Alicia Kearns MP spoke about the situation in Afghanistan on 18th August 2020.
It has been said that there are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades pass. What we are seeing in Afghanistan this week is decades, and they will shape the rest of my lifetime and that of many in this Chamber. This was a wholly preventable tragedy, and I and many colleagues around me are so very, very angry.
Our Government called for NATO allies to help us build a new coalition in Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban recapturing it, and we were let down. Only Turkey was willing to stand alongside us because they know what a failed state looks like. They have seen the refugees they support; they have seen the terrorists on their doorstep; they have seen the conflict and the suffering. It is bitterly disappointing and there is much we must learn from this. The UK could not have saved all those lives on our own. Multilateral collective responsibility should mean something, but I believe that too often today, it does not.
I have spent the last few days listening to our veterans, many of whom live in Rutland and Melton. I say to them now: many of us in this place will never truly understand the scars you carry, and we will never understand all you encountered, but all of you left me with one request—get the people out. That is what I, along with so many of my colleagues in this place, have been fighting for over the last few days: the veterans, the interpreters who supported families, those who identified IEDs, the female journalists fighting for their lives who have already had mines blow up their stations, and those who negotiated for their fellow Afghans against the Taliban. I must thank the Defence Secretary because he has been constant in his support, every hour over the weekend, to help me to get those people out. I thank him for his time.
Getting people out must be our priority. I welcome the Prime Minister’s G7-led multilateral refugee programme. We have to get non-combatant evacuations proceeding at pace, but we are operating only with the consent of the Taliban—most certainly at the airport—and that can be withdrawn at any time, so my primary concern is those safe routes to the airport. The air bridge must be operational at all times and we must negotiate departures, and not just from Kabul. Land convoys must be considered humanitarian corridors.
Once we get those people out, we must ensure that refugee families are welcome to our country so that they can build the lives they never asked for. The kindness of the British people is great, and Melton Borough Council and Harborough District Council have both already stepped up to the plate and said that they would like to take as many refugees as they can. The MOD is working with me to identify MOD housing stock in Rutland and across the constituency of Rutland and Melton, but I call on the Government to consider creating an initiative that allows British nationals to open their homes, their spare bedrooms and their second homes to those Afghans, similar to the private sponsorship route that already exists, because the British people want to step up and help.
Beyond the immediate life-saving operations, there is much that we must talk about. First, the British Government and the international community must recognise that the withdrawal is emblematic of a changing American posture. The comments that we have seen over the last few days have rattled me to my core, and yes, we are not meant to speak ill of our friends and allies, but in this case, we have no alternative but to call out the comments against our Afghan allies.
Secondly, the views of European allies such as the UK may no longer hold the same sway in Washington under this presidency. That means that we must take greater responsibility for our defence around the world. Global Britain means that we must act autonomously, but through multilaterals on the world stage with other partners, and we must convince our NATO allies that we can all stand together without the Americans. Yes, they bring the kit; yes, they bring the money; yes, they bring the numbers, but this is something that we can and must do. We must shift from the model of being over-reliant on the US.
Thirdly, we must fix our broken international system because it is not saving lives. The UN has failed to enable a political solution. There is no meaningful method or tactics to prevent the worst excesses of the Taliban, and the system is being undermined by hostile money flooding fragile states. There are hostile states sitting on the human rights and women’s councils of all the organisations of the multilateral world. It is the UK’s duty to fix the international system, because we can do it. I have sat at the negotiating tables, and it is the UK that brings countries together behind the scenes and provides the bureaucracy and systems that allow coalitions to be effective. We must recognise our unique expertise and step up.
We must also look hard at our strategic goals in south Asia, because China is most certainly doing that. Its goals are securing influence against Pakistan, stripping minerals and creating an alternative, superior democratic track. Its plunder diplomacy is well under way, and it is already using the situation to threaten Taiwan. It is saying, “Look what the Americans will do. They will leave you.” By recognising the Taliban, China has taken the first step towards creating an alternative international mechanism. The gravitational shift is towards it, and we must stand strong against that.
I also urge caution about our posture towards the Taliban. I must confess that I see what is being laid before the international community as simply platitudes—little more than a tactic to allow the Taliban to consolidate its control, avoid sanctions, keep the aid money rolling in, root out all those on its hit list and avoid UN Security Council measures. Perhaps I am wrong, but Pashtunwali tells us that Taliban intent includes justice or revenge as one of the core tenets of its society and way of life. We must also adequately monitor al-Qaeda.
The human cost of this withdrawal is monumental, but the strategic consequences risk being so much greater if we do not learn the lessons of the past few decades. We must properly focus on atrocity prevention. The new conflict centre, which I fought for, must lead our way in deciding how we become more strategic. We cannot be everywhere in this world and we cannot rescue every mission, but we can work on two core principles. The first is to protect our nation, our people and our prosperity. We must be single-minded in our focus on that and incredibly strategic. The second is that we must live up to our promises so that we can look in the eye those to whom we and our veterans have made promises, and stand squarely behind them. We cannot go wrong if that guides our foreign policy.
Finally, I thank our armed forces, our border staff, our Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office staff and Sir Laurie Bristow for the heroic work they are doing to get people out. I have worked in a crisis centre and I know the hours they are working. We are grateful for all they are doing. They are putting their lives at risk for the duty and responsibilities of this House.
We speak today in a changed world. I have no doubt that we will open our hearts to the people of Afghanistan. Together, we in this House must mourn those who are left behind and those who will not make it. Our singular purpose must be atrocity prevention in the future. We must recognise where the threats to this country lie and ensure that we are single-minded in our focus on challenging them and protecting our people. We must ensure that, in a world that has become darker and more uncertain this week, at least we know the light that we will follow.