New Forest East

AFGHANISTAN - 10 January 2024

AFGHANISTAN - 10 January 2024

Sir Julian Lewis: I shall put forward a few random and hopefully connected thoughts that have occurred to me in the course of the contributions we have heard so far. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) on securing the debate, and I commiserate with him on the fact that he paid a high political price in losing the chairmanship of the Defence Committee, which I know he valued greatly, as a result of speaking out on this subject.

I can go part of the way with my right hon. Friend in support of his thesis about engagement, by saying this: no matter how much we detest a particular regime, a time always comes when, if in reality it has established full control over a country, it gets international recognition. That was true for the Bolsheviks, for example: Britain intervened in the Russian civil war in an attempt to prevent the Bolsheviks from establishing communist control in what became the USSR, but we failed, and, after a few years, that regime had eventually to be recognised. Where I find it hard to go further with my right hon Friend is in the belief that we can somehow manipulate the system to make significant improvements or avert significant threats from an Afghanistan run by the militant Taliban, even if he detects – rightly, I am sure – significant factions within the Taliban spectrum, such as it is.

As too many past speeches will attest, I came to the conclusion over a decade ago that the whole concept of the west trying to engage in nation building from the ground up in countries such as Afghanistan was largely futile, because – and I quote my right hon. Friend, who referred to this country’s democratic journey across the centuries – it often takes centuries for democracy to evolve in a society.

We have no reason per se to feel superiority over countries that we regard as undemocratic today, because we had so much longer than they have had so far to evolve the institutions, values and tolerances in which we have reason to be proud. The fact is that, if we were to go back 400 or 500 years into the history of our own country, we would find religious fanaticism that is not all that dissimilar to what pertains in countries that are subject to what has today been termed radical political Islam. If we then frame the proposition that some completely different society, seeking to impose their more modern values on the England of 500 years ago, could have managed to inculcate those values into a society with a belief that God Almighty was telling them to do one thing and to disregard all alternatives as infidel structures that must be destroyed, we can see that it is pretty unrealistic to think that societies could be transformed with that degree of rapidity.

I have therefore felt, and argued for over a decade, that what we needed with a country such as Afghanistan was not an approach whereby we would be able rapidly to bring it into the modern world, but that we should be able to contain the threats that it posed to us – for a very long period, if necessary – until, by its own evolution, it came to develop the sorts of values that would result in those threats ceasing to exist. That option has now been taken away from us by President Biden’s catastrophic decision to abandon everything and effectively betray all the people in Afghanistan who had put their trust in the NATO countries that had tried, over-ambitiously, to develop Afghan society.

What I feel very strongly, which came out so well in the remarks that the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) made about Afghan women, is that we may have pursued an unrealistic and utopian policy towards Afghanistan, but, in doing that, we created obligations to those Afghans who sought to travel along the route with us. We must not abandon them.

When I hear about the idea of our having a strategy towards the country, I think of our options as extremely limited. The strategy that we ought to have had is one of containment, whereby we would make it perfectly clear that we had intervened militarily once and would not get sucked in, but that, if there were to be any sign of further terrorist activity aimed at us or our allies, we would not hesitate to intervene militarily again. In that case, we would again make it clear that we would not get sucked in, but would continually keep the threat of counter-action available while avoiding seeking to transform the society in a way that was wholly impractical.

Richard Foord: I am very grateful to the right hon. Member for giving way. He is talking about a situation in which a terrorist threat may emerge in the future. At the height of the UK’s presence in Afghanistan, the Prime Minister of the UK talked about Afghanistan and Pakistan in the same breath and had an AfPak strategy. That was because there was a fear of Islamist intent coming together with the weapons of mass destruction capability in Pakistan. Does the right hon. Member think that those threats have completely dissipated, or would he still regard the federally administered tribal areas and the North West Frontier Province as a threat?

Sir Julian Lewis: I absolutely am concerned about the attitude of Pakistan and about the potential for Pakistani nuclear weapons to one day pass under the control of more radical elements than are currently running that country. What should particularly worry us –this is what I think David Cameron had in mind when, as Prime Minister, he talked about Pakistan facing both ways on the question of radical Islam – is the fact that there has been a wish in Pakistan Government circles to see the triumph of the Taliban. The reasons for that are probably more related to Pakistan’s relations with countries such as India, and have too little regard to the other effects that bringing in a regime such as the Taliban’s might have on the stability and security of the international system and the rules-based international order – about which we hear so much although we often wonder whether it exists.

I share the continuing concern of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord). I am far from satisfied that we are in a secure situation. On the contrary, I feel that the withdrawal and abandonment of Afghanistan have given a huge boost to those who say that the western system of society is degenerate and enfeebled, and will surely fail in the face of a radical Islamic alternative.

What do we do about this now? What I think we can do can be summed up in the following way. We will, indeed, have to recognise that the Taliban are in control. Therefore, just as we have a sort of relationship, however adversarial, with obnoxious and hostile regimes in other countries, so we will have to do that with the Taliban. We must not fool ourselves that having a relationship with them will result in any real reduction in the threat that they and their way of life poses, particularly when they have adherents within our own societies. We saw for many years how much damage people who owed a form of allegiance to the Soviet Union could cause, through their fifth columnists in democratic societies. There is an equivalent danger from radical political Islam, too.

Let us by all means face reality, but let us reassert that we know that this combination of politics, regime and religious extremist ideology is a total threat to us. We will do everything in our power to protect ourselves. Any aid and support that we give to the Afghan Government, as we will eventually have to call it, must be contingent on something in return at every stage. That will probably be in relation to the saving of groups, whether they be women’s groups or former military personnel to whom we owe obligations. That is the saving of people whose lives were changed by our intervention, and who have a right to look to us to help to protect them against the ghastliness of the regime that has sadly re-emerged and taken control of their country.

[The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Mr Andrew Mitchell): … My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis), who chairs the Intelligence and Security Committee, spoke with his usual wisdom and asked me about the resettlement schemes, as did the hon. Member for North East Fife [Wendy Chamberlain]. I want to make something clear about the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, to which I think my right hon. Friend referred; he asked me whether this was effectively closed. He will understand that it is a Home Office scheme, but I am advised that although stage 1 is closed and in the first year the Government considered for resettlement only eligible at-risk British Council contractors, GardaWorld contractors and Chevening alumni, stage 2 will be broader but is not yet open. My right hon. Friend also mentioned the many difficulties for ordinary Afghans as a result of the nature of Taliban rule. …]