The Tories are failing in their responsibility to the people of Afghanistan
A year on from Britain’s shambolic withdrawal from Kabul, the collapse of Afghanistan’s economy has left millions facing famine and a winter of desperation.
Yet just when the Conservatives should be negotiating the international deal needed to save lives and protect women’s rights, Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are preoccupied with shuffling the deckchairs in Downing Street.
In June, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy and I became the first British politicians to visit Afghanistan since the West’s withdrawal. The heart-breaking scenes I saw will stay with me forever. At a UN distribution centre, long lines of families queued for the solitary bag of wheat, a packet of beans and bottle of sunflower oil expected to get them through the next month on just one meal a day. In Kabul hospital, shell-shocked mothers sat beside their malnourished children in almost every bed, unsure if they’d survive the week but powerless to help. One mother implored me: “Please, Britain, do not forget us”.
Since Kabul fell, it has been a year of neglect, incompetence and broken promises
Yet since June, our government has done precisely that - even as the situation deteriorates further still and as the country’s harsh winter approaches. GDP will shrink by 20-30 per cent this year. Hundreds of thousands of doctors, teachers and public sector workers go unpaid for months at a time. Facing the worst drought in almost 30 years, the price of essential food in Afghanistan is up by 60 per cent since the withdrawal. The scale of the unfolding catastrophe is almost unfathomable: 97 per cent of Afghans are expected to be in poverty this year and 24 million people - over half the population - now need humanitarian aid. Appallingly, 9.6 million children are now unable to secure food on a daily basis.
If Afghanistan collapses, it will also damage British interests. The UN warn of an exodus of 5 million people if a long-term solution is not found: already in 2022, one in four people making the treacherous crossing to the United Kingdom on small boats are Afghans. With internal conflict escalating and reports of an increase in terror attacks, there is every risk too that Afghanistan could backslide into extremism or civil war. When Britain refuses to talk to the de facto government of Afghanistan, actors like Russia and China gain influence. It is firmly in Britain’s interest to negotiate a solution.
That is why the failure of this Tory government – paralysed into inaction by infighting and its leadership contest – to show up on the international stage is so frustrating. It is clear what is needed. In the short term, the $2.5 billion shortfall in the UN’s humanitarian assistance plan must be urgently filled to get cash and food to Afghans and prevent millions perishing this winter. In the medium term, a settlement must be reached both to restore the billions of development assistance cut when the West withdrew and to release the $9.2 billion of Afghanistan Central Bank assets frozen overseas by the US and other governments.
That can only be achieved through dialogue with the de facto authorities in Afghanistan, which does not equate to recognition at this stage. Britain is right to disagree profoundly with the Taliban on the rights of women and girls – and much else. Indeed, we must stand by the brave women protesting on the streets for their future by putting women at the centre of the UK’s policy towards Afghanistan. But with famine and state collapse on the horizon, the difficult truth is that burying our heads in the sand and refusing to negotiate a deal will only make life worse for the women and girls of Afghanistan and push greater power into the hands of hardliners.
After a year of inaction, the Conservatives still have no plans for ministers to visit or to develop a strategy of unified, pragmatic engagement with the new regime, or for ministers to visit or open dialogue. Instead, busy with party infighting and their own leadership election, they have left the humanitarian catastrophe to civil servants based outside the country, in Doha. Our zombie government is costing lives.
The Tories’ failure in Afghanistan may have begun last August with the Foreign Secretary being dragged back too late from his sun lounger, with the surrender of sensitive documents in our Kabul embassy, and with the abandonment of thousands of at-risk Afghan allies. But it did not end there. Just as Afghans entered their hour of need, the Conservatives shamefully cut the UK’s aid budget to the country by 78 per cent. The Tories promised to help Afghan allies settle in the UK. Yet a year on, 9,500 refugees remain in unfit, temporary accommodation, costing the taxpayer £1 million a day. The Tories merged the Department for International Development into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, promising foreign and development policy would work hand in hand in situations exactly like Afghanistan. Instead, their rejection of diplomacy has only undermined Britain’s humanitarian response.
Since Kabul fell, it has been a year of neglect, incompetence and broken promises on Liz Truss’ watch. Under Keir Starmer, a Labour government would start to turn the tide. We will bring Britain back to the international table as a trusted, reliable partner. We will play our part in negotiating the settlement needed to restore Afghanistan’s economy, save lives and protect women’s rights. We will restore Britain’s 0.7 per cent aid budget and install a new delivery of development expertise that reflects our challenges and responsibilities when it comes to development and diplomacy.
The people of Afghanistan are now truly on the precipice and have a right to our solidarity. Britain must not forget those malnourished children and their mothers in Kabul hospital, on the frontline of famine - for their sake and for ours.
Preet Kaur Gill is the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and shadow minister for international development.
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