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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Tory MP Says UK Government Must Not "Turn A Blind Eye" To Afghanistan

Tobias Ellwood resigned as chair of the Defence Select Committee last year following criticism of his remarks about the Taliban (Alamy)

5 min read

Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood has repeated his call for the UK government to engage with the Taliban and reestablish the UK Embassy in Afghanistan, despite being “bruised” by the negative backlash to his comments about the Taliban last summer.

In a video posted on social media in July 2023, Ellwood described visiting Afghanistan and seeing it as a “country transformed” since the Taliban seized power in August 2021. There was a huge critical backlash and a couple of months later, Ellwood stepped down as chair of the Defence Select Committee.

Speaking to PoliticsHome ahead of hosting a debate on UK government policy on Afghanistan in Parliament on Wednesday, Ellwood said that he was determined to push the government to show “strategic leadership” on Afghanistan and other foreign policy issues.

He said that while it was “understandable” that he had received criticism as his comments had been a “massive jump” from the consensus, he insisted that the UK should not ignore the “very difficult subject” of Afghanistan.

“What happened to me was bruising, there's no doubt about it,” he said.

“We need to build and encourage political curiosity, it's our job [as MPs] to ask questions and that should be encouraged. We're not a tickbox parliament that simply stands up and then frantically agrees with whips’ handouts.”

He called on the government to not "ignore" Afghanistan and to reestablish the Embassy there, pointing out that Japan and the EU have already done so.

“Can we really say that our current strategy of shouting from afar is having any difference on the ground in Afghanistan? Abandoning a country for which we have such a close history is irresponsible, not just from a moral perspective but from a geopolitical one, given the fallout from Afghanistan if the country implodes," he told PoliticsHome.

Ellwood lamented the fact there had never been a full inquiry into the UK’s military action and subsequent withdrawal from the country, and said the UK government needs to learn not to make "similar mistakes" as it did in Afghanistan. 

"We must learn because, ironically, it's similar mistakes that we're making when we wandered into Libya, when we wandered into Somalia, when we wandered into Iraq and Syria and did a poor job in post-conflict reconstruction and understanding how a country operates,” he said.

He added that a point he believes he should have addressed after his visit last year was the “huge sacrifice” that was made by UK military personnel, as 457 people died over the last 20 years of deployment in Afghanistan and hundreds more had life-altering injuries.

“But then that does beg the question after 20 years, what happened, what went wrong?” he continued.

“We created an impressive umbrella of security which wasn't utilised to understand Afghanistan and build a governance structure that would last. Instead, we imposed Western standards and values in Kabul expecting it to ripple out across the country; look at Afghanistan's history and it's never been centrally run in that way, the way Western countries are.”

The Conservative MP said that the West was now left in a “very difficult dilemma”: “Do we keep punishing the 14 million people that we promised to support because the Taliban are in charge, because we handed power to the Taliban, the very insurgents we went in to defeat? The toughest questions are the consequences of us turning a blind eye.”

Ellwood went further in suggesting that the West, including the UK, have become "risk-averse" when it comes to engaging with Afghanistan and other countries with authoritarian regimes.  

“When we pulled out of Afghanistan it showed that we didn't have the staying power, and that competitors can push the envelope ever further,” he said.

“I'm sure President Putin invaded Ukraine knowing after Afghanistan that the West wouldn't fully respond, that NATO would not collectively push back. And he was absolutely right. Likewise with Gaza and Israel, Israel is now pushing the envelope, knowing that the international community is split as to what should happen there.”

The former committee chair said it had once been “in our DNA” in the UK to provide potential solutions and be a convening power to return stability to other nations. Although he said that UK interventions in Ukraine were a recent example of that, he insisted “it's still not enough and it's very late in the day”.

Responding in the Westminster Hall debate, Development Minister Andrew Mitchell said that Afghanistan "remains a priority" for the government.

"Afghanistan remains a priority for the Government and is of enduring importance to UK interests in the region and far beyond," he said.

"We want to see a sustainable peace and stability in Afghanistan, and we remain committed to a leading role in the humanitarian response.

"Our intention since August 2021 has been to re-establish a diplomatic presence in Kabul when the security and political situation allows. We do not believe that is the case at the moment, but officials continue to visit and will keep this under close review.

"We are clear that we must have a pragmatic dialogue with the Taliban. However, that does not amount to recognition. We are some way off moving to recognise the Taliban, and we need to keep the pressure on them to change their approach. That does not stop us from having an impact on the ground and directly helping the people of Afghanistan in a pragmatic way."

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