Afghanistan: FCDO Update - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 8:46 pm on 7th September 2021.

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The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 6 September.

“With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on the UK’s international response to the situation in Afghanistan.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out, over the last three weeks, through a shared effort right across Government and our armed forces, we have delivered the largest and most complex evacuation in living memory. Between 15 and 29 August, the UK evacuated over 15,000 people from Afghanistan. That includes more than 8,000 British nationals; close to 5,000 Afghans who loyally served the UK, along with their dependants; and about 500 special cases of particularly vulnerable Afghans, including Chevening scholars, journalists, human rights defenders, campaigners for women’s rights, judges and many others.

Of course, the work to get people out did not start on 15 August. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office advised British nationals to leave the country in April and again on 6 August; we estimate that about 500 did so. At the same time, the Government launched the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme for interpreters and other Afghan staff, getting more than 1,900 out before the airlift began on 15 August. As the security situation deteriorated, we accelerated that process throughout July and early August. In total, since April, we have helped more than 17,000 people to leave.

I place on record my thanks, and I pay tribute to the herculean efforts of our troops, our diplomats and our civil servants, who have done an incredible job in the toughest of conditions. As we remember their efforts, we also remember those in the UK armed forces who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan trying to make that country a better place for the Afghan people.

Now that the evacuation has ended, we have moved into a new phase. We stand by our commitment to support those who have worked for us and to take all remaining eligible cases. Securing their safe passage out of the country is an immediate priority. We are working through our diplomatic channels to that end, and of course the Taliban have given assurances that they will provide safe passage for foreign nationals and those eligible Afghans who wish to leave. On 30 August, the UN Security Council passed resolution 2593, driven by the UK alongside the US and France, affirming the international community’s expectation and requirement that the Taliban should follow through on the assurances that they have given.

Last week, I visited Qatar and Pakistan. In Qatar, I met the Emir and the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed, to discuss safe passage alongside the international community’s wider approach to dealing with the Taliban. We discussed ongoing efforts to re-establish flights at Kabul airport, where Qatari technical staff are working on the ground, and to see how we can co-operate in handling the organisation of future flights. I also announced our new non-resident chargé d’affaires for Afghanistan, Martin Longden, who is now working out of Doha.

In Pakistan, I met Prime Minister Khan and Foreign Minister Qureshi to discuss safe passage via third countries and the importance of holding the Taliban to their commitments. I also announced that we are sending £30 million in support to Afghanistan’s neighbours. This will provide life-saving support for refugees, including shelters, household necessities, sanitation and other hygiene facilities.

I dispatched last week a new rapid deployment team to the region, with an extra 22 staff in total. They will reinforce our embassy teams and high commission teams in neighbouring countries, processing British nationals or eligible Afghans who are seeking to leave via third countries. We want to do that as fast as we possibly can once they can leave, subject to the necessary security checks.

I also spoke to the Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan earlier today and the Foreign Minister of Tajikistan last week. Our Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth, Lord Ahmad, visited Tajikistan last week and will return to the region shortly.

I turn to the wider international strategy. The international community is adjusting, and must adjust, to the new reality in Afghanistan and is recalibrating its approach. The UK is playing a leading role. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister convened G7 leaders on 24 August to discuss a shared response to the situation. That followed a G7 Foreign Ministers meeting, and we are building a global coalition around four key priorities set out in a UK G7 paper that we have shared with those partners.

First, we must prevent Afghanistan from ever again becoming a safe haven or harbour for terrorists. Secondly, we must prevent a humanitarian disaster and support refugees, wherever possible, in the region. The UK has allocated £286 million in aid for Afghanistan this year. We are supporting Afghanistan’s neighbours, as I have set out, and the Home Secretary has set out our resettlement scheme, so we are leading by example, which enables us to encourage others to step up in what will inevitably have to be an international team effort.

Thirdly, we must preserve regional stability, which risks being shattered by the combination of renewed terrorist threat and an exodus of refugees. Fourthly, we must hold the Taliban and other factions to account for their conduct, including and in particular on human rights and on their treatment of women and girls. I am taking that forward through our bilateral partners; we have a G7+ meeting later this week, and the UK is also pressing for further discussions among the permanent members of the UN Security Council. We plan to host an event at the UN General Assembly later this month, as the Prime Minister indicated.

We will not recognise the Taliban, but we will engage, and we will carefully calibrate our actions to the choices that they make and the actions that they take. Given our strategic priorities—the ones that I have specified—we must also set some credible tests to hold the Taliban to the undertakings that they have made on safe passage, on terrorism, on humanitarian access, and on a more inclusive Government. We stand ready to use all the levers at our disposal—political, economic and diplomatic—in that effort. We continue to galvanise the international community and bring together the widest possible group of influential countries to deliver on those strategic priorities, and to exercise the maximum moderating influence on the Taliban that we possibly can. I commend this Statement to the House.”

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development) 9:03 pm, 7th September 2021

My Lords, the events in Afghanistan have shown the absolute best of United Kingdom diplomatic staff and British forces. We can all take immense pride in what they have achieved, especially in their efforts as part of Operation Pitting, yet, as my noble friend highlighted earlier, the Government’s mismanagement has meant that many Brits and Afghans who have worked alongside us have been left behind.

Our focus now must be on two priorities: first and most immediately, helping and protecting the people who remain in Afghanistan and those who have been able to escape, and, secondly, protecting the gains of the past 20 years, particularly those relating to women and girls and education.

The first priority means helping those who are stranded in Afghanistan to leave via a viable and safe route and—as I mentioned earlier today—focusing support for those who are at most risk of persecution, such as women and LGBT people as well as the Hazara Shias. Can the Minister clarify exactly how many British nationals remain in Afghanistan? For the Afghan nationals who have made it to the United Kingdom, there must now be long-term support for those rebuilding their lives and engagement with local authorities to agree a long-term strategy. Details for the Afghan refugee resettlement programme have been incomplete and delayed, and the Government must urgently clarify how they will help fund the scheme and what the overarching strategy is.

The Minister will be aware that Members of both Houses have taken up the cases of Afghans and British nationals who have been desperate to leave. I know the Minister has personally intervened in many of these cases, but the response of both the Foreign Office and the Home Office has been slow, with many MPs’ emails remaining unanswered. The Prime Minister promised that all emails would be responded to by the close of play yesterday, so can the Minister explain why this deadline has now been missed, with hundreds—I repeat, hundreds—of emails still not being replied to?

As we heard earlier in the debate on the previous Statement, there is a very real prospect of a humanitarian crisis in a country of almost 40 million people, and the consequences could be catastrophic. The country is already experiencing its second drought in three years. One in three Afghans is now facing severe hunger, and almost half of children under five are in need of life-saving nutritional support over the next 12 months—something I have constantly raised in this House, particularly as a consequence of the terrible cuts to development support.

The Government must use multilateral institutions in conjunction with aid agencies to monitor the situation and deliver aid directly to those in need. Steps must also be taken to keep land routes open for the safe delivery of food, medicine, water and other supplies, and preparations need to be made for the people being displaced. UN agencies such as the World Food Programme are planning for this possibility, with responses being explored in Pakistan, Tajikistan and Iran. The Foreign Secretary said he had spoken to Jean Arnault, the special representative on Afghanistan, acknowledging that the relationship with the United Nations will be one of the critical factors we consider in shaping the resettlement scheme. What other discussions have taken place to plan support for these UN agencies?

The second priority must be to protect the gains of the last 20 years, and the only way we can do this is with a clear diplomatic road map for the way ahead. We must use every lever we have to prevent Afghanistan becoming, once again, a safe haven for international terrorism. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 2593 is a welcome first step in affirming the international community’s expectation and requirement that the Taliban should follow through on the assurances they have given. The Foreign Secretary said that the UK is pressing for further discussions with the UN Security Council P5. Will these discussions also explore the means to hold the Taliban to their word?

Regional partners will also be central to preventing security threats arising from Afghanistan, and I am pleased that the Government have been engaging with Pakistan. Yesterday the Foreign Secretary claimed to have engaged with all relevant partners. Can the Minister confirm which states the Foreign Secretary was referring to? Can he set out the steps which were agreed during the Foreign Secretary’s meeting with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister on combating terrorism?

Given the importance of protecting human rights when exerting pressure on the Taliban regime, can the Minister detail the steps we are taking multilaterally, including at the UN Human Rights Council? The Leader of the House and the Foreign Secretary said that the UK plans to host an event at the UN General Assembly later this month. Can the Minister tell us what the objectives of this meeting are? The noble Baroness failed to give us an answer on that; I hope the Minister can set out a better context for it. I believe it is the right thing to do, but we must have very clear objectives.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan poses a threat to us all, not only from its past relationship with international terrorism but from the conditions it is now creating in the region. It is in everyone’s interest that the United Kingdom step up and support the people of Afghanistan.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Collins, I pay tribute to the service men and women, the diplomats and indeed the Minister himself for the huge efforts put into place under Operation Pitting and in the weeks following the end of the evacuation. But as we heard during the previous Statement, there are some serious questions to be asked about the nature of the evacuation and why we needed to evacuate when we did. A longer-term inquiry may be the time for those questions.

In the shorter term, there are questions about how many people we have left behind. There is clearly the question of how many British nationals who want to leave are still in Afghanistan. My understanding is that all were encouraged to leave back in April; some have chosen not to. If British nationals have chosen to stay, that is their choice, but do the Government have a sense of how many individuals want to leave? Is there a difficulty for people with dual nationality? Will the Taliban make it difficult for people with British and Afghan citizenship to leave? If so, are the Government seeking assurances that people with British passports will have the opportunity for safe passage?

What are the Government realistically able to offer those who have been offered a place under ARAP but have not yet been able to leave the country? The Statements suggest that everyone who has currently been offered a place under ARAP will be able to leave. Is that realistic? Should those of us who are trying to support the British Council and others on individual cases say that, yes, those people will be got out, or do we have to say that realistically we cannot guarantee that?

Beyond those who have already been offered a place under ARAP, what about those second-tier contractors—for example, for the British Council—who have not yet been given the right to come? What hope is there for them? Beyond that, for interpreters and others who worked for the MoD, my understanding is that the MoD has done a great job of getting the interpreters out now, but many others worked alongside our service personnel: the cooks and the people who did the laundry—a whole set of people whose lives are very vulnerable. Where do they feature in the Government’s thinking? Can they be assured of safe passage?

What sort of support will the Government be able to offer, directly or indirectly, to those who are currently away from their homes because they moved towards Kabul hoping to be able to get to the Baron hotel and on to a flight, and who now find themselves without food, shelter or money because they cannot access their bank accounts?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for their questions and contributions during what has been a particularly challenging time. I fully acknowledge the noble Baroness’s remarks about my personal engagement. Simply put, I sought—others will judge—to do my job in the best way I can.

I join the noble Lord, the noble Baroness and my noble friend the Leader of House in acknowledging the real debt of gratitude we owe to our servicemen and diplomats. I know Laurie Bristow very well—I was engaging with him daily prior to his appointment, as he went out, and during that appointment. I know first-hand about his commitment. As my noble friend the Leader of the House said, there are always lessons to be learned, and we all have to look back on what we have achieved with a degree of humility in recognising that, yes, it was a massive operation in terms of the people who were able to evacuate from Afghanistan, but at the same time, I assure noble Lords that at the heart of the Government’s approach is humanity in what we do next.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly talked about Operation Pitting and comments have been made about the Government’s role and preparedness. My noble friend has already alluded to the fact that plans were prepared and looked at regularly. Undoubtedly, it was clear from the speed at which the Taliban came into Kabul—which was a key point at which the operation was stood up—and the gains that were being made elsewhere in Afghanistan that the Taliban were making inroads very quickly.

That said, from the Foreign Office perspective, as Minister with responsibility for Afghanistan, I was engaging quite directly with the Government of Afghanistan, not for a week or a month before but for many months before. I was in Uzbekistan three weeks or so before the fall of Kabul, with all the key partners— from the Americans to Pakistan, India, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Turkey and other countries, and I engaged quite directly, including with President Ghani and Foreign Minister Atmar, on the situation on the ground.

Notwithstanding the comments made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, the issue is the joint assessment, which, as the noble Lord will know from his own time, brings together all the intelligence sources et cetera to ensure that we are fully prepared. Something which has not been said in this context is that, had we not been prepared—notwithstanding the heartbreaking scenes we have all witnessed; and I can assure you, I was hearing live stories during the evacuation process—we would not have achieved this if plans had not been in place. We stood up plans and worked together across government. I put on record my thanks to the Minister for the Armed Forces and the Minister for Immigration. Every day during the operation, we were convening a meeting at which we would address every single issue to ensure that the teams on the ground—be they diplomats or the military—the Minister at the Home Office and his Border Force team were trying to meet in real time the challenges we faced during the evacuation.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to everyone, but the job is not done, and I therefore recognise many of the questions that have been posed. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly raised the issues of safe passage, humanitarian aid and human rights, and I thank him for acknowledging the efforts of the United Kingdom, together with France, at the UN Security Council. We are also working in the margins at UNGA through events which will focus specifically on the points made by the noble Lord about minority rights, women’s rights and the LGBT community. I look forward to working with noble Lords to see how we can plan effectively, including in respect of civil society groups.

The UN resolution really does call for safe passage, human rights and humanitarian aid. Regarding the countries we were engaging with, not just during the crisis but beforehand and subsequently, we are looking at safe passage. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary visited Qatar and Pakistan; I visited Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and on returning, I visited Dubai to thank the Emiratis, who played a pivotal role in our evacuation process. Although the media may not have covered the operation, it was very smooth in terms of our ability to evacuate through Dubai, and I am grateful to our Emirati friends.

As for holding the Taliban to account, I totally agree with the noble Lord. My views on the Taliban and their perverse ideology are on record, and I speak, as I have said before, as a man who follows the same faith. Their Islam, or their faith, is not one I recognise, and I do not recognise what it presents. In the context of Islam, there are many countries within the Islamic world that have an added obligation, including those near neighbours, but we are working with the United States, the Qataris and others to ensure safe passage. Today, a humanitarian flight arrived at Kabul airport; it was a Qatar Airways flight and it brought in humanitarian aid.

On the specific advice we can give, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about ARAP and those who were given leave outside the rules. We have already made the point that for those who have already received their letters—from whatever route it was secured—we will guarantee that, through ARAP, they will get exactly what they have been promised. The ARAP scheme remains live and will continue to be so. On leave outside the rules, if someone has a letter, when they are called forward they will be prioritised under the new Home Office resettlement scheme. Of course, we await details, but as my noble friend the Leader said, we are working at pace with our Home Office colleagues, and I know the priority the Home Secretary places on ensuring that details are brought forward at the earliest possible opportunity.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the issue of correspondence. A response was given on 6 September which dealt with a large number of the inquiries that were coming in from MPs about what would happen to individuals who had already received the letter. The intent of that letter was to signpost and reassure. I accept that there are some quite specific cases, and I have certainly said to our teams at the FCDO that, working alongside the Home Office, we will work through these. There are some sensitivities in these cases, and we need to protect individuals, but I am very cognisant of the fact that many individuals in this House and the other place in particular have raised specific cases. There are lots of details on specific cases, and some are split, and we are seeking to provide appropriate signposting. Whether through the FCDO or the Home Office, we will work to resolve particular issues that arise in particular cases. Certainly, I can give that assurance.

On the issue of preparedness, my noble friend alluded to the rapid deployment teams. We are finalising the Home Office policy, and I assure noble Lords that, when I was in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, part of my role was to ensure that our RDTs were embedded—and they are—as they are in Pakistan. I met the team in Dubai on my way back from Tajikistan. We are working in a very sensitive way, recognising the challenge on near neighbours and standing up infrastructure and support. Indeed, the additional funding to Afghanistan, which is now at £286 million, is, let me assure the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, focused not just on providing support for those people we are seeking to evacuate and bring back to the UK but on recognising the burden there will be on neighbouring states, including Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. That is why my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary immediately stood up £30 million, £10 million of which will be applied directly to help support facilities within those neighbouring countries.

The noble Lord asked about holding the Taliban to account. In the previous debate there was a discussion of the levers we have available. I assure all noble Lords that there is one thing above all else that the Taliban strives for, which is recognition. Yes, they may be a much more polished version of what was there before, but we need to hold them to account. That means working with our international partners and those who have influence over the Taliban, but also ensuring that the humanitarian aid gets through. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that I have spoken—not just on this occasion but previously—with different UN agencies, and in the last few weeks have spoken directly to Filippo Grandi at the UNHCR and Henrietta Fore at UNICEF, among others. I have engaged directly with Michelle Bachelet to ensure that our focus remains not just at the UN Security Council but at the UN Human Rights Council as well.

Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Labour 9:24 pm, 7th September 2021

My Lords, I was appointed Secretary of State for Defence at a very difficult time for our engagement in Afghanistan. I visited Afghanistan numerous times, in horrible circumstances sometimes, and I worked there with people who were devoted to the future of that country, both in our military and our diplomatic and development services. They know that I have the highest regard for all of them, because I told them so in these circumstances where they were doing the job. I shared those dangers with them, and sometimes was criticised for speaking in Parliament in glowing terms about them and what they were doing. I know what the military, the Diplomatic Service and others have done in the past few weeks, but they would think less of me—because I have many friends among them, and I lost friends among them—if I did not hold the Government to account, and those beyond the Government who have gotten them into this situation when it was a choice and not an inevitability.

The question in relation to this Statement is what, exactly, does its last page mean? It talks about using the

“levers at our disposal—political, economic and diplomatic” to deliver our four strategic objectives, which are very bland in one sense but also very challenging. They are set out in the other part of it. What exactly do we think our options are? We are powerless.

The Taliban have their international recognition; they are strutting the streets of cities in Afghanistan after 20 years of war with the most powerful armies in the world, wearing their uniforms and carrying their kit, flying their aircraft and driving their vehicles. The people of Afghanistan are terrified of them, because many of them have been alive long enough to know when they last ruled that country, and they know what they are capable of. They are masters of public relations and have given us the impression that we can engage with them and somehow, with options, lever them into being a civilised Government. That is what we are saying that we are doing, but we cannot do it—and we certainly cannot unless our Ministers can come to the Dispatch Box and tell us what those levers are, how they think they will deploy them and why we as the Parliament to which they are accountable should support them to do it.

The first question is not, “What is the one lever that they provide to us?”, which is their desire for recognition, but what levers do we actually control and which they do not pull, to get them not to deliver the sort of horrible, terrible, oppressive and dangerous Government that they were once before? Secondly, we have just had an integrated review in which the Government told us—and it should have terrified us—that their assessment was that we were going to suffer a successful CBRN terrorist attack by 2030 on these islands. Can we be assured that the Government are recalibrating that, because the situation is now much worse?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, simply put, yes, of course there are levers at our disposal, and I have already alluded to a number of them. “Diplomatic” means how we work together with our key partners, such as the United States and others on the Security Council, but also with other key countries that have influence over what will prevail in Afghanistan, which is in a particularly precarious economic situation. The challenges in that country on humanitarian issues is clear.

In that regard, let me assure the noble Lord and all noble Lords that we have the levers of diplomacy by working with partners, including the likes of Russia and China, which will have influence, and the likes of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which are near neighbours. Those are important relationships, which we are invested in. As I already said, I have met directly Foreign Ministers across those countries and am engaging directly with them. It is not just about our ask of them, including on the issue of safe passage for those who get to a border; it is also about recognising that, to build relationships, you have to invest in the. That means ensuring that we stand up support for the refugee crisis that they may face on their own borders, and we are doing just that.

In terms of the Taliban specifically, the support of UN agencies is needed. In my discussions with UNICEF, in particular, and other agencies, we have got a sense that some agencies have increased their footprint on the ground within Afghanistan, and therefore we will be working with international partners, particularly UN agencies, to ensure that we continue to support humanitarian efforts not through the Taliban structures but directly through the agencies which are still operating across Afghanistan.

There are other levers about connectivity. I alluded earlier to the fact that we saw the first flight into Kabul. We are also hearing through our channels on the ground and international agencies that certain airports, such as those in Jalalabad and Mazar-i-Sharif, are being perceived as areas which we can look at not just to provide air routes but to deliver humanitarian aid for other parts of the country.

The noble Lord has wide experience, which I fully acknowledge. I can say at the Dispatch Box that of course we are very cognisant that security is important. The decision was made to withdraw NATO forces, but we recognise that we need to prevent terrorism. The UK Security Council resolution was an important fourth element on counterterrorism. I assure him that we are working through all channels and reassessing our capabilities to ensure that we mitigate against threats and future attacks against this country and any of our partners. It requires a big international effort.

I come back to the point that the noble Lord raised about the internal situation with the Taliban. Some would argue that the Taliban is a different Taliban. The jury is out. My view is clear: it is the same Taliban that was there before. However, what has changed, and where we have a glimmer of hope and opportunity, is that the 20 years of investment, which the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, alluded to on the previous Statement, have produced some great gains. I know a lot of the people we have worked with and the phenomenal women leaders who have emerged. They also provide great hope. Through our efforts and those of our international partners, I can now talk about some of them, such as Shukria Barakzai. More recently, I was pleased to see—in an extremely challenging situation—the likes of Fawzia Koofi, who is known to many people across both Houses. It was heartening to see her still very determined to play her part, albeit that for now she has left Afghanistan. We must see how we can sustain international dialogue and provide hope for people who are working for the future of Afghanistan, including those within Afghanistan. There are lots of areas that we still need to develop. I do not shy away from the challenge in front of us, but we will continue to stand with the people of Afghanistan.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

The Minister is being characteristically generous. There were reports that one of the reasons for the collapse of morale among the Afghan forces was that once it was announced that NATO was to withdraw, more senior officers in the forces were withholding the pay of the equivalent of privates. Is there any evidence to support that? Against that question, within the Minister’s understanding and knowledge, what part, if any, does he think that corruption played in persuading the citizens that perhaps the Taliban might not be quite so bad as those who were forming the Government?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I cannot speak for the people of Afghanistan on what they perceive about their previous Government or indeed the Taliban Government. I can say that of course we recognise that the previous Government of Afghanistan were not without major shortcomings, some of which the noble Lord mentioned. He mentioned troops not being paid, and that is a fact. Morale is also done through leadership. One of the challenges that we saw though the events that unfolded in Afghanistan, particularly in the last few days in Kabul, is about when there is no structure—not only not being paid—and no specific command structure. I cannot speak for a trooper guarding a gate and I have never served in the military, but if I was there as a volunteer, I would have been asking: what is my role right now? That was very clear to many, and that is why we saw what happened in Kabul.

I suppose there was a glimmer of hope there in that thankfully, thus far—I add that caveat quite specifically —we have not seen the bloodshed due to an internal civil war that it was perceived would occur. However, again, as I said earlier, the situation is fluid and we do not know what will emerge. We had the situation in the Panjshir Valley earlier this week as well, with Mr Massoud still holding out. However, we have all seen the announcement of the new Government and “inclusive” certainly does not describe them.

Photo of Lord Mancroft Lord Mancroft Conservative

I add my voice to the thanks expressed around the House and across the country to officials in the various departments—the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office—for the work they have done over the last few weeks in this ghastly episode; it continues to be a ghastly episode. Their conduct of affairs which have been very difficult has been outstanding and I thank them for that. I also extend my thanks to the two heroes of this terrible episode. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence’s management of Operation Pitting, dreadful though that was, has been outstanding, and I thank him for that. I also thank my noble friend the Minister, who has conducted himself outstandingly over the last couple of weeks particularly. I know that he has been fielding texts and emails from colleagues in this House and the other place and far more widely at all hours of the day and night to the best of his ability and with great good humour—I cannot imagine that he got much sleep—while travelling the world, trying to sort this mess out. I thank him for that.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about some of the groups who are particularly at risk in Afghanistan. I too would like to think about those, and in doing so will not think about the past and what happened, although we will need to talk about that further again in the future. More importantly, I want to think about the present and the future and what we can do now. In particular, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about groups who are at risk, and I think particularly of professional Afghan women—women with professional qualifications, who are apparently not very popular in Kabul at the moment—and what we can do to help them and, indeed, their families. My noble friend the Minister talked about the steps we are going to take, and I would like to focus on two areas in particular: first, how will we help them across the border and, secondly, can we help them with paperwork?

I am aware that one of the issues at the moment has been that those who have been able to get to the borders, many of which are closed, have not been able to persuade people in the neighbouring countries—Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and other places—that they will not stay in those countries. They do not want vast numbers of refugees, but those people are in transit, moving on. What can my noble friend tell us today about how we can make sure that when those people go to those borders, they have the necessary paperwork from our officials to allow them to get into transit and to come on? I realise that some of those people will be not very good people who should not have that paperwork, but an awful lot of them need help, so I wonder what my noble friend can say. Also, how can he make that advice available and communicate it so that the people in that country and others in this country who are trying to help them can pass it on? At the moment, information seems to be limited, and the more we can communicate what we are trying to do, the better.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his kind remarks. On the specifics of his question, there is of course the MPs- and Peers-specific hotline, and so on. I assure him that my approach to testing it is that there is someone within my private office who ensures that at intervals we also ensure that there is efficiency of operation. There is no better way than experiencing it yourself. Those are some of the practices in practical terms that I have deployed.

On the specifics I can share, first, the visits of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary to Pakistan and Qatar and my own visit to Tajikistan in particular but also Uzbekistan have been focused on that specific issue. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, as regards people appearing with the right documentation—these are British nationals—or indeed others, such as those on the ARAP scheme, we are working out some of the specific details. These countries are extremely concerned—this is why they have sealed their borders—that people will flock to their borders, which will then result in them having a humanitarian crisis not just on the border but within their own country. We have to recognise that. So it is not just about the ask of safe facilitation over the border; that is why we are standing up funding quite specifically to help infrastructure in the different countries in terms of border support.

A specific that has happened is that Pakistan has already announced a 21-day visa, now extended to 30 days, for transit for those people entering the country, but it has also had to close the border it had opened because of concerns. Nevertheless, we are working in close, detailed proximity with these Governments, and our rapid deployment teams are now in position and collating information specifically from those people getting in touch with them, particularly British nationals on the borders, so that we can have an exact list of who is where, to help to facilitate progress across whichever part of the border they come to. However, I say again that we are operating under the added challenge that each of these countries has issued official statements that the borders are sealed. It is a test of our strength of diplomacy as to how we can provide workable solutions that do not alarm those neighbours that may well take the brunt of refugees.

The other issue that I share with my noble friend is that the issue of safe passage means that there needs to be unison and unity with international partners. He will have noticed Secretary of State Blinken in Qatar today, working with the Qataris. One area is to see how we can facilitate access into Kabul airport, not just for humanitarian support but to open up safe passage for those wishing to leave. The Taliban have given the assurance that those wishing to leave—foreign nationals and Afghans—can leave, but the proof is in the pudding, and that is yet to happen.

Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, clearly the immediate priority for the Government has to be dealing with the specific crisis as it is now—those who have returned and those we are seeking to bring back. Notwithstanding that, and building on the question from my noble friend, can the Minister say something, even at this early stage, about the Government’s thinking around how they will take forward the whole concept of global Britain and what this will mean for the integrated defence and security review?

We hear legitimate questions in the Chamber about why the Minister does not meet with regional partners, what it means for NATO, what it means for the United Nations and what it means for the trust that this country has with the allies that we seek to work with. The Minister knows that the battle over the next few decades will be between democracy and autocracy. Where does Britain stand on that? How will we deal with it? My noble friend was saying that it is imperative that the Government give their early thinking—and discuss with Members in both the other place and this House, and people beyond—to how we take that forward.

I gently urge the Minister, whose calm demeanour belies the fact that he knows that we do not want to read in our newspapers or see on our televisions different government departments briefing against each other and blaming each other for what is a crisis: we need a united front from our Government, debating with us how we move our country forward within our alliances for the protection of democracy and human rights across the world.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that when it comes to dealing with a crisis, unity is very much at the forefront of my mind. As I have said, I have worked in very practical terms—I have shared my experience and what I have put in place with noble Lords. I pay tribute to my colleagues across the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence; it was about doing the right thing at a time of crisis, and you need to come together as a Government.

I am conscious of the time, but I fully acknowledge that global Britain is about our place in the world, about alliances, about the United Nations and about our strength as a P5 member and a key member of NATO. As we look towards the Indo-Pacific, what does that mean? For now, on this particular chapter, I conclude with two things: we need to show great humility with what we have achieved and show forward-looking humanity in how we act.

House adjourned at 9.44 pm.