In the wake of the collapse of the Afghan Government there has been much sombre reflection in Parliament and earlier by the Head of Armed Forces.
I fully recognise Chief of Defence Staff Nick Carter’s “realpolitic” in talking of working with the Taliban to secure the best possible outcomes in getting British citizens and Afghani citizens at risk, out of the country and trying to secure as stable an Afghanistan as possible. And perhaps he has to talk in such positive terms in pursuit of that objective about a changed Taliban; one that we can collaborate with; a more humane Taliban respectful of women but I have my very, very serious doubts as to whether that is in anyway accurate.
He asks for the evidence that they are not true to their word, but the converse applies: Where is the evidence that the Taliban have changed their ways other than their propaganda? It’s deeds, not words, that count. Are girls going to be able to access education? Will women be able to fully participate in their society? Will those brave women continue as lawyers and Judges, doctors and teachers? They’ve shown immense courage, yet we know beyond any doubt that women and women’s rights in Afghanistan are now in serious peril.
Quite frankly it’s ridiculous to say that the Taliban have changed. That’s a careless, complacent and irresponsible statement to make. The Taliban are clearly a disparate force. And try telling those young girls – children- dragged from their homes abducted and raped by Taliban fighters and those women whose homes have been daubed with paint awaiting capture, torture and worse in retribution for having the audacity to exercise their basic human rights, that this is the new improved, better, and kinder Taliban.
The Afghan people have made incredible sacrifices and shown such fortitude and determination. As of course have 150,000 UK service personnel and we remember the 457 who didn’t come home.
I very much understand the anger of many of our armed forces who served so dutifully and loyally in Afghanistan at such massive physical and mental cost to themselves, their comrades, and their families.
Listening to Ben Parkinson on the television- the amazing soldier who sustained the most horrific injuries in Afghanistan – you can have nothing other than the greatest sense of empathy for him and others in their justifiable outrage and, given this humiliating and disastrous end, when he and they ask whether we should ever have entered Afghanistan in the first place.
As a founder member of the Royal British Legion Solicitors Group, it was my utter privilege to try to be of assistance and support to returning service personnel and I can vividly bring to mind the innumerable members of our service personnel I met with over the decades, many of whom were so dreadfully injured in conflict. Some of the appalling injures and the inspirational courage I encountered at places like the tri service rehabilitation centre at RAF Headley Court, will stay with me forever. I will never forget sitting on the hospital bed of an incredible 19-year-old soldier and talking with him. He had lost both legs, an eye and other massively disfiguring and life changing injuries after stepping on an IED. I know many service personnel like him are asking today whether their sacrifice was worth it and many saying with great certainty and feeling that their sacrifice was for nothing.
They speak so powerfully, and they cannot be ignored. They are perfectly entitled to draw that conclusion and their anger is totally understandable and justified.
We can have the debate – and we must- about our foreign policy past and future- but I do want to reach out to our service personnel as to my mind, their service did undoubtedly, for very many years, bring some significant improvement stability and opportunity for millions of Afghan people. Many of those Afghanis would not be alive now and the young people of Afghanistan would have had a very different experience over the last 20 years.
None of that negates their sense of anger and betrayal and Keir Starmer was absolutely right when he said:
“Your sacrifice was not in vain. You brought stability, reduced the terrorist threat, and enabled progress. We are all proud of what you did. And your sacrifice deserves better than this. And so do the Afghan people.
He was also entirely accurate when he said: “There has been a major miscalculation of the resilience of the Afghan forces and staggering complacency from our Government about the Taliban threat.”
And Theresa May and Tom Tugendhat are also right when they and others question our inability to formulate a foreign policy with anyone other than the United States.
But the UK still has a lead role here. We must deploy all our capabilities and capacity – diplomatic and political- to influence and negotiate to secure the maximum possible stability, difficult as that may be.
We have a duty to those Afghan people who worked alongside us to protect and evacuate them as they are clearly at great risk.
The pace of the collapse of the Afghan Government was staggering. We are perfectly entitled to ask- especially on behalf of our Armed Forces- what on earth happened to our intelligence? How is it possible, with all the knowledge and experience that has been built up, that the world was taken by such surprise?
And now we face a humanitarian crisis. The world has to step up and the UK has a responsibility to take a lead and that means doing everything possible, negotiating and in discussion – yes with the Taliban – to keep the Non Governmental Organisations and others in place to continue to support the Afghan people.
There are tens of thousands of Afghans fearful of their lives. They want to escape their country and the world should stand with them and the UK and the rest of the world should set up the mechanisms to afford sanctuary to all Afghan citizens who seek it.
It therefore beggars belief that here in the UK we are still seeking to deny Afghan people who have already made it to our shores having successfully escaped and send them back to their hell. Utter madness and totally and utterly inhumane
In my time in the House of Commons I have heard time after time from former soldiers who have served with great distinction and courage, and they speak with great authority and what is clear from listening to them that we as a country have an institutional inability to give a candid account of the objectives of military missions and then in our assessment of the relative successes and failures of them.
The failure of western politicians to recognise the deep-seated cultural factors at play in Afghanistan from the outset, to seek to impose our own political culture and then vacate the stage – as was always going to happen at some point- leaving behind such instability, will live with us all for a very long time.
We are going to need a fundamental inquiry to understand how such a disaster could so quickly unfold and to examine the better basis for our future foreign policy and Britain’s role in the world.
The Afghan people and British service personnel deserve nothing less.