Theresa May – 2021 Speech on Afghanistan

The speech made by Theresa May, the Conservative MP for Maidenhead and the former Prime Minister, in the House of Commons on 18 August 2021.

I had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan twice, but I recognise that there are others across this House whose experience is more recent, more vivid, more practical, and longer and broader than mine. But when I was there, I was struck by the commitment and dedication of our armed forces serving there and of other British personnel. All were doing what they could to give hope to the people of Afghanistan—people who, thanks to our presence, were able to enjoy freedoms they had been denied under the Taliban.

Twenty years on, 457 British military personnel have died in Afghanistan, and many more have suffered life-changing injuries. Yes, many girls have been educated because of British aid, but it is not just that the freedoms once enjoyed will now be taken away; many, many Afghans—not just those who worked with British forces—are now in fear of their lives. It is right that we should open up a refugee scheme, but we must make absolutely certain that it is accessible to all those who need it.

Of course, the NATO presence was always going to end at some point in time, but the withdrawal, when it came, was due to be orderly, planned and on the basis of conditions. It has been none of those. What has been most shocking is the chaos and the speed of the takeover by the Taliban. In July of this year, both President Biden and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister indicated that they did not think that the Taliban were ready or able to take over control of the country. Was our intelligence really so poor? Was our understanding of the Afghan Government so weak? Was our knowledge of the position on the ground so inadequate? Did we really believe that, or did we just feel that we had to follow the United States and hope that, on a wing and a prayer, it would be all right on the night?

The reality is that as long as a time limit and dates were given for withdrawal, all the Taliban had to do was ensure that there were sufficient problems for the Afghan Government not to be able to have full control of the country, and then just sit and wait.

John Redwood

Does my right hon. Friend agree that President Biden decided unilaterally to withdraw without agreeing and negotiating a plan with either the Afghan Government or the NATO allies, and that the response of the UK Government in the circumstances has been fast, purposeful and extremely well guided to protect the interests of UK citizens?

Mrs May

What President Biden has done is to uphold a decision made by President Trump. It was a unilateral decision of President Trump to do a deal with the Taliban that led to this withdrawal.

What we have seen from the scenes in Afghanistan is that it has not been all right on the night. There are many in Afghanistan who not only fear that their lives will be irrevocably changed for the worse, but fear for their lives. Numbered among them will be women—women who embraced freedom and the right to education, to work and to participate in the political process.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was right to make the education of girls a key aim of his Administration, but in Afghanistan that will now be swept away. Those girls who have been educated will have no opportunity to use that education. The Taliban proclaims that women will be allowed to work and girls will be allowed to go to school, but this will be under Islamic law—or rather, under its interpretation of Islamic law, and we have seen before what that means for the lives of women and girls.

Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

Some of the women who have shown most courage are the 250 women who serve as judges under the attempt that was made to impose a decent, honest legal system on Afghanistan. There is a particular fear that they are targets. The Bar Council and the Law Society have asked the Government to take cognizance of the particular risks they run. Will my right hon. Friend support the call for them to be given priority in being brought to safety, since they put their lives on the line for their fellow women and for their whole country?

Mrs May

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As has been said, there are many groups in Afghanistan who have put their lives on the line to support the Afghan Government, democracy and justice in Afghanistan, and it is right that we should do everything we can to support them in their time of need. However, as we know, under the Taliban regime the life of women and girls will sadly not be the same; they will not have the rights we believe they should have or the freedoms they should have.

Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)

There are already reports from sources in Kabul that the Taliban is executing collaborators and homosexuals. Does the right hon. Lady agree that complacency is absolutely misplaced, and what does she suggest we do to protect those people who need to get out?

Mrs May

The Government are doing much to protect people in trying to ensure that people can access ways of leaving Afghanistan. A point was made earlier about not just expecting people to get to Kabul, and I hope that is something the Government will be able to look into and take up.

Apart from the impact on the lives of women and girls, we see a potential humanitarian crisis, at least in some parts of Afghanistan. We have cut our international aid budget, but I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary has told me that more funding will be made available to deal with this crisis.

It is not just the impact on the people of Afghanistan that must concern us, however; we must be deeply concerned about the possible impact here in the UK. The aim of our involvement in Afghanistan was to ensure that it could not be used as a haven for terrorists who could train, plot, and encourage attacks in the UK. Al-Qaeda has not gone away. Daesh may have lost ground in Syria, but those terrorist groups remain and have spawned others. We will not defeat them until we have defeated the ideology that feeds their extremism.

Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)

One of the most concerning things that is happening is that several thousand al-Qaeda operatives have been freed from prisons in Bagram, Kabul and Kandahar. Is my right hon. Friend concerned that those people will go back to their old ways, or do we hope that they will somehow go into retirement? It seems to me that we are going to restart with a new round of international terrorism.

Mrs May

My hon. Friend has anticipated exactly the point I was about to make. The Taliban has said that it will not allow Afghanistan to become a haven for terrorists again. Yesterday, in the press conference, it said it would not allow anything to happen in Afghanistan that would lead to attacks elsewhere across the world. However, we must look at its actions, not its words, and, as he has just pointed out, its action has been to release thousands of high-value Taliban, al-Qaeda and Daesh fighters. Its actions are completely different from its words, and it is essential that we recognise the probability that Afghanistan will once again become a breeding ground for the terrorists who seek to destroy our way of life.

Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

The right hon. Lady is making exactly the points that I hoped to hear from the Prime Minister and did not. The reasons that we went into Afghanistan in 2001 remain valid today. If the actions taken in recent weeks render a military solution to that problem impossible, we have to have a non-military solution. What does she see that non-military solution as being?

Mrs May

I will refer to that issue later. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the question of a military solution has not been there for some time, because our combat mission ended some years ago, but we have been trying to provide support to enable a democratic Government to take proper control of that country. I would be happy to talk to him sometime about my views. I think that we should possibly have reconsidered the idea of trying to impose a western example of democracy in a country that is geographically difficult and relies a lot on regional government when we were going down that route, but I will not go down that road any longer, despite his temptations.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con) rose—

Mr Speaker

Order. I am really concerned about the time for Back Benchers. I did suggest that it was seven minutes, and we are now heading to 10. I did not put a time limit on, but I will have to do so after this speech.

Mrs May

I am very grateful for your generosity to me, Mr Speaker.

Another important element of our work in Afghanistan was stopping drugs coming into the United Kingdom. Sadly, that has not been as successful as we would have liked, but we supported a drug crime-specific criminal justice system in Afghanistan, and I assume that will now come to a complete end. Once again, that is another area where withdrawal is not just about Afghanistan but has an impact on the streets of the UK.

What must also be a key concern to us is the message that this decision sends around the world to those who would do the west harm—the message that it sends about our capabilities and, most importantly, about our willingness to defend our values. What does it say about us as a country—what does it say about NATO?—if we are entirely dependent on a unilateral decision taken by the United States? We all understand the importance of American support, but despite the comments from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I find it incomprehensible and worrying that the United Kingdom was not able to bring together not a military solution but an alternative alliance of countries to continue to provide the support necessary to sustain a Government in Afghanistan.

Surely one outcome of this decision must be a reassessment of how NATO operates. NATO is the bedrock of European security, but Russia will not be blind to the implications of this withdrawal decision and the manner in which it was taken. Neither will China and others have failed to notice the implications. In recent years, the west has appeared to be less willing to defend its values. That cannot continue. If it does, it will embolden those who do not share those values and wish to impose their way of life on others. I am afraid that this has been a major setback for British foreign policy. We boast about global Britain, but where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul? A successful foreign policy strategy will be judged by our deeds, not by our words.

I finally just say this: all our military personnel, all who served in Afghanistan, should hold their heads high and be proud of what they achieved in that country over 20 years, of the change of life that they brought to the people of Afghanistan and of the safety that they brought here to the UK. The politicians sent them there. The politicians decided to withdraw. The politicians must be responsible for the consequences.