Boris Johnson Denies UK "Did Not Foresee" Afghanistan Crisis As MPs Hold Emergency Commons Debate
Boris Johnson has dismissed criticism that the UK was not prepared for the scale of crisis that has unfolded in Afghanistan after MPs were recalled for an emergency debate on the situation.
"The sacrifice in Afghanistan is seared into our national consciousness with 150,000 people serving that from across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, including a number of members on all sides of the house, whose voices will be particularly important today," the Prime Minister said as he opened an emergency debate in the Commons.
"I think it would be fair to say that the events in Afghanistan have unfolded and the collapse has been faster than even the Taliban themselves predicated," he continued.
"What is not true is to say the UK government was unprepared or did not foresee this.
"It was certainly part of our planning – the very difficult logistical operation for the withdrawal of UK nationals has been under preparation for many months, and I can tell the House that the decision to commission the emergency handling centre at the airport took place two weeks ago."
The session was called after Taliban insurgents begun reclaiming much of Afghanistan after the US and the UK started the final withdrawal of troops, and within just a few days had taken the capital Kabul.
Western allies are now racing to evacuate their citizens as well as thousands of Afghans who worked with them over the past two decades, and are now at risk of reprisal from Islamic militants.
Johnson said the Taliban is currently allowing the evacuation to go ahead and that while the situation had stabilised since the weekend, it remains precarious.
"UK officials on the ground are doing everything that they can to expedite the movement of people, those that need to come out, whether from the ARAP scheme or the eligible persons," he added.
"The most important thing is that we get this done in as expeditious a fashion as we can and that is what we are doing."
He said the UK’s immediate focus must be on “helping those to whom we have direct obligations”, and praised the “bravery and commitment of our ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow” who has promised to stay on in Kabul to process visas and applications to allow people passage to the UK.
But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the government of “a major miscalculation of the resilience of the Afghan forces", and a "staggering complacency” about the Taliban threat.
He said the “desperate situation requires leadership and for the Prime Minister to snap out of his complacency” and noted the absence of both Johnson and foreign secretary, who were on holiday last week, as the crisis accelerated.
“You cannot coordinate an international response from the beach,” Starmer jibed.
Last night the Home Office announced that 20,000 Afghan refugees will be given a home in the UK, with 5,000 people permitted to come to the country in the first year of a new resettlement scheme.
The Afghan Citizens' Resettlement Scheme will be offered to those forced to flee their homes or who have faced threats of persecution from the Taliban, and priority will be given to Afghan women and girls, and religious and other minorities most at risk of human rights abuses.
With only 5,000 due to arrive this year Labour MP Chris Bryant asked: “What are the 15,000 meant to do? Hang around and wait until they have been executed?"
There has also been criticism of the decision to remove remaining UK armed forces, but Johnson told MPs without the support of America they could not continue the mission in Afghanistan.
"As for our Nato allies and allies around the world, when it came for us to look at the options that this country might have in view of the American decision to withdraw we came up against this hard reality," he said.
"That since 2009, America has deployed 98% of all weapons released from Nato aircraft in Afghanistan and at the peak of the operation – where there were 132,000 troops on the ground – 90,000 of them were American.
"The West could not continue this US-led mission, a mission conceived and executed in support of America."
But Conservative former-PM Theresa May asked Johnson to set out when he first spoke personally to Nato leader Jens Stoltenberg to “discuss with him the possibility of putting together an alliance of other forces in order to replace the American support in Afghanistan”.
But Johnson would only refer to a call they had in recent days, and said it was an "illusion" that there was an international appetite for a Nato military alliance in Afghanistan.
"That idea ended with the combat mission in 2014,” he added.
Concluding his speech by recognising the role of British service personnel in Afghanistan, Johnson told MPs "veterans should be proud of their achievements and we should be deeply proud of them".
Johnson added: "They gave their all for our safety and we owe it to them to give our all to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a breeding ground for terrorism.
"No matter how grim the lessons of the past, the future is not yet written."
In response Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called for improved mental health services for veterans, but added that their “sacrifice deserves better”.
He accused the government of “a major miscalculation of the resilience of the Afghan forces and a staggering complacency” about the Taliban threat.
"We do not turn our backs on friends at their time of need. We owe an obligation for the people of Afghanistan,” he added, and called the defence secretary Ben Wallace’s comments that some people would "not get back" from Afghanistan “unconscionable”.
In her speech May suggested Johnson had hoped "on a wing and a prayer it'd be all right on the night" once the US and its allies had withdrawn, asking: “Was our intelligence really so poor? Was our understanding of the Afghan government so weak?
“Was our knowledge of the position on the ground so inadequate? Or did we really believe this?"
She spoke of the "message this sends around the world to those who would do the West harm” about the UK’s capabilities and willingness to defend our values.
“What does it say about us as a country, what does it say about Nato if we are entirely dependent on a unilateral decision taken by the US?” the ex-PM added.
"I'm afraid I think this has been a major setback for British foreign policy."
Her Conservative colleague Tom Tugendhat, a former soldier who served in Afghanistan, was applauded after a giving a moving speech about the military, aid workers, journalists and others he worked alongside in the country.
"I know that we've all been struggling and if this recall has done one thing” he added.
“I’ve spoken to the health secretary [Sajid Javid], he's already made a commitment to do more for veterans' mental health."
Tugendhat also strongly criticised US president Joe Biden for his comments about the Afghan army, telling MPs seeing him “call into the question the courage of men I fought with, to claim that they ran is shameful”.
"Those who have not fought for the colours they fly should be careful about criticising those who have,” he said.
He ended by recalling his time as an advisor to the governor of Helmand and the "joy" given to families by the opening of schools for girls, adding: "I didn't understand it until I took my own daughter to school about a year ago.
"There was a lot of crying when she first went in, but I got over it and it went OK. I'd love to see that continue."
He left MPs with a second, "harder" image, which he explained: "It's one that the forever war that has just reignited could lead to. It is the image of a man whose name I never knew, carrying a child who had died hours earlier - carrying this child into our fire base and begging for help.
"There was nothing we could do. It was over. This is what defeat looks like when you no longer have the choice of how to help.
"This doesn't need to be defeat but at the moment it damn well feels like it."
Winding up the debate for the opposition the shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said this was “an unparalleled moment of shame for this government”.
She said the US withdrawal from Afghanistan had created an "impossible situation" for the UK, but criticised the lack of preparation in the last 18 months.
"They have been warned and warned and warned about the consequences by members on all sides of this House, and they have ignored us, they have ignored their own backbenchers and they have abandoned the people of Afghanistan,” Nandy added.
In response to her criticism foreign secretary Dominic Raab said the "empty vessel makes the loudest sound”, accusing Labour of making "searing criticisms" of ministers but not explaining what they would have done differently.
Defending the plans to accept 20,000 Afghan nationals the Cabinet minister said: "Let me just say as the son of a refugee, I am deeply proud that this government is continuing the big-hearted tradition of the British people in offering safe haven to those who need it.
"So, we are getting our nationals out, those that work for us out, and we are providing a lifeline to the most vulnerable."
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