MPs hammered Boris Johnson over the ‘catastrophic failure’ in Afghanistan today – as the PM swiped at Joe Biden saying the ‘successful’ Afghan mission could not continue without ‘American might’.
As the desperate evacuation effort continues in Kabul, the premier defended his handling of the chaos insisting there was a ‘hard reality’ as a result of the US stance.
Mr Johnson told the recalled chamber – packed out for the first time since last year after Covid restrictions were dropped – that the ‘sacrifice’ of British troops was ‘seared into our national consciousness’. He said the ‘core mission’ had been achieved as Afghanistan had not been a hotbed for terrorism.
However, he was immediately assailed by Tories, with defence committee chair Tobias Ellwood saying the West had ‘ceded the country to the very insurgents we went to defeat’. Theresa May said Afghanistan would now be a breeding ground for extremism, accusing the PM of operating ‘on a wing and a prayer’ and hoping it would be ‘alright on the night’. Former chief whip Mark Harper said there had been a ‘catastrophic failure’.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said the premier had displayed ‘staggering complacency’, pointing out that his last visit to Afghanistan as Foreign Secretary in 2018 had been a ploy to avoid a vote on Heathrow Airport expansion.
There were also calls for the government to go further and faster in providing safe haven for Afghans who face the threat of persecution under the new Taliban regime. Labour’s Chris Bryant said only 5,000 of 20,000 refugees were set to be accepted this year, raging that the rest were being asked to ‘hang around and wait until they have been executed’.
On the current airlift, Mr Johnson revealed that just 306 UK nationals and 2,052 Afghan nationals had been extracted so far – with thousands more still waiting.
Meanwhile, other Tory MPs branded Mr Biden ‘shameful’, with former soldier Tom Tugendhat condemning the criticism of Afghans’ courage when the president has not seen service himself.
Opening a bruising emergency debate, Mr Johnson said: ‘The sacrifice in Afghanistan is seared into our national consciousness, with 150,000 people serving there from across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom – including a number of members on all sides of the House whose voices will be particularly important today.’
He added: ‘As for our Nato allies and allies around the world, when it came for us to look at the options that this country might have in view of the American decision to withdraw we came up against this hard reality.
‘That since 2009, America has deployed 98 per cent of all weapons released from Nato aircraft in Afghanistan and at the peak of the operation – where there were 132,000 troops on the ground – 90,000 of them were American.
‘The West could not continue this US-led mission, a mission conceived and executed in support of America… without US logistics, without US airpower, and without American might.’
Mr Johnson said the immediate focus was to get Britons and vulnerable Afghan allies out of Kabul.
‘The situation has stabilised since the weekend but it remains precarious, and the UK officials on the ground are doing everything that they can to expedite the movement of people, those that need to come out, whether from the ARAP scheme or the eligible persons, to get from Kabul to the airport, and at the moment it would be fair to say that the Taliban are allowing that evacuation to go ahead,’ he said.
He said ‘the most important thing is that we get this done in as expeditious a fashion as we can and that is what we are doing’.
Intervening in Mr Johnson’s speech, former PM Theresa May demanded details of his discussions on the ‘possibility of putting together an alliance of other forces in order to replace the American support in Afghanistan’.
Mr Johnson replied: ‘I really think that it is an illusion to believe that there is appetite amongst any of our partners for a continued military presence or for a military solution imposed by Nato in Afghanistan.
‘That idea ended with the combat mission in 2014.
‘And I do not believe that today deploying tens of thousands of British troops to fight the Taliban is an option that no matter how sincerely people may advocate it – and I appreciate their sincerity – but I do not believe that that is an option that would commend itself either to the British people or to this House.
‘We must deal with the position as it is now is, accepting what we have achieved and what we have not achieved.’
In her own speech afterwards, Mrs May said: ‘Was our intelligence really so poor? Was our understanding of the Afghan government so weak?
‘Was our knowledge of our position on the ground so inadequate?
‘Or did we just follow the United States, and hope that on a wing and a prayer it would be alright on the night.’
She added: ‘It hasn’t been alright on the night.’
When ex-Cabinet minister John Redwood interjected that the blame lay with Mr Biden, Mrs May said the US president had only ‘upheld’ a decision made by Donald Trump, noting: ‘It was a unilateral decision of President Trump to do a deal with the Taliban that has led to this withdrawal.’
She added: ‘I think it is absolutely essential for us to recognise the probability that Afghanistan will once again become a breeding ground for the terrorists who seek to destroy our way of life.’
Sir Keir accused the PM of ‘staggering complacency’, pointing out that both he and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab were on holiday as the crisis unfolded.
Addressing veterans and their families he said: ‘Your sacrifice was not in vain, you brought stability, reduced the terrorist threat and enabled progress. We are all proud of what you did.
‘Your sacrifice deserves better than this and so do the Afghan people. There’s been a major miscalculation of the resilience of the Afghan forces and a staggering complacency from our Government about the Taliban threat. The result is that the Taliban are now back in control of Afghanistan.
‘The gains through 20 years of sacrifice hang precariously. Women and girls fear for their liberty, Afghan civilians are holding on to the undercarriage of Nato aircraft literally clinging to departing hope and we face new threats to our security and an appalling humanitarian crisis.’
Sir Keir praised the British ambassador in Kabul for processing the paperwork of those who needed to flee as the Taliban approached, adding: ‘The Prime Minister’s response to the Taliban arriving at the gates of Kabul was to go on holiday.