Keir Starmer – 2021 Speech on Afghanistan

The speech made by Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, in the House of Commons on 18 August 2021.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, and the staff for recalling Parliament for today’s debate.

Before I come to the urgent issue at hand, let me join you, Mr Speaker, and the Prime Minister in condemning the appalling shootings in Plymouth last week. We all send our condolences to the bereaved families. We must resolve to ensure that firearms do not get into the hands of dangerous people, and finally get to grips with the way that hate thrives on the internet.

Turning to Afghanistan, it has been a disastrous week—an unfolding tragedy. Twenty years ago, the Taliban were largely in control of Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda were using the country as a training ground and a base for terror, including plotting the horrific 9/11 attack. There were widespread human rights abuses, girls were denied an education, women could not work and being gay was punishable by death—all imposed without democracy.

Since then, a fragile democracy emerged. It was by no means perfect, but no international terrorist attacks have been mounted from Afghanistan in that period. Women have gained liberty and won office, schools and clinics have been built, and Afghans have allowed themselves to dream of a better future. Those achievements were born of sacrifice—sacrifice by the Afghan people who bravely fought alongside their NATO allies, and British sacrifice.

More than 150,000 UK personnel have served in Afghanistan. They include Members from across this House, including the hon. and gallant Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), the hon. and gallant Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), and the hon. and gallant Members for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) and for Wells (James Heappey). They and the tens of thousands of others deployed in Afghanistan served in difficult and challenging circumstances, and the Labour party and—I am sure—everybody across this House thanks each and every one of them and of the 150,000. Many returned with life-changing injuries and, tragically, 457 did not return at all.

James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)

Later today, I will attend the service at RAF Lyneham, outside Royal Wootton Bassett, to commemorate the 10th anniversary, which falls today, of the last repatriation through Bassett. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the message to the people I will see today must be that those young lives were not wasted but played an absolutely essential role in deterring and destroying terrorism and carrying out so many other good works in Afghanistan?

Keir Starmer

I wholeheartedly agree with that point and will address it in one moment.

For many of those who returned from Afghanistan and other places around the world, mental health has been an all-too-familiar issue. It is raised by veterans time and again. The events of the past few days and weeks will have exacerbated the situation and reopened old wounds—everybody across this House will know of examples—so we must improve mental health services for our veterans.

On the point that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) just made, I wish to address directly all those who served in Afghanistan and their families—especially the families of those who were lost. Your sacrifice was not in vain—it was not in vain. You brought stability, reduced the terrorist threat and enabled progress. We are all proud of what you did. Your sacrifice deserves better than this, and so do the Afghan people.

There has been a major miscalculation of the resilience of the Afghan forces and staggering complacency from our Government about the Taliban threat. The result is that the Taliban are now back in control of Afghanistan. The gains made through 20 years of sacrifice hang precariously. Women and girls fear for their liberty. Afghan civilians are holding on to the undercarriage of NATO aircraft—literally clinging to departing hope. We face new threats to our security and an appalling humanitarian crisis.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)

For all the reasons that the right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned, does he not agree that President Biden is actually wrong when he talks about American sacrifices in a civil war? The Taliban are not at war with a regime; they are at war with the civilised values of justice, equality and tolerance, which all of us hold dear, and against which it respects no international boundaries.

Keir Starmer

I agree with the hon. Member and thank him for that intervention.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Keir Starmer

Let me make some progress and then I will give way.

The desperate situation requires leadership and for the Prime Minister to snap out of his complacency. The most urgent task is the protection of our diplomatic staff still working heroically in Kabul, and the evacuation of British nationals and Afghans who have risked their lives. Let me be clear: the Labour party fully supports the deployment of troops to that end. We want it to succeed just as quickly and safely as possible.

The Defence Secretary has said that some people who have worked with us will not get back—unconscionable. The Government must outline a plan: to work with our allies to do everything possible to ensure that that does not happen; to guarantee that our troops have the resources they need to carry out their mission as effectively and safely as possible; and to work to provide stable security at the airport in Kabul so that flights can depart and visas can be processed. We all know how difficult that is. We all know how hard everybody is working on the ground and we fully support them.

I raise an issue not by way of criticism, but just to get some reassurance: there are reports from non-governmental organisations that an evacuation plane left almost empty this morning because evacuees could not get to the airport to board that plane. As I say, we are not challenging the work on the ground—we know how difficult it is—but, if that is true, we would like to see that matter addressed at an appropriate moment.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con)

May I take the right hon. and learned Gentleman back to the statement that the President of the United States made the other day? Does he not agree that that took on the terms of a sort of shameful excuse? Given that the President had blamed the Afghan armed forces, who have lost nearly 70,000 troops in trying to defend Afghanistan, and given that corruption had stripped away much of the pay, money and support of those forces, the American decision to withdraw aircraft cover was almost certainly going to lead us to this situation. Does he not think that that is shameful?

Keir Starmer

The US is, of course, an important ally, but to overlook the fighting of the Afghan troops and forces, and the fact that they have been at the forefront of that fighting in recent years, is wrong. It is wrong for any of us to overlook that or the situation in which they now find themselves.

The urgent task is, of course, the evacuation. Equally urgent is the immediate refugee crisis.

John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Keir Starmer

I will make some progress and then I will give way.

Many Afghans have bravely sought to rebuild their country and they did so on a promise of democratic freedoms, the rule of law and liberty for the oppressed, including women and girls. They are our friends and that was our promise. They are now fearing for their lives. We do not turn our backs on friends at their time of need. We owe an obligation to the people of Afghanistan. There should be a resettlement scheme for people to rebuild their lives here, with safe and legal routes. It must be a resettlement scheme that meets the scale of the enormous challenge, but what the Government have announced this morning does not do that. It is vague and will support just 5,000 in the first year—a number without rationale. Was that based on a risk assessment of those most at need, or was it plucked out of the air? The offer to others is in the long term, but for those desperately needing our help now, there is no long term, just day-to-day survival.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that as well as marking the need for a much bolder and more ambitious resettlement programme, this disaster must mark a turning point for our failed asylum system, in particular by getting rid of the so-called hostile environment and the Nationality and Borders Bill, under which a women fleeing the Taliban with her children on a boat across the channel would be criminalised? Does he agree that that Bill must now be revised?

Keir Starmer

I will come on to the specifics of the system. Yet again, the Government seem ill-prepared and unwilling, just as they have been too slow to provide sanctuary to Afghans who have served alongside Britain. There have been too many reports of eligible Afghans facing bureaucratic hurdles, and too many are being unfairly excluded. Having known for months that the date of withdrawal was coming, the Home Office is not close to completing the process that it has already got up and running. The process was designed to help 7,000 people, yet Home Office figures this week showed that only 2,000 have been helped so far.

Emma Hardy (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab)

The point that I wanted to make to the Prime Minister was about the situation facing Afghan Sikhs. I know from my constituency casework that there are Afghan Sikhs in the system who are waiting for clearance from the Home Office; I call on the Government to process them as quickly as possible and not leave all those people in the system waiting any longer than they have to at the moment. They are terrified by the idea of being sent back home, and despite the reassurance given to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), I do not see any movement from the Home Office to give them the legal status that they need.

Keir Starmer

I am grateful for that intervention. Members on both sides of the House have given examples of individuals and groups who are very obviously at risk in Afghanistan and need to come out as quickly as possible. That is why the question arises as to what is behind the 5,000 number, and why others are having to wait so long.

The scale of the refugee crisis requires an international response, but we must lead it, and lead with a resettlement programme that meets the scale of the challenge. The scheme must be generous and welcoming. If it is not, we know the consequences now: violent reprisals in Afghanistan; people tragically fleeing into the arms of human traffickers—we know that that is what will happen—and more people risking and losing their lives on unsafe journeys, including across the English channel. We cannot betray our friends. We must lead.

Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman speaks of people fleeing, but we have yet to assess whether anyone outside Kabul is able to get to a place of safety. Does he agree that a safe corridor needs to be opened to an international border so that those who are not near Kabul can also get to safety via third countries?

Keir Starmer

There is huge concern, as all hon. Members will know, about our line of sight beyond Kabul at the moment. Again, that calls into question where the 5,000 number comes from, because at the moment we are not even in a position to assess the position outside Kabul. We cannot betray our friends. We must lead.

Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con)

Were the Government of this kingdom to be overthrown by a wicked and brutal regime, I venture that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would want a leading role in the resistance. He would not be queuing at the airport, would he?

Keir Starmer

When I was Director of Public Prosecutions, some of my prosecutors in Afghanistan were at huge risk, working on counter-terrorism with other brave souls there, so I will not take that from the right hon. Gentleman or from anybody else.

Once the immediate challenges are addressed, we face an uncertain and difficult future. The Taliban are back in control and we cannot be naive about the consequences. We have lost our primary source of leverage in political discussions, and everything that we have achieved in the past 20 years is now under threat.

Several hon. Members rose—

Keir Starmer

I will make some progress and then give way.

The Prime Minister is right to say that we cannot allow Afghanistan to become a training ground for violent hate and terrorism, but that will be more difficult now that Afghanistan has descended into chaos. If preventing al-Qaeda camps is now the limit of our ambition, we are betraying 20 years of sacrifice by our armed forces and we are betraying the Afghan people, who cannot be left to the cruelty of the Taliban.

Mr Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)

My right hon. and learned Friend speaks about the lack of ambition and urgency, and that summarises everything about the Government’s approach to this crisis and many others. Is it not telling that when we had an Afghan Government whom we wanted to support, the UK Government cut the amount of overseas aid that we sent, but now that the Taliban are in charge, the Government are talking about increasing the amount of overseas aid?

Keir Starmer

I am grateful for that intervention. I will come to the question of aid in just a minute, because it is a very important point in the context of what has happened in recent weeks and months.

John Redwood

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Keir Starmer

I am going to make some progress and then I will give way.

We have to use every tool that remains at our disposal to protect human rights in Afghanistan. The Government are right not to recognise the Taliban as the official Government—the Prime Minister has made that clear—but that must be part of a wider strategy, developed with our UN security partners and our NATO allies, to apply pressure on the Taliban not only to stamp out a resurgence of terror groups, but to retain the liberties and human rights of Afghans. We must work with Afghans and neighbours to ensure that there is consistent pressure, and there must be a UN-backed plan to ensure that our aid budget is used to support humanitarian causes in Afghanistan, not to fund the Taliban.

This is a difficult task with no guarantee of success, so it should concern us all that the Prime Minister’s judgment on Afghanistan has been appalling. Nobody believes that Britain and our allies could have remained in Afghanistan indefinitely, or that Britain could have fought alone. NATO leaders were put in a difficult position after President Trump agreed with the Taliban that all US forces would withdraw by May 2021. But that agreement was made in February 2020—18 months ago. We have had 18 months to prepare and plan for the consequences of what followed—to plan and to prepare for the resettlement of refugees and those who have supported us; for supporting the Afghan Government in managing the withdrawal; and for securing international and regional pressure on the Taliban and support for the Afghan Government. The very problems we are confronting today have been known problems for the last 18 months, and there has been a failure of preparation.

The lack of planning is unforgivable, and the Prime Minister bears a heavy responsibility. He mutters today, but he was in a position to lead and he did not. Britain holds a seat at the United Nations Security Council. We are a key player in NATO. We are chair of the G7. Every one of those platforms could and should have been used to prepare for the withdrawal of forces, and to rally international support behind a plan to stabilise Afghanistan through the process and keep us safe.

Several hon. Members rose—

Keir Starmer

I will give way in a minute.

Did the Prime Minister use those platforms in those 18 months to prepare? No, he did not. What did he do instead? We debated this: he cut the development budget, which was key to the strength and resilience of democracy in Afghanistan. He makes a great deal today of the money he is putting in, but £292 million was spent in Afghanistan in 2019, and £155 million in 2021. That is short-sighted, small-minded and a threat to security.

Several hon. Members rose—

Keir Starmer

I will give way in a moment, but I am going to go through this list. The right hon. Gentleman failed to visit Afghanistan as Prime Minister, meaning that his last trip—as Foreign Secretary, in 2018—was not to learn or to push British interests, but to avoid a vote on Heathrow. Hundreds of thousands of British people have flown to Afghanistan to serve; the Prime Minister flew to avoid public service.

The list goes on. In March this year the Prime Minister published an integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy. It was a huge review. He boasted that the review would

“demonstrate to our allies, in Europe and beyond, that they can always count on the UK when it really matters.”

The Afghan Government were an ally, yet the integrated review made just two passing references to Afghanistan. The review did not even mention the Taliban. It did not mention NATO withdrawal or the consequences of the Doha agreement. It did cut the size of the Army—the very force that we are now relying on—and we criticised that at the time. Eye off the ball; astonishingly careless. The question is: why was the Prime Minister so careless? Why did he fail to lead? It comes down to complacency and poor judgment.

Several hon. Members rose—

Keir Starmer

I will give way in a moment; I am going to make this case.

There was a calculation that withdrawal would lead to military stalemate in Afghanistan and that that stalemate would accelerate political discussions. Seeing this in July, Members on both sides of this House warned the Government—read Hansard—that they may be underestimating the threat of the Taliban. That was ignored, and the Government’s preparation for withdrawal was based on a miscalculation of the resilience of the Afghan forces and a staggering complacency about the Taliban threat.

The Prime Minister is as guilty as anyone. This Sunday he said:

“We’ve known for a long time that this was the way things were going”.

That was not what he told the House in July, when he stood there and assured Members that

“there is no military path to victory for the Taliban”,

and went on to say:

“I do not think that the Taliban are capable of victory by military means”. —[Official Report, 8 July 2021; Vol. 698, c. 1108, 1112.]

The British Government were wrong and complacent, the Prime Minister was wrong and complacent and, when he was not rewriting history, the Prime Minister was displaying the same appalling judgment and complacency last week.

The British ambassador’s response to the Taliban arriving at the gates of Kabul was to personally process the paperwork for those who needed to flee. He is still there and we thank him and his staff. The Prime Minister’s response to the Taliban arriving at the gates of Kabul was to go on holiday—no sense of the gravity of the situation; no leadership to drive international efforts on the evacuation. The Foreign Secretary shakes his head. [Interruption.] What would I do differently? I would not stay on holiday while Kabul was falling. There are numerous examples of leaders on both sides of the House who have come back immediately in a time of crisis. [Interruption.] The Foreign Secretary is shouting now, but he was silent—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker

Order. The Prime Minister was heard and I want to hear the Leader of the Opposition. I do not want people to shout. You may disagree, but you may also wish to catch my eye. Do not ruin that chance.

Keir Starmer

The Foreign Secretary shouts now, but he stayed on holiday while our mission in Afghanistan was disintegrating. He did not even speak to ambassadors in the region as Kabul fell to the Taliban. Let that sink in. You cannot co-ordinate an international response from the beach. This was a dereliction of duty by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, and a Government totally unprepared for the scenario that they had 18 months to prepare for. It is one thing for people to lose trust in the Prime Minister at home, but when the trust in the word of our Prime Minister is questioned abroad, there are serious consequences for our safety and security at home.

Andrew Bridgen

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Keir Starmer

In one moment.

Recent events in Afghanistan shame the west—and not just the scenes of chaos. What does our abandonment of the Afghan people say to those brave people around the world living under regimes that pay scant regard to human rights but resisting those regimes in pursuit of democracy, equality and individual freedom? What does this retreat from freedom signal to those who are prepared to stand up for it? What does this surrender to extremism mean for those prepared to face it down? What does it mean for those nations who support an international rules-based system when we hand over power to those who recognise no rules at all? That is the challenge of our time.

The British and Afghan people will have to live with the consequences of the Prime Minister’s failure. We have fought for 20 years to rid Afghanistan of terror—terror that threatens our security here in Britain and liberty in Afghanistan. The Taliban are back in control. The Prime Minister has no plan to handle the situation, just as he had no plan to prevent it. What we won through 20 years of sacrifice could all be lost. That is the cost of careless leadership.