Page updated 1st September 2021

I have been contacted by many constituents who are concerned about events in Afghanistan.

The situation is desperate. I’ve been contacted – as have many MPs – by lots of constituents who are desperately worried about family members in Afghanistan but don’t know what to do. I have been told that the Taliban are searching for people or asking for lists of girls living in the household, and we know that the situation at the airport was desperately difficult and dangerous for those trying to get out.

The most urgent priority has been to get people out to safety: British nationals, those Afghans who worked alongside us and other Afghan citizens who are in fear of their lives. About 14,000 people were airlifted out of Afghanistan by British forces, but with evacuation flights now ended, the best option is for those at risk to get to a third country.

Afghanistan is a complex country and it was always going to be difficult for Afghans to bring about fundamental change in such a short space of time given its troubled history. But we now face the tragic rolling back of the gains that the Afghan people, ISAF forces, diplomats and NGO workers have all worked so hard for. Our thoughts are with the Afghan people but there are very serious questions about the failed political and development strategy of the last 20 years.

It is truly awful to see the Taliban taking control of the country once again, but I don’t think it’s correct to lay all this at the door of the original invasion by a large multinational coalition after the awful 9/11 attacks. At that time, the Taliban were largely in control of the country. They had given shelter to Al Qaida (which plotted the horrific attack on the twin towers from Afghanistan) and they were responsible for gross human rights abuses. Girls were denied an education, women could not work, theft was punished by amputation and there was the death penalty for being gay and for adultery. There was also no democracy, just as the Taliban have no mandate now.

The fragile democracy that emerged, whatever its many failings, was better than Taliban rule. Millions of refugees who fled the country when the Taliban were last in control returned. Women got the vote, they made up a quarter of the Afghan Parliament and they could work. There are now many more children in school and access to basic medical care has improved considerably.

The Allied forces also spent a lot of money and gave a lot of support and equipment to the Afghan military and police in order to enable them to defend the country themselves. Unfortunately, these efforts failed. The truth is that the capacity and strength of the Afghan armed forces was consistently over-estimated, and the unpopular government and corruption also played a part in undermining confidence, but it is also the case that the sudden withdrawal of American forces and specialist contractors left the Afghan armed forces without the backup that they needed in order to resist the Taliban advance.

What we are seeing will be particularly difficult for those British personnel who gave so much to serve in Afghanistan and for the families who lost loved ones, and I fear for the future of the country and for the democratic gains that have been made in the last 20 years, in particular for women and for civil society. The extent of this fear, given the Taliban‘s record, is shown by the large number of people seeking to flee the country.

I also recognise that NATO troops could not have remained forever, but I think it was a mistake for President Biden to announce such a precipitate withdrawal of US forces. Only last month, he said that he did not think that the Taliban would overrun the country. The events of the past week have shown just how mistaken that assessment was. Having said that, once the US decided to pull out there was no realistic prospect of other allied forces remaining given the heavy dependence of everyone on the Americans.

Notwithstanding this, we must continue to give every support we can to the Afghan people.

The big question now is how will the Taliban behave? Sadly, there have already been reports of atrocities.

It is hard to see what leverage the international community will have, but we should be talking to regional partners and to the UN about the best approach to take. The country is heavily dependent on foreign aid, so there may be an opportunity here to encourage the Taliban to behave properly, although it would be quite wrong to punish the people of the country for the failures of their government.

The immediate priorities are:

· to get UK nationals and eligible Afghans who worked with us out of the country to safety. I strongly supported the deployment of our troops to Kabul to provide security and capacity to do this and we know how hard the team at the airport worked. The priority now is to get those who qualify under the ARAP or Foreign Office schemes, because they are at real risk, to a third country so that they can be brought to safety in the UK.

· for the UK Government to speed up providing a home for Afghan refugees. I welcome the announcement of a resettlement scheme, yet the numbers are too small and the real test of its worth will be the number of Afghans who actually make it to the UK. We need details of this scheme to be published urgently. I know that Leeds will play its part in welcoming refugees but we will need support from the Government to help us to do so.

· the Taliban’s return is likely to lead to a refugee crisis in the region, although some press reports say that the Taliban are not allowing people to leave the country over the land borders. We must provide humanitarian support to those fleeing and to the countries that take them in. Given the risk of a humanitarian disaster, particularly for women and girls, it is utterly shameful that the Government had previously slashed development support to the country (although it will now be increasing it again).

· the Government should immediately consult with our allies in NATO and key countries in the region about the implications of the collapse of the Afghan government. There needs to be a coordinated approach from the international community to the changing situation on the ground, and a strategy to try to protect the gains made in the last 20 years on human rights.

Finally, although the Taliban are now back in control, we must do all we can to protect the gains that have been made – better medical care, girls going to school, and women being able to work and serve as MPs and ministers.

I took part in the House of Commons debate on the crisis on 18 August and you can find my speech below.

Rt Hon Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central

Speech by Hilary Benn MP in the Afghanistan debate on 18 August 2021

Thank you very much indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The events of the past few days have caused a great deal of sadness and fear: the sadness, as we have heard, of the members of our armed forces and their families, as the memories come flooding back; and fear on the part of the people of Afghanistan that all the gains that have been made will disappear. Perhaps the best answer to those who ask, “Was it worth it?” is to be found in the desperation of those who are trying to flee the country. They know better than any of us what was achieved, what it meant, and why they fear it will now be lost. For each of them, it was not for nothing.

We need to ask ourselves some hard questions. Why did it come as a surprise that the Government and the forces that we had supported, funded, trained and sought to build up over many years at the last appeared to be made of sand as the Taliban advance took city after city? Was it right of the Americans to announce such a precipitate withdrawal? I think that the mood of the House is no, it was not right, because the speed of their retreat undermined confidence and destroyed hope.

It is essential that we learn the lessons, and I hope that the Government will change their mind about the need for an inquiry—not to be wise after the event, not to find scapegoats, not to point out failures, but to understand what happened. That is for tomorrow, however. Today, the question is how will the Taliban choose to behave? We have all watched the interviews, and it is quite clear that many people in Afghanistan do not choose to believe what they have been told by their new leaders. We know the record—they know the record—of human rights abuses. We must remember that there was no democracy then, and the Taliban have no mandate now; they have the power that comes out of the barrels of their guns.

On the central question of the rights of women and girls, it is, as we have heard, the Taliban’s interpretation of sharia law that then means the subjugation of women. That is what it is about: the subjugation of women. Only time will tell us whether the women of Afghanistan will continue to be able to play a full and equal part in the country’s future.

There has been in the debate a large measure of agreement on the tasks that face us immediately to get people out. Will Ministers please brief Members of Parliament on how the system is working and what we can do when constituents contact us to make sure that their information is passed on? Will Ministers also reassure us that no bureaucracy is getting in the way? My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) made the point that paperwork is all very well, but how do people get the paperwork when they are hiding in a basement because the Taliban are patrolling the street above?

Alex Sobel
(Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op)

My right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is making an excellent speech. Our local council, Leeds, has already said that it stands ready to take people from Afghanistan into temporary accommodation, but we need safe routes across the land borders. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government need to ensure that the borders are open and there is safe passage from third countries to the UK?

Hilary Benn

I agree completely. The people of Leeds and the city of Leeds have always had a big heart and we will play our part. There will be a refugee crisis, and we know from the past that the vast majority of people end up in the neighbouring countries. They will need financial support from us and some will come to this country. I welcome the scheme announced, but the test of that scheme is not the numbers promised but the numbers who are able to make it here. Under the Nationality and Borders Bill, an Afghan who finally makes it to the northern coast of France, gets in a boat and knowingly enters the United Kingdom without permission could face a prison sentence of up to four years. I hope that Ministers will explain that they do not intend to apply that provision to those who are fleeing persecution.

The Taliban may now be back in power but, as many have said, we will judge them on what they do, not on what they say. As has been said, we will need brave journalists to bear witness to what now happens in Afghanistan, so that the truth can be told. They will be judged, and we will be judged, above all by the people of Afghanistan, for what we do now in response to the tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes.

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