4 November 2021
James Cleverly responds to Afghanistan debate

James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds to a debate on the proposal for an inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the NATO-led mission to Afghanistan.

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

I am grateful to my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for securing the debate, and I pay tribute to his long-standing commitment to Afghanistan, including what he has done in his current role as Chair of the Defence Committee. I am also grateful for the thoughtful contributions from other Members, including the hon. Members for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) and for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) and, indeed, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). It is my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government.

Before I do so, however, I want to record my thanks to all British service personnel who were deployed to Afghanistan over the course of our commitment there, and also to the countless diplomats, development experts and others who served there out of uniform. I want to thank our allies, and I very much want to thank the brave Afghans who worked shoulder to shoulder with us all over the last 20 years.

As a result of our collective efforts and those of our international and Afghan allies—as the hon. Member for Aberavon pointed out—no major terrorist attacks against the UK or, indeed, any NATO country have emanated from Afghanistan over the last 20 years, and that is something for which we should rightly be grateful. As a result of our efforts and those of our allies, secondary school enrolment rose from 13% of children to almost 60%. Over 8 million more children, including 3.6 million girls, were attending school than in 2001. 

Basic health services reached 85% of the population, and the proportion of people with access to clean water and sanitation doubled. As a result of our efforts and those of our allies, life expectancy rose by an incredible eight years. Over those 20 years, maternal mortality nearly halved, and infant mortality decreased faster than in any other low-income country. In short, our efforts over 20 years made the UK safer, and gave Afghans health, education and a degree of hope. Those achievements should be a matter of great pride to us all, and our focus now is on protecting them.

My right hon. and gallant Friend focused very much on the NATO mission. NATO allies went into Afghanistan together, and they left together. The 11 September attacks were the only occasion in NATO’s history on which it has invoked article 5, its collective “self-defence clause”. The UK played an active role in NATO collective decision making throughout the mission, and that includes the collective NATO ministerial decision on 14 April this year that NATO troops could not stay without American forces.

Since mid-August, we face a new situation, but we have enduring interests, and a continuing commitment to the Afghan people. Today, we have four major objectives. They are, first, to preserve the counter-terrorism gains that we have achieved, and ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a source of threats to the region or beyond, including here in the UK; secondly, to provide humanitarian support for the Afghan people, who are facing extreme hardship—42% of the population, more than 18 million people, are suffering crisis or emergency levels of severe acute malnutrition; thirdly, to press for inclusive politics and respect for human rights, especially the full and equal rights of girls to go to school and women to go to work; and finally, to ensure that the events in Afghanistan do not destabilise the region, for example, through uncontrolled outflows of refugees or the export of narcotics.

Through our presidency of the G7, our role in the Security Council and the G20, and our partnerships with countries in the region, we have helped to build global support for those four goals, and—just as important—we will continue to assist British nationals and eligible Afghans who are trying to relocate from that country. To pursue those goals, we need to have pragmatic engagement with the Taliban. Officials have had a number of meetings with the Taliban leadership since August, for instance, during a visit to Kabul by Sir Simon Gass, the Prime Minister’s High Representative, and meetings with the Taliban hosted in Doha. Thanks to those exchanges, the Taliban are clear about the fact that the eyes of the world are upon them and we are watching their actions closely. They know what they must do if we are to co-operate. That includes allowing girls to go back to secondary school and women to go back to their jobs, and preventing the movement of foreign terrorist fighters.

We are also offering practical support to Afghans, without benefiting the Taliban. The Prime Minister has said that we will double humanitarian and development assistance for Afghanistan this year, to £286 million. On 31 October, he announced the allocation of £50 million of that to fund emergency humanitarian support. The money will help to provide 2.5 million people with life-saving healthcare, food security, and shelter. We are working with other donors and the World Bank to continue the provision of basic services for the Afghan people, through non-state-run channels. Strong primary healthcare is vital if we are to protect Afghan women and children.

My right hon. and gallant Friend has argued that we must learn lessons from the NATO mission, from our broader campaign and from the way that it ended. He is, of course, right. We must, and we will. Our main focus right now is on ensuring safe passage for anyone remaining in Afghanistan who needs to leave, supporting the thousands of new arrivals in the UK, and continuing to provide assistance for the Afghan people who remain in Afghanistan—but, of course, we are always learning lessons: learning lessons from Afghanistan has been a continuous process. That is why, after the conclusion of Operation Herrick in 2014, the Army conducted a thorough internal review. We also incorporated lessons from that in the integrated review that we published earlier this year. Departments are undertaking their own Afghanistan lessons learnt exercises in their areas of expertise and contributing to NATO’s lessons learnt exercise, all of which will inform our defence strategy and future UK military operations.

In addition, the Government welcome the inquiries of this House’s Foreign Affairs Committee and of my right hon. Friend’s own Defence Committee. We welcome the debates in the House and the interest of the Intelligence Security Committee, the International Development Committee, the Home Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy, among others.

Stewart Malcolm McDonald 

As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I can tell the House that we are proceeding with our inquiry on this. However, I submitted a number of written questions to the Minister’s Department when the previous Foreign Secretary was still in post. I do not want this to come across as personalised, but it is important for Parliament to understand what Ministers were and were not doing during the month of August. There has been a lot of public debate, particularly about the Foreign Secretary’s movements and actions. I submitted a whole series of questions asking for ministerial engagements on each of the days on which the Taliban were advancing across more and more of the country. The Foreign Office will not give me answers to those questions, so how is Parliament supposed to have any confidence that the Government take Parliament’s inquiry seriously when we cannot even get basic things such as call logs to tell us who Ministers were talking to as the Taliban were getting Kabul ever closer in their sights?

James Cleverly 

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office takes very seriously the inquiries from Members from every part of the House, and we seek to answer them in a way that informs Members without compromising security or, sometimes, the discreet work that the Department has to do.

The simple fact is that multiple inquiries are being conducted by the Committees of the House into the functions of the Government. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East is leading the inquiry by the Defence Committee that will cover what happened after the US agreement with the Taliban in February 2020—the exact period of time that the hon. Member for Glasgow South mentions. It will also cover the planning and execution of the withdrawal of UK forces and the evacuation of UK nationals and Afghanistan nationals who worked with the British armed forces.

The Government’s view is that these initiatives offer ample scope to address the most important questions. The hon. Member for Aberavon, who knows that I have a huge degree of respect for him, has suggested a more limited inquiry—one that would be limited to a timescale that would prevent it from looking at the role his party might have played when it was in government. While the final stages of the deployment are important, if his proposal were to be taken forward, I think that people might see it as partisan and cynical. As the Prime Minister told the House on 8 July, we do not think an inquiry in addition to those multiple other inquiries is the right way forward.

Stephen Kinnock 

I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being very generous. Just to be clear, what I said in my remarks was that there had already been multiple inquiries into the Afghan intervention preceding 2010—some by the Defence Committee. He himself is commending the work of the Defence Committee in making inquiries. We are saying that it is important to prioritise and that we need something that does not take a massive amount of time, as Chilcot did. We are saying this in a genuine spirit of bipartisanship; I am certainly not attempting to be cynical or party political in any way.

James Cleverly 

I will take the hon. Gentleman at his word. Being an honourable Member is not just some loose title; he is genuinely an honourable gentleman and I take him at his word.

The Government welcome the close interest in these events that the House has taken. We will study recommendations of the inquiries by the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Defence Committee and others with great care. The military campaign in Afghanistan over the past 20 years claimed the lives of 457 British service personnel, but we must never forget that it saved the lives of countless others. We can be proud of what we achieved, in step with our NATO allies, and today we are doing everything we can with our partners to protect those gains, to ensure the UK’s security and to help the Afghan people in their time of greatest need.