The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
My Lords, I stand before noble Lords at this hour after an extensive and expert debate in your Lordships’ House. Having been the recipient of questions and challenges in this House over a number of years, I can say that the quality of the debate has not disappointed anyone. Indeed, the insights that we have gained from various parts of the House, from military experts to diplomats and other experts, have been very welcome. I have always taken the approach that the insights provided by your Lordships’ House, both within the Chamber and outside it, provide insight to me in the formulation of policy.
From the outset, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Coaker—this is the first time that I have been across the Dispatch Box from him—and I associate myself totally with his remarks about our military. In doing so, as I look around this Chamber, to my left and my right—and as I am handed one final note—I look to the doorkeepers. As a Member of your Lordships’ House over the last 10 years, I say that they have done a sterling job not only in keeping us safe but in their past service as part of our military, which has kept us safe for so many years. I thank them for all that they have done and continue to do.
I have listened very carefully to various debates, and, recalling what the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said, I shall seek to answer all questions. Of course, in this ever-evolving situation, I will seek to respond accordingly to questions that I am not able to cover in the time that I have.
The other thing that I will put on record, as I have on other issues, is that I shall certainly seek to update your Lordships’ House frequently on this particular issue and, if required, update noble Lords directly through a note prior to the House returning. Of course, as we return from the Summer Recess, I shall convene a meeting of interested Peers to update them and all noble Lords on the situation in Afghanistan. My noble friend Lady Warsi asked about information. A note is being circulated about key emails and contact numbers that went out to colleagues in the other place—I am ensuring that it is also circulated to Members of your Lordships’ House.
We all know why the Prime Minister called us here today: it is because of the deep concern that we all share for the people of Afghanistan. I have a particular insight in this because I am responsible for the policy for Afghanistan and south Asia and have been Minister for Human Rights over the last couple of years. I put on record that, while I have had this responsibility, I have worked quite directly with many of the people that noble Lords have talked about. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, talked about those fantastic young ladies and girls of the orchestra, and my noble friend Lord Vaizey talked about the cultural instincts. I remember welcoming these young girls to the UK for the first time—perhaps about 18 months ago—in hosting a reception at Lancaster House and watching them play beautiful music.
My assessment, under a Taliban regime, is a dire one. I make an assessment, and I have always quoted that. Indeed, when the International Relations and Defence Committee—the foreign affairs committee of your Lordships’ House—questioned me, I pinpointed that the ideological base of the organisation that is the Taliban is the thing that we should challenge. I speak as a Muslim. We have had debates and discussions on Islam and its role, and I say to the Taliban directly from the outset: the chapters of the Holy Koran, with the exception of one, start with the words:
“In the name of God, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful”.
Are you going to be merciful and beneficent towards your citizens? That is how we should hold the Taliban to account.
I assure noble Lords that, in all my engagements and all the discussions that we will have with international partners, that will be at the heart and soul of the engagement that we need to have with this organisation that seeks to represent a faith that I follow—although its interpretation is so far from the nobility of any faith or sense of humanity. We should be unified in our response to this particular group.
But let us not forget that it is also disparate. Just because we now have polished spokesmen articulating that rights for women matter, that does not mean that local commanders will follow suit. We need to follow a very fluid situation very carefully. I take on board the points that were made by the noble Lords, Lord Green and Lord Berkeley, and my noble friends Lord Dobbs and Lord Lamont. My noble friends Lord Dobbs and Lord Lilley talked about the importance of learning lessons. I assure noble Lords that, whether it is in a formal way or as we evolve our policy, we do exactly that.
As the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, reminded us, we must, in our interventions, understand the culture and the nature of the engagement. Yes, it is important that we extol democratic values. Often, when I talk about human rights, I do so not with a pointed finger but by saying that our own journey on democracy and human rights was a difficult and challenging one—yes, and on rights for women as well. We need to apply that learning in a way that is understood by others, while also respecting cultures and communities across the world.
The nature of the US decision to withdraw has been a focus. Of course, the US has a right to take its own decisions on how troops are deployed. Let me assure the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, my noble friend Lord Naseby, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and my noble friend Lord Godson, who also reflected on attitudes within the US, that of course we discussed the US decision to withdraw with our NATO allies. Yes, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has been engaging extensively with NATO allies, including the Secretary-General of NATO; he spoke to him most recently, on the 15th. But meetings have been taking place. What was understood, as my right honourable friend the Defence Secretary articulated, was the reasoning that with the extensive nature of the US engagement there was no viable military option without the US. We need to be realistic about that.
I share the point that the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and my noble friend Lord Hunt made about the cost to the people of Afghanistan. We have on record only the numbers that are articulated, but there are many more. We should not put down a whole population over the failings of the groups that seek to represent a faith or, indeed, to represent the country today.
I assure the noble Lords, Lord Cromwell and Lord Birt, that we have been engaging quite directly with allies. We have been talking to the US and to European partners. Only a month or so ago I was in Tashkent at a conference on Afghanistan, where I met counterparts from India and Pakistan, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, those from Uzbekistan and a number of other partners. At that point, President Ghani and Foreign Minister Atmar were very much in place, and those discussions were but four weeks ago.
However, I agree that this debate, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said right at the opening, comes at a critical and uncertain time. I express my absolute and sincere thanks for all the contributions that have been made and which reflect noble Lords’ exceptional expertise and heartfelt concern. I note my thanks to all noble Lords, but I listened particularly carefully, as I am sure other noble Lords did, to the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, and the expertise that they provided, as well as to the insights from the diplomatic expertise of the noble Lords, Lord Ricketts, Lord Jay and Lord Kerr, among others.
I will seek to address some specific issues that have arisen, but let me say from the outset that I share all noble Lords’ concerns that the Taliban’s military offensive is unacceptable, as is the takeover of Kabul. The Taliban pledged in the Doha agreement to engage in talks in good faith, yet the actions we have witnessed on the ground reflect a total and utter betrayal of that promise. It is also important to recognise that this takeover of power has followed a coercive and violent military campaign. It has not been a peaceful transition, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby. We also maintain our stance that it is not yet too late for the Taliban to pursue their aims through a political process. A point was raised about engaging with the Taliban directly. We do not do so on a bilateral basis, but we have of course been engaged through the political process taking place in Doha and working with the likes of Qatar in this respect. However, the Taliban must cease all hostilities and military action, ensure the protection of civilians and facilitate the safe and orderly departure of foreign nationals and those Afghans who wish to leave Afghanistan.
In this context, I join in the tributes being paid to our ambassador on the ground, who I am in touch with. He is playing a sterling role, along with our military, in ensuring that the security of our staff is fully respected and prioritised, and that we do all we can to deliver on our obligations to get British nationals, as well as those who have helped us, out as fast as we can.
The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, talked about having a small-scale public inquiry into our purpose in deploying support for this exercise. We are learning the lessons from Afghanistan, and it has been a continuous process. That is why, after the conclusion of Operation Herrick in 2014, the Army conducted a thorough internal review. Lessons were also incorporated into the integrated review published by the Government earlier this year.
I say to my noble friend Lord Gadhia and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, that the integrated review is an important document. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, mentioned the Indo-Pacific tilt, which is an important part of the integrated review. Events in Afghanistan have underlined the enduring importance of those objectives and the profound challenges that we face in pursuing them.
As the security situation deteriorates, our ambassador, Sir Laurie Bristow, and a small team remain in Kabul. I cannot give any specific date on when those operations may cease, but their security is of paramount importance. Of course, we are cognisant of the announcement that the US has made of its operations ceasing at the end of this month. I would add that, irrespective of what noble Lords have said on the US decision, the US remains an important ally and we should recognise that the current process of evacuation from Kabul could not take place without the assistance of the brave men of the US military as well as our own.
I assure the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, that we do have a security Minister. My right honourable friend Damian Hinds was appointed earlier this month. We are working across government to ensure that we have a co-ordinated presence on the ground including through the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence and the FCDO. Our officials remain in Kabul to continue our important work supporting the drawdown of British nationals and those we have a moral obligation to help. It is important we do not lose sight of our moral compass in that respect. We will be working through the Afghan relocation and assistance programme. These changes in no way reduce our commitment to active diplomacy in the region.
My right honourable friend the Defence Secretary has provided additional troops to Afghanistan and we have deployed additional diplomats who arrived yesterday, once security could be confirmed, to help the processing capacity. I understand there are concerning reports coming out of Afghanistan of British nationals in distress. I have also been in touch with Members of your Lordships’ House as well as Members in the other place about specific Afghan nationals. I assure noble Lords of my good offices in ensuring that we do all we can to resolve some of these very acute and challenging cases. I am not going to name names for obvious reasons, and I know your Lordships will respect the fact that we need to keep the confidence of and protect the individuals concerned.
Turning to ARAP, many noble Lords including the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, raised the issue of interpreters. We recognise that we owe a debt of gratitude to them and other locally employed staff who risked their lives to work alongside our forces. While we have resettled hundreds of former Afghan staff and their families, I can assure noble Lords that this is an enduring commitment. This programme has now been expanded and accelerated to ensure that Afghans who are not directly employed but none the less provided vital support to the UK’s mission in Afghanistan can be considered as special cases.
I am fully aware of the cases raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, and others. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, that we are expediting processes in terms of visa applications on the ground as I speak. We are also looking at many cases of Afghans who have worked with the British Council and we remain focused on relocating those most at risk, but there is no time limit.
The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, talked of girls and women. Many other noble Lords mentioned this, and I assure noble Lords that they are being prioritised within the ARAP scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, among others, talked about expanding the scheme. I have noted the suggestions that have been made on different categories, including the issue raised by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Judge and Lord Goldsmith, of judges. I will take note specifically of this, but again, in the interests of security and safety of individuals, I shall not go into the issue of categories directly.
The noble Lords, Lord Adonis, Lord Taylor and Lord Dholakia, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Smith, and others, referred to NGOs. I have noted what we are doing in this area. We are looking at resettlement first for women, girls, children and those most in need. The scheme will be kept under review.
The noble Lords, Lord Adonis, Lord Kerr and Lord Taylor, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Bakewell, asked about the numbers. The number we have announced in terms of the new scheme is in addition to the 5,000 we expect to relocate to the UK under the Afghan relocation programme. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, among others, asked why the figure of 20,000 was chosen. It was based on the delivery of the Syrian resettlement scheme and the experience the Home Office has of running this sort of programme. The figure of 5,000 for this year has also been chosen based on the delivery of the Syrian resettlement scheme, but we will keep all the numbers under review.
We promised to do everything we could. The issue of the Chevening scholars was raised. Noble Lords will have seen me dashing in and out. We were progressing this during the day. Therefore, in a very challenging debate, I am delighted to confirm that today our ambassador is in touch directly with the scholars and we are in the process of arranging their travel to the United Kingdom. I am pleased to be able to share that with your Lordships’ House. My noble friend Lady Evans raised that issue right at the start of the debate, and noble Lords can see how fluid the situation is; we have been progressing this during the debate.
Turning to human rights, I am also the Human Rights Minister. Issues around women and minorities are close to my heart. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury mentioned minorities and my community, the Ahmadis, in Afghanistan. Christians, Hindus and Sikhs were raised by my noble friend Lady Verma, among others. All of them are among our primary concerns in our dealings. I pay tribute to the work of noble Lords in your Lordships’ House, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Smith, Lady Royall and Lady D’Souza, and my noble friends Lady Hodgson and Lady Anelay, who have done sterling work on women’s rights. I will continue to work very closely with them on this important issue in Afghanistan. The Government maintain in the strongest terms their stance that the Taliban must protect and uphold human rights, including those of women, girls and minorities—and, as I said earlier, I noted the comments made about other groups.
The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, asked about our assessment of the Taliban. It is simple: if the Taliban continue to abuse human rights, they cannot in any circumstances expect to enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people or the support of the international community. If the Taliban wish to play an international political role, which they must for the security and stability of Afghanistan, they must respect fundamental human rights. They must bring justice to those within their own ranks. Clearly, that is not happening, as we have witnessed on the streets across Afghanistan. The Taliban must prove that they respect the rights of the Afghan people by actions, not empty words. There is a Hadith—a saying of the Holy Prophet Muhammad—which I put to the Taliban. “Your actions are judged by your intentions.” So what are their intentions? They must demonstrate them by their actions.
Turning to humanitarian aid, several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Boateng, Lord Jay, Lord Purvis and Lord McConnell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, among others, raised prioritisation and support for people within Afghanistan. I assure them that that they have been high up my priority list, which is why the Government have prioritised aid. The noble Baronesses, Lady Northover and Lady Smith, raised this issue, as did the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. We are doubling the amount of overseas aid we had previously committed to Afghanistan. This will with immediate effect take funding for this year to £286 million. On its disbursement, my own view is very clear. I assure noble Lords that none of it will be going to the Government or the Administration, if I can call it that—I should not refer to it as a Government—of the Taliban. We will be looking at international NGOs and the UN system to play their part. Organisations such as UNICEF are retaining their networks on the ground and have been given an assurance by the Taliban that they will be protected. However, the Taliban must recognise their duty to prevent the crisis getting worse.
I am very conscious of time and I have not been able to cover many points. My noble friend Lord Sheikh and the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, talked about Afghanistan, Islam and the rights and obligations of the Taliban, and I totally share their perspectives. It is true that the international community needs to ensure that we hold the Taliban to their promise.
Many other noble Lords, including the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, raised the issue of security, as did my noble friend Lady Altmann. Work is being done with international partners. In recent days my right honourable friends the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary have spoken to the UN Secretary-General, the NATO Secretary-General, the United States, Canada, Germany, France, Pakistan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and USAID. We also recognise the important role of regional partners, including those highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and my noble friend Lady Verma. I have already mentioned India, and I am directly engaging with Pakistan and other near neighbours.
In closing my remarks, I assure noble Lords that, on the points that I have not been able to cover, we will work through different parts of our strategy in the coming hours and days. I assure my noble friend Lord Cormack that we are working on the UN Security Council resolution, and I take on board the suggestion made by the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, who speaks with great insight on the UN system about the specific focus on women and girls. I take that on board as the UN Minister.
My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has announced that he will convene a special meeting of the G7 leaders to discuss the situation and we are seeking also to establish a contact group of international partners on Afghanistan. We are also planning an event with the high-level meeting of the UN General Assembly next month, to focus minds to raise further funds for particular issues. I will also participate directly at the Human Rights Council special session on Afghanistan next week; whether it is virtual or in person is still being determined but I will deliver the UK statement and contribution.
I apologise to noble Lords whose specific questions I have not been able to cover, but I assure them that I will write to them. As my noble friend Lady Evans said earlier—I noted very specifically the contributions and statements on this made by my noble friend Lord Howard, among others—the primary purpose of us being in Afghanistan was to ensure that it was not used as a base for international terrorism. Indeed, there have been no successful international terrorist attacks on the West mounted from Afghanistan since that time, but we cannot be complacent. It has not happened because there was a military presence, and we need to be real to the threat. That is why it is important we work with key international partners through the UN.
Afghanistan may now be in the control of the Taliban but, while the Taliban may not have changed, what has changed in those 20 years—as my noble friend Lady Pidding pointed out—is that Afghanistan itself has an incredible and phenomenal body of people within civil society: there are phenomenal women activists in all parts of society, working for NGOs; there is a free press, which has been targeted; there are women journalists, who have been targeted; and there is an education system where there are more girls. The Taliban say it will continue with those commitments; let us see how it delivers on them. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to work tirelessly with international partners to protect the gains that we have made.
My noble friends Lord Sheikh and Lord Marlesford, the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, and the noble Lords, Lord Bhatia and Lord Singh of Wimbledon, talked about the ideological base that I started with. In my concluding remarks, I make some specific points just to share with noble Lords my intent. If the Taliban says that it believes in the role of women, it must stand up for that: it must stand up for the rights of women that are provided under Islam—the rights of inheritance and the right to work. I often say to those who challenge me on Islam that, even going back to the time of the Prophet, who is followed by billions of Muslims around the world, it was he who was employed by his wife and it was she who proposed to him. So let us go back to that and give women rights.
I say to the Taliban: “If you believe in that philosophy and ideology you articulate, reflect that. Let us go back to the time of the Medina charter that protected the rights of minorities of every faith and those of no faith. If you are true to your word, we will make an assessment of what you are, whether you have changed and whether you are delivering on your promises.” My own assessment? It is not just that the jury is out on them; it is important to recognise that they in their philosophy and approach may be more polished, but their ideology is very much the same.
Many will say, “Engage directly now” and, as I have said, we are engaging from an international perspective with the political group and working with American colleagues—I met Ambassador Khalilzad when I was in Uzbekistan. It is very clear to me that in the situation in Afghanistan, our short-term priority must be to ensure that we get the people out who need to come out but, equally, we will be building and strengthening international alliances and partnerships. In doing so, I shall be informed by your Lordships’ House in how we direct and inform our policy and how we continue to stand with the courageous people of Afghanistan.