Keir Starmer – 2021 Speech on Afghanistan

The statement made by Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, in the House of Commons on 6 September 2021.

Keir Starmer

I thank the Prime Minister for the advance copy of his statement.

The heroes on the ground in Operation Pitting are the best of us: the ambassador stayed to process every case that he could, paratroopers lifted people from the crush, Afghan soldiers continued to serve alongside us to the end, and thousands of others risked their lives to help others to escape. They faced deadly violence and deliberately-engineered chaos with courage, calm and determination. Thanks to their remarkable efforts, thousands were evacuated, British nationals have returned safely to their families and Afghan friends are starting a new life here in Britain. Speaking directly to those who served in Operation Pitting, I say thank you: your service deserves recognition and honour and I hope that the Prime Minister will accept Labour’s proposal to scrap the 30-day continuous service rule so that medals can be awarded for your bravery.

The entire Army, our armed forces and veterans deserve proper support for mental health. The new funding announced today is welcome, but it is unlikely to be enough. Previous funding was described as “scandalous” by the Select Committee, and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is still being cut. All those involved deserved political leadership equal to their service, but they were let down. They were let down on strategy. The Prime Minister underestimated the strength of the Taliban. Despite intelligence warnings that “rapid Taliban advances” could lead to the collapse of the Afghan security forces, a return to power of the Taliban and our embassy shutting down amid reduced security, the Government continued to act on the assumption that there was no path to military victory for the Taliban. Complacent and wrong.

Those involved were also let down by a lack of planning. Eighteen months passed between the Doha agreement and the fall of Kabul, yet as the Prime Minister now concedes, only 2,000 of the 8,000 people eligible for the Afghan relocations and assistance policy—ARAP—scheme have been brought to Britain. A strategic review was published to much fanfare, but it did not mention the Taliban, NATO withdrawal or the Doha agreement. And the Prime Minister convened a G7 meeting on Afghanistan only after Kabul was lost.

Because of this lack of leadership, the Government have left behind many to whom we owe so much. In the last few weeks, MPs have had thousands of desperate calls from people trying to get to safety. Many remain in danger, including the Afghan guards who protected the British embassy. In my constituency—I am not alone; Members across the House will have had this—cases involve Afghans who applied for the ARAP scheme weeks and sometimes months ago and who were clearly eligible but were not processed quickly enough by this Government and did not make it to the planes. The stress levels for them and their families, and for all our teams and caseworkers, has been palpable in the last few weeks and months. A familiar and desperate story to many on both sides of the House.

The Government do not even know how many UK nationals and Afghans eligible under the ARAP scheme have been left behind to the cruelty of the Taliban. A national disgrace. Even if they could identify who they had left behind, the Government do not have a plan to get everybody out. Kabul airport remains closed to international flights, safe passage has not been created to Afghanistan’s neighbours and, whatever the Prime Minister says today, there is no international agreement on the resettlement of Afghan refugees. We have a Prime Minister incapable of international leadership, just when we need it most. [Interruption.] I know that that is uncomfortable. The terrible attacks from ISIS-K highlight the new security threat, and the Government must act quickly to co-ordinate international partners to ensure that the Afghan Government’s collapse does not lead to a vacuum for terrorists to fill. There is also a desperate need for humanitarian support. A return to 2019 levels of aid spending is necessary, and where is the plan to ensure that it does not fall into the wrong hands?

To those who have managed to escape Afghanistan and have arrived here in the UK, we say welcome: I know that you will give much to this country as you make it your new home. All you need is help and support. I am pleased that indefinite leave to remain will now be granted to all those who arrive by safe and legal routes. Local authorities across the country are trying to play their part, but they have been in the dark as to how many people they will be asked to support and what resources they will have to do so. We will look at the letter to which the Prime Minister referred and examine the details.

History will tell the tale of Operation Pitting as one of immense bravery. We are proud of all those who contributed. Their story is made even more remarkable by the fact that, while they were saving lives, our political leadership was missing in action.