pacific