The speech made by Dan Jarvis, the Labour MP for Barnsley Central, in the House of Commons on 18 August 2021.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), as it is the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). They all spoke with great eloquence.
Like many hon. Members, I am wracked with a profound sadness at the catastrophe that has unfolded in Afghanistan. Above all, it is an unspeakable tragedy for the people of that country, who, after generations of conflict, now live under a terrible cloud of fear and repression. Who could fail to be moved by the agonising scenes from Kabul airport just this week? How desperate must someone have to be to want to cling on to the side of a moving aircraft? These past 20 years have been a struggle for peace. We tried to break the cycle of war, and to give hope to women and girls. We tried to give the Afghans a different life—one of hope and opportunity—but the catastrophic failure of international political leadership and the brutality of the Taliban have snatched all of that away from them. The new Administration in Kabul should know that they will be judged not by their words, but by their actions. The world is watching.
I want to reflect on the service and sacrifice of our brave servicemen and women, who have showed outstanding professionalism and courage throughout. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View said just a moment ago, recent developments have hit them hard, and they are grappling with the question of whether all the effort and sacrifice was really worth it. They are again grieving for fallen comrades who did not come home. Whatever the outcome in Afghanistan, those men and women, and their families, should be proud of their service, and we must be proud of them.
Many of us who served in Afghanistan have a deep bond of affection for the Afghan people, and I had the honour of serving alongside them in Helmand. We trained together, fought together and, in some cases, died together. They were our brothers in arms. I shudder to think where those men are now. Many will be dead, and I know others now consider themselves to be dead men walking. Where were we in their hour of need? We were nowhere. That is shameful, and it will have a very long-lasting impact on Britain’s reputation right around the world.
Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con)
The hon. Gentleman—a fellow litigant—is absolutely right in his description of the Afghan armed forces. Will he add that many of them are more heroic and better soldiers than they are given credit for around the world?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, as always, and I completely agree with the point he made. It was particularly distasteful and dishonouring of President Biden to make reference to the lack of courage and commitment from those Afghan soldiers, who have served with such bravery and distinction.
We have to be pragmatic, and at this difficult point we must think about what our next move will be. We should understand that the character of our country is defined, for better or for worse, by moments such as this. We should also understand that we face a moral and humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions, and the response from the international community and the British Government needs to meet the magnitude of the moment. We must step up the statecraft and engage with international allies and alliances, and with regional partners. Although it is a particularly bitter pill to have to swallow, we must engage diplomatically with the new regime in Kabul. It is in our cold-headed national interest to do so, because right now our armed forces are deployed on an operation to recover UK nationals and other entitled personnel. It is in their interests that we engage to try to ensure the safe passage of those who want to leave.
We also know that many, many more will want to get out, and with our allies we need to work to establish safe routes to get them to safety. We must show compassion and genuine generosity to refugees, while accelerating and expanding the ARAP scheme to support those who supported us.
We also need to defend the hard-won progress of the past 20 years or so—girls in school and women in Parliament and the judiciary. We must ensure that Afghanistan does not slide back to where it was pre-9/11. Then, when the dust settles, we need to look at what went wrong and learn the lessons of this failure: why, despite all the effort, could we not build an Afghan state free of corruption, with the legitimacy and competence to balance the competing forces in that country, and what does that now mean for our foreign and defence policy in this country?
Regardless of all that, we must remain engaged; we must show leadership; we must use whatever influence we have to try to make things better. That is in our own national interest, it is in line with our values, and it is the right thing to do. We owe it to the people of Afghanistan and we owe it to ourselves.