Starmer on Afghanistan: “The Prime Minister was wrong and complacent”

Keir Starmer
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Below is the full text of Keir Starmer’s contribution to the debate on Afghanistan in parliament today.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. And can I thank you and the staff for recalling parliament for today’s debate.

Before I get to the urgent issue at hand, let me join the Prime Minister in condemning the appalling shootings in Plymouth last week and send my condolences to the bereaved families. We must resolve to ensure firearms do not get into the hands of dangerous people and finally get to grips with the way that hate thrives on the internet.

Mr Speaker, it has been a disastrous week. An unfolding tragedy. 20 years ago, the Taliban were largely in control of Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda were using the country as a training ground and a base for terror – including plotting the horrific 9/11 attack.

There were widespread human rights abuses. Girls were denied an education, women could not work. Being gay was punishable by death. All imposed without democracy.

Since then, a fragile democracy emerged. It was by no means perfect, but no international terrorist attacks have been mounted from Afghanistan in that period; women have gained liberty and won office; schools and clinics have been built. And Afghans have allowed themselves to dream of a better future.

Those achievements were born of sacrifice. Sacrifice by the Afghan people who fought bravely alongside their NATO allies. And British sacrifice.

Over 150,000 UK personnel have served in Afghanistan including Members across this House. Including the honourable and gallant Members for:

  • Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat)
  • Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis)
  • Plymouth Moor View (Johnny Mercer)
  • Norwich South (Clive Lewis)
  • Aldershot (Leo Docherty)
  • Isle of White (Bob Seely)
  • Filton & Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopestri); And
  • Wells (James Heappey)

They and the tens of thousands of others deployed in Afghanistan served in difficult and challenging circumstances and the Labour Party thanks every one of them. Many returned with life-changing injuries and, tragically, 457 didn’t return at all.

For many of those who returned from Afghanistan and other places around the world mental health has been an all too familiar issue – raised by veterans time and again.

The events of the last few days and weeks will have exacerbated the situation – reopening old wounds. We must improve mental health services for our veterans.

I want to address directly all those who served in Afghanistan and their families, especially the families of those who were lost.

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.

There has been a major miscalculation of the resilience of the Afghan forces and staggering complacency from our government about the Taliban threat.

The result is the Taliban are now back in control of Afghanistan. The gains made through 20 years of sacrifice hang precariously. Women and girls fear for their liberty. Afghan civilians are holding on to the undercarriage of NATO aircraft literally clinging to departing hope.

We face new threats to our security and an appalling humanitarian crisis. The desperate situation requires leadership and for the Prime Minister to snap out of his complacency.

The most urgent task is the protection of our diplomatic staff still working heroically in Kabul and the evacuation of British nationals and Afghans who have risked their lives. The Labour Party fully supports the deployment of troops to this end. We want it to succeed just as quickly and safely as possible.

The Defence Secretary has said that some of the people who have worked with us will not get back. Unconscionable.

The government must outline a plan to:

  • Work with our allies to do everything possible to ensure that does not happen.
  • Guarantee that our troops have the resources that they need to carry out their mission effectively and as safely as possible.
  • And work to provide stable security at the airport in Kabul so that flights can depart, and visas can be processed.

We all know how difficult that is. We all know how hard everybody is working on the ground and we fully support it.

And I raise an issue not by way of criticism but just to get some reassurance, because there are reports this morning from NGOs that an evacuation plane left almost empty this morning because evacuees couldn’t get to the airport to get to that plane.

We are not challenging the work on the ground. We know how difficult it is. But at some point I would like to see that addressed, if true.

We also need to address the urgent and immediate refugee crisis. Many Afghans have bravely sought to rebuild their country. They did so on a promise of democratic freedoms; the rule of law; and liberty for the oppressed, including women and girls.

They are our friends and that was our promise. They are now fearing for their lives. We do not turn our back on friends at their time of need.

We owe an obligation to the people of Afghanistan. There should be a Resettlement Scheme for people to rebuild their lives here with safe and legal routes.

It must be a Resettlement Scheme that meets the scale of the enormous challenge. But what the government has announced does not do that. It is vague. It will support just 5,000 in the first year.

A number without rationale. What is that based on? A risk assessment of those most at need, or was it plucked out of thin air?

Offers to help others “in the long-term”. But for those who desperately need our help there is no long-term.

Yet again this government seems ill-prepared and unwilling. Just as it has been too slow to provide sanctuary to Afghans who have served alongside Britain. Too many reports of eligible Afghans facing bureaucratic hurdles and too many unfairly excluded.

Knowing the date of withdrawal was coming for months the Home Office is not close to completing the process they’ve already got up and running. It was designed to help around 7,000 people. Yet Home Office figures this week show only 2,000 have been helped so far.

The scale of the refugee crisis requires an international response, but we must lead it and lead with a Resettlement Programme that meets the scale of the challenge.

The scheme must be generous and welcoming. If it is not, we know the consequences: Violent reprisals in Afghanistan; people fleeing into the arms of human traffickers; and more people risking and losing their lives on unsafe journeys including across the English Channel.

We cannot betray our friends. We must lead.

Mr Speaker, once these immediate challenges are addressed, we must face an uncertain and difficult future. The Taliban are back in control of Afghanistan and we cannot be naïve about the consequences.

We have lost our primary source of leverage in political discussions and everything that we have achieved in the last 20 years is now under threat.

The Prime Minister is right to say that we cannot allow Afghanistan to become a training ground for violent hate and terrorism. But that will be more difficult now that Afghanistan has descended into chaos.

But if preventing Al-Qaeda camps is now the limits of our ambition we are betraying 20 years of sacrifice by our armed forces, and we are betraying the Afghan people, who cannot be left to the cruelty of the Taliban.

So, we have to use every tool that remains at our disposal to protect human rights in Afghanistan.

The government is right not to recognise the Taliban as the official government. But this must be part of a wider strategy, developed with our UN Security Council partners and our NATO allies, to apply pressure to the Taliban not only to stamp out any resurgence of terror groups but to retain the liberties and human rights of Afghans.

We must work with Afghanistan’s neighbours to ensure there is consistent pressure. And there must be a UN backed plan to ensure our aid budget is used to support humanitarian causes in Afghanistan, not fund the Taliban.

Mr Speaker, this is a difficult task with no guarantee of success. So, it should concern us all that the Prime Minister’s judgement on Afghanistan has been appalling.

Nobody believes that Britain and our allies could have remained in Afghanistan indefinitely or that Britain could have fought alone.

NATO leaders were put in a difficult position after President Trump agreed with the Taliban that all US forces would withdraw by May 2021. But that agreement was made in February 2020. 18 months ago.

We had 18 months to plan and prepare for the consequences of what followed. To plan and prepare: for the resettlement of refugees and those who have supported us; for supporting the Afghan government in managing the withdrawal; for securing international and regional pressure on the Taliban and support for the Afghan government.

The very problems we’re confronting today were all known problems for the last 18 months. There’s been a failure of preparation. The lack of planning is unforgivable. The Prime Minister bears a heavy responsibility. He was in a position to lead. But he didn’t.

Britain holds a seat at the UN Security Council. We are a key player within NATO. We are the chair of the G7. Every one of these platforms could and should have been used to prepare for the withdrawal of forces, to rally international support behind a plan to stabilise Afghanistan through the process and keep us safe.

Did the Prime Minister use those platforms to prepare? No he didn’t. What did he do instead? He cut the development budget that was key to the strength and resilience of democracy in Afghanistan. £292m spent in Afghanistan in 2019 and £155m in 2021. Short sighted. Small minded. A threat to security.

He failed to visit Afghanistan as Prime Minister, meaning that his last trip as Foreign Secretary in 2018 was not to learn, or to push British interests but to avoid a vote on Heathrow.

Hundreds of thousands of British people have flown to Afghanistan to serve. The Prime Minister flew to avoid public service.

In March this year, the Prime Minister published an Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. He boasted the review would “demonstrate to our allies, in Europe and beyond, that they can always count on the UK when it really matters.”

Well, the Afghan government was an ally. Yet in the integrated review were just two passing references to Afghanistan, it didn’t even mention the Taliban, it didn’t mention NATO withdrawal or the consequences of the Doha agreement.

It did cut the size of the army – the very force we are now relying on. Eye off of the ball. Astonishingly careless. The question is why was the Prime Minister so careless? Why did he fail to lead? It comes down to complacency and poor judgement.

There was a calculation that withdrawal would lead to military stalemate in Afghanistan. And that stalemate would accelerate political discussions.

Seeing this in July, Members on both sides of this House warned the government that they may be underestimating the strength of the Taliban. That was ignored.

And the government’s preparations for withdrawal were based on a miscalculation of the resilience of the Afghan forces and a staggering complacency about the Taliban threat.

The Prime Minister was as guilty of this as anyone. This Sunday he said this: “We’ve known for a long time that this was the way things were going.” That is not what he told this House.

In July, The Prime Minister assured Members that: “There is no military path to victory for the Taliban.” And then he went on to say: “I do not think that the Taliban are capable of victory by military means.”

The British government were wrong and complacent. The Prime Minister was wrong and complacent. And when he wasn’t re-writing history the Prime Minister was displaying the same appalling judgment and complacency last week.

The response of the British Ambassador to the Taliban arriving at the gates of Kabul was to personally process the paperwork for those who needed to flee. He is still there, and we thank him and his staff.

The Prime Minister’s response to the Taliban arriving at the gates of Kabul was to go on holiday. No sense of the gravity of the situation. No leadership to drive international efforts on the evacuation.

The Foreign Secretary stayed on holiday whilst our mission in Afghanistan was disintegrating. He hadn’t even spoken to ambassadors in the region as Kabul fell to the Taliban.

Let that sink in. You cannot coordinate an international response from the beach. A dereliction of duty by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. A Government totally unprepared for the scenario that it had 18 months to plan for.

It’s one thing for people to lose trust in the Prime Minister at home. But when the trust in the word of our Prime Minister is questioned abroad, there are serious consequences for our safety and security at home.

Mr Speaker, recent events in Afghanistan shame the West. Not just the scenes of chaos but what it says about our abandonment of the Afghan people.

For those brave people around the world, living under regimes paying scant regard to human rights, but resisting those regimes in pursuit of democracy, equality and individual freedom, what does this say to them?

What does this retreat from freedom signal to those prepared to stand up for it? What does this surrender to extremism mean for those prepared to face it down? And what does it mean for those nations, who support an international rules-based system, when we hand over power to those who recognise no rules at all?

This is the challenge of our time. Mr Speaker, the British and the Afghan people will have to live with the consequence of the Prime Minister’s failure.

We have fought for 20 years to rid Afghanistan of terror. Terror which threatens our security here in Britain. And liberty in Afghanistan.

The Taliban are back in control. The Prime Minister has no plan how to handle the situation. Just like he had no plan to prevent it. What we won through 20 years of sacrifice could all be lost. That’s the cost of careless leadership.

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