Lisa Nandy has defended the decision by the then Labour government to intervene militarily in Afghanistan in 2001 as “absolutely right” but criticised the entry strategy as “flawed” and said there were “lessons to be learned”.
Discussing the current situation in the country on BBC Question Time on Wednesday evening, the Shadow Foreign Secretary said the then government had not understood the “complexity of what then had to come next”.
“It was absolutely right, as James [Cleverly] said, after the 9/11 attacks for the UK to want to respect that Article 5 of the NATO agreement had been invoked,” she told the BBC audience.
“That we had a duty to come to the mutual aid of NATO member states. That British citizens had been the second biggest victims of the 9/11 attacks outside of the US and that there was a real need to degrade the capability of al-Qaeda.
“But those decisions were flawed in that there was no real understanding of the complexity of what then had to come next. So this has long and deep roots. And there’ve been a series of political and strategic failures over a very long period of time that led to here.”
The Taliban returned to power over the weekend, almost 20 years after the invasion of Afghanistan launched by the West with the objective of ousting the group and preventing it from harbouring al-Qaeda following the 9/11 attacks in the US.
“The decision to go in, in the first place, was taken when George Bush was in power on one side of the Atlantic and Labour was in power on the other, and there are lessons that we are going to have to learn about the last 20 years,” Nandy said.
“We shouldn’t shy away from learning those lessons about the role that my party played, just as we shouldn’t shy away from the lessons that James’ party has played as well.”
The success of the Taliban followed the planned withdrawal of troops by the US, agreed by President Donald Trump last year. Evacuation flights are currently departing from the capital as the US and other countries fly out nationals.
UK ministers have come under pressure to accept refugees from the country. The government has committed to resettling 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan over the next five years – though only 5,000 will be accepted under the scheme this year.
MPs were recalled for an emergency debate on Wednesday. Boris Johnson faced criticism over his response to the withdrawal of US troops and calls to provide greater support for refugees in the wake of the government’s collapse.
Nandy told the BBC audience that the situation in the country was “not inevitable”, describing it as a consequence of the US decision to withdraw, which she acknowledged placed the UK in a “difficult position”.
“The decision by Joe Biden to put a firm end date on the withdrawal obviously helped to motivate the Taliban and give them a signal that they could advance across the country,” she said.
“It had a huge impact on the moral of the Afghan forces as well and really undermined the efforts that had been made to try and strengthen their resilience.”
But she highlighted that the UK had 18 months to plan, between the agreement to withdraw and the subsequent implementation, pointing out that Biden had been clear in his intention to respect the agreement made by his predecessor.
She added: “To see these scenes at the airport, to see the Defence Secretary saying that now because of our failure to plan people will be left behind and they will die – this is unacceptable and it is an unparalleled moment of shame for this government.
At least 12 people have died at Kabul airport since Sunday and videos have emerged of people clinging onto planes. The Taliban is now reportedly blocking all Afghans, including those with visas, from reaching the tarmac.
Keir Starmer accused the Prime Minister of “complacency and poor judgement” over the UK government’s response to the situation during the debate on Wednesday and called for a “generous and welcoming” resettlement scheme for refugees.
“The very problems we’re confronting today were all known problems in the last 18 months and there’s been a failure of preparation. The lack of planning is unforgivable and the Prime Minister bears a heavy responsibility,” he said.
Johnson was heckled as he told MPs that the collapse of the government in Afghanistan was “faster than I think even the Taliban predicted”, but claimed: “What is not true is that UK government was unprepared or did not foresee this”.
Starmer pointed out that both Labour and Tory MPs had warned that the government was underestimating the threat of the Taliban, and that Johnson told parliament in July that the group was not capable of victory “by military means”.
“There was no real understanding of the complexity of what had to come next.”
— BBC Question Time (@bbcquestiontime) August 18, 2021