I’ve just returned to my office in parliament after spending seven hours in the Commons listening intently to speeches from all parties and perspectives. Parliament was rightly recalled for this.
The chaos created by the lightning withdrawal of allied support has been, and remains, mortally dangerous. Watching this unfold has been soul destroying. I know this is a view shared by so many of you and I’m grateful for the messages you’ve sent me, I’ve had well over a thousand.
Most of your messages concern the safe passage of people who’s lives are most at risk under Taliban rule. I hear you and I am fighting for a swift, fair, and comprehensive asylum process for everyone endangered by their work or support of British agencies. Government have agreed to 20,000 places over five years with ‘up to’ 5,000 this year. This simply isn’t good enough because the need is now, right now, and every day we fail to provide safe passage for people the less likely they will make it out alive.
In recent days my team and I have been working really hard to help in individual cases. The stories are heartbreaking. So many people living in our community are connected to people in Afghanistan, either as partners, family members or colleagues and the anxiety they have for their welfare is understandably extreme. My team have been working long hours and we’re trying everything we possibly can to make a difference.
Today alone I heard of someone who’s wife if in Kabul who has a British visa but has been forced into hiding in her house, has Taliban road blocks in her street and across the city, and is totally impossible to make the journey to the airport safely. This situation will only worsen as the Taliban grip tightens and is why we must act swiftly for anyone able to leave now and can make it to the airport.
Bare in mind we’re also talking about Kabul. People in far flung parts of Afghanistan hundreds of miles from Kabul are in an even worse position, the feeling of isolation and hopelessness must be overwhelming.
Many people have contacted me also about Nowzad and the animals in their care. I’ve been in touch with the Foreign Office about this and believe contact has now been made but I’m awaiting an update.
Huge sacrifice went into Afghanistan. Over 400 British, 2,400 American, and most of all 69,000 Afghan security forces personnel died fighting the Taliban and maintaining order over the 20 year period. A trillion dollars were spent by the United States and many billions by us and other allied countries.
But it’s wrong to say nothing changed for the better in that time. Roads, cellphone, commercial infrastructure were transformed. But most of all were the opportunities and rights offered to women and girls. Under the Taliban it was illegal for girls to be educated, by 2011 65% of girls were in school. 27% of the Afghan parliament were female MPs, not far off the amount of women in the British parliament at 34% (but worth noting that over half of Labour MPs are women!). For the first time ever, women judges sat in courts at all levels.
Baring in mind the average age in Afghanistan is 18 and our intervention there was for the last 20 years, you can see just how profound the successes achieved will be been for the vast majority of people there.
This makes what will now be lost unimaginably tragic. We’ve already seen heartbreaking images of girls turning up to school, neatly dressed in uniform with their little backpacks full of books, being told to go home. Businesses run by women or offering services to women have been closed and advertisements with a woman’s face being whitewashed.
I have to be honest with you, I find the argument ‘we couldn’t stay longer’ really difficult. Cypress, the Falklands, Kenya, Niger, German and Japan, and more, have all had significant number of British troops for decades longer than Afghanistan. Britain and America had withdrawn from frontline activity a long time earlier and not suffered loss of life for three years of more. Tory MP and former soldier Tobias Elwood pointed out today that before the withdrawal there were more US personnel in their embassy in London than in the whole of Afghanistan.
I say all this because it would be a huge disservice to the Afghan people to suggest that nothing has moved forward in the last 20 years. Despite the mistakes, faults and many things that should have been done better, things improved hugely for most people there.
The Afghan situation is complex. Those who believe that allied countries were an occupying force with no legitimacy must also accept that our presence in recent years was supported by their elected parliament. That elected parliament has just been swept aside by the Taliban, not elected by anyone and much of its leadership are not Afghans themselves. I believe every human should have a say in who governs them, it is so sad that basic right has now been snatched away from Afghan citizens.
The world is changing and I want to finish with a word or two about that. Donald Trump did his best to smash the world order that emerged in the wake of WWII. From the United Nations to NATO to the norms of how a rich country acts, he lowered standards and weakened every institution. Joe Biden is rebuilding it but it seems things will be built differently than before.
The United States sees China and the indo-pacific region as it’s priority for emerging threat and opportunity and where it’s majority attention needs to be. That means that Europe and our other global allies in parts of the world that affect us most need to step up and find ways of working much better together. The dysfunction in our post-Brexit relationship with the EU is a real barrier to that. So is Britain’s diminished reputation since Boris Johnson reneged on international agreements and confusion over our reliability as a partner.
These are all problems that need addressing because the vacuum left by our withdrawal from Afghanistan is being filled by medievalism that will trample on human rights and inflict extreme mystery and enslavement on many. Other vacuums will emerge in the near future and we need to be a stabilising force, not the country Boris Johnson wants that pretends we can pull up the drawbridge, put our fingers in our ears and hum loudly, hoping the world’s problems pass us by.
Global problems don’t pass us by. A new wave of refugees will emerge from Afghanistan and Britain must act with generosity in response. 80% of the world’s opium is produced there too and the Taliban is certain to increase production in light of their collapsing legitimate economy. And given their past fostering of extreme terrorist activity that led directly to attacks on Britain, the USA, Spain, France and so many other parts of the world, there will be security worries too.
But for now, today, I’ve been working flat out to support those people who Britain owes help to leave. They deserve better. I’ve been in constant contact with the Foreign Office and will continue to do everything I possibly can. The sight of people clinging to planes taking off from Kabul airport shows what ordinary Afghans feel about their future under Taliban rule. It’s an image that will haunt me and our country for quite some time but I hope we might redeem ourselves at least a little by acting with compassion towards those who turn to us for refuge in the days, months and years ahead.