Boris Johnson faces criticism during emergency session of parliament on Afghanistan
LONDON (AA) – The UK will judge the Taliban “by its actions rather than by its words,” the British prime minister told an emergency sitting of parliament on Wednesday.
Boris Johnson urged other countries not to “prematurely or bilaterally” recognize the new Taliban government, saying the UK would work with the international community to develop a “clear plan for dealing with this regime in a unified and concerted way”.
In a heated hours-long debate in the British parliament, Johnson was also forced to defend his government’s handling of events in Afghanistan.
He strongly denied that the UK “did not foresee” the situation in Afghanistan. “It was certainly part of our planning,” Johnson said.
“The very difficult logistical operation for the withdrawal of UK nationals has been under preparation for many months, and I can tell the House that the decision to commission the emergency handling center at the airport took place two weeks ago.”
He said the situation had “stabilized” since the weekend, but remained “precarious”.
“We will be doing everything to support those who have helped the UK mission in Afghanistan and investing everything we can to support the wider area around Afghanistan – and to do everything we can to avert a humanitarian crisis,” Johnson said.
He added that the collapse of the Afghan government happened more quickly “than even the Taliban predicted”.
The British parliament is currently in its summer recess but was called back for the day for an emergency debate.
It was the first post-pandemic parliament where politicians were required to attend in person in order to take part in the debate. The parliament was packed with MPs, in a scene unseen since before the pandemic.
The last time the parliament was called for an emergency debate during the summer recess was in 2013 when the MPs were called on by then-Prime Minister David Cameron to vote on whether or not to carry out airstrikes in Syria. Cameron lost the vote.
Government under criticism
Opposition Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the British government had shown “staggering complacency” towards the threat posed by the Taliban, and that led to the group retaking control of the country.
“The very problems we are confronting today in this debate were all known problems… and there has been a failure of preparation,” Sir Keir said, adding that Johnson “bears a heavy responsibility”.
He also had some choice words for Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who made the decision to go on a beach holiday at a five-star resort on Crete last week, before eventually cutting it short to return to London.
“He stayed on holiday while our mission in Afghanistan was disintegrating. He did not even speak to ambassadors in the region as Kabul fell to the Taliban. Let that sink in,” Sir Keir said.
“You cannot coordinate an international response from the beach.”
The Labour leader’s views were echoed by the Westminster leader of the Scottish National Party, Ian Blackford, who said Raab had “no dignity whatsoever”.
“When the rest of us were doing what we can over the course of the last few days, the foreign secretary was lying on a sunbed,” Blackford said.
Some of the strongest criticism the government faced, however, was from its own backbenchers – not least by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May, who accused him of blindly following the US.
“In July this year both President Biden and the prime minister indicated that they did not think the Taliban was ready or able to take over control of the country,” she said.
“Was our intelligence really so poor, was our understanding of the Afghan government so weak, was our knowledge of the situation on the ground so inadequate… or did we just feel we had to follow the United States?” she said.
“What does it say about NATO if we are entirely dependent on a unilateral decision made by the US?” she asked.
‘Major setback for British foreign policy’
She also accused Johnson of hoping “on a wing and a prayer it’d be alright on the night”, adding that the events that have taken place in Afghanistan constituted a “major setback for the British foreign policy”.
Johnson told the parliament that the UK could not continue in Afghanistan without the US.
“Since 2009, America has deployed 98% of all the 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,” he said, adding: “The West could not continue this US-led mission, a mission conceived and executed in support of America.”
Johnson continued by saying it was an “illusion to believe that there is an appetite amongst any of our partners for a continued military presence or for a military solution imposed by NATO in Afghanistan”.
“The sacrifice in Afghanistan is seared into our national conscience,” Johnson said.
“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.”
The UK lost 456 British troops or Defense Ministry civilians in Afghanistan.
“They gave their all for our safety and we owe it to them to give our all to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a breeding ground for terrorism,” Johnson said.
“No matter how grim the lessons of the past, the future is not yet written.”
A number of soldiers-turned-MPs made passionate speeches in the parliament.
Tom Tugendhat, who fought in Afghanistan, is chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and an MP for Johnson’s Conservative Party.
“Defeat is when you don’t have a choice,” he said. “This doesn’t have to be a defeat but it damn well feels like it.”
Biden slammed for comments on Afghan armed forces
Tugendhat criticized US President Joe Biden for his comments on the Afghan army’s willingness to fight the Taliban.
“To see (the US) commander-in-chief call into question the courage of the men I fought with, to claim that they ran, is shameful,” he said. “Those who have never fought for the colors they fly should be careful about criticizing those who have.”
Tobias Ellwood, another Conservative MP who fought in Afghanistan and who is the chair of the Defense Committee, said that recent events were “an operational and strategic blunder”.
“A decision that’s already triggering a humanitarian disaster, a migrant crisis not seen since the Second World War and a cultural change in rights to women, and once again turning Afghanistan into a breeding ground for terrorism,” Ellwood said.
Johnny Mercer, another Conservative MP who served in Afghanistan and who is a high-profile campaigner for veterans, said: “We are not trained to lose and we are not trained for ministers to, in a way, choose to be defeated by the Taliban.”
“The government must now step up and support this group of bereaved families and veterans. We are going to see a bow wave of mental health challenges, we are not trained to cope with the feelings we have now,” he added.
Dan Jarvis, a Labour MP who served in Afghanistan, also criticized Biden for his comments on the Afghan armed forces.
“Many of us who served in Afghanistan have a deep bond of affection for the Afghan people, and I had the honor of serving alongside them in Helmand,” he said.
“We trained together, fought together, and in some cases, we died together. They were our brothers in arms. But I shudder to think where those men are now, many will be dead, others I know now consider themselves to be dead men walking. Where were we in their hour of need? We were nowhere, and that is shameful, and it will have a very long-lasting impact on Britain’s reputation right around the world.”