Speaking in the emergency debate on the situation in Afghanistan, James Sunderland calls on the Government to focus on securing the airhead in Kabul, ensuring safe access to the airhead, be realistic about the task in hand and finally to be honest about our place in the world and global ambitions.
Afghanistan has dominated much of my working life, so I am grateful to have been called to speak this afternoon. The situation there is galling, and one can only imagine the horrors that are unfolding in that most challenging part of the world. Were all the blood, sweat, tears and lives lost worth it? Well, now is not the time for an introspective look at how we got where we are today, as our priority is the here and now, but I will raise three quick points, if I may.
First, the fall of Kabul will reopen wounds for our service personnel, our veterans and their families. Huge sacrifices were made by so many, so I express my deepest sympathy to all those who lost loved ones and those with ongoing mental and physical scars. I also pay particular tribute to the 3,487 allied service personnel who lost their lives, including 457 British men and women, many of whom I served with.
There are no winners in war—it is a horrible, dirty business—but I believe that the MOD and the FCDO acted in good faith throughout the conflict. There were significant successes: schools, education, women’s rights, markets, jobs, town centres. People were given hope, and no terrorist acts in the west were orchestrated from Afghanistan’s soil. It may just be that some wars cannot be won, that strategic aims may be too ambitious and that some parts of the world are simply ungovernable.
As for the here and now, the non-combatant evacuation operation is in full flow, but I want to see an enhanced FCDO presence on the ground to ensure that we get it right. We must secure the airhead. We also need to take advantage of the relatively permissive environment—for now—to extend the lines of communication and ensure safe passage for UK nationals and entitled personnel to the airhead. In tactical terms, we need to go ugly early.
In addition, we need to be honest with ourselves. The FCDO must be realistic about the task at hand, not least in its messaging, by not writing cheques that cannot be cashed in terms of offering a safe haven for the non-entitled. I regret that we need to accept the harsh reality of what is happening in Afghanistan. Whether we like it or not, the overriding imperatives are UK nationals, foreign nationals with whom we have an arrangement and those entitled Afghan personnel we can lift.
Finally, we need to be honest about our place in the world and our global ambitions. The fall of Kabul, like Suez, has shown that the UK may not be able to operate autonomously without US involvement. It may be that our foreign policy is decided as much in Washington as it is in London. I am being provocative, but with so much being spent on defence and with global Britain at the forefront of our foreign policy, just how independent are we?