Afghanistan: FCDO Update - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:03 pm on 7th September 2021.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 9:03 pm, 7th September 2021

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.