Dick Newby slams Government over “casual” and “exruciatingly complacent” approach to Afghanistan

Lib Dem Lords leader Dick Newby laid bare the Prime Minister’s contradictory statements, a month apart, that there was “no path to victory for the Taliban” and that “this was the way we always knew it was going to go.”

While there were many questions to answer about the extent of our failures, he called for urgent, humanitarian action, again criticising the inadequacy of the Government’s scheme.



The full text of his speech is below:

What a difference a month makes. On 8 July, following his excruciatingly complacent Statement on Afghanistan in the Commons, the Prime Minister confidently declared that

“there is no military path to victory for the Taliban.”—[Official Report, Commons, 8/7/21; col: 1107.]

On Monday this week, he blandly asserted that

“we’ve known for a long time this was the way things would go”.

These two statements say a lot about the Prime Minister and, in particular, his irresponsible habit of saying whatever is most convenient on the day to get himself out of a hole, with no regard for consistency—or indeed the truth. But they also say a lot about the casual way our Government have overseen the final chapter of our latest involvement in Afghanistan.

The words now being used most to summarise this chapter—“failure”, “panic”, “humiliation” and “betrayal”—barely do justice to the situation that the precipitate departure of western alliance forces have created in Afghanistan. Of course, the primary responsibility for the debacle rests with President Biden and it is no excuse for him or the Prime Minister—as he did on 8 July—to say:

“The international military presence in Afghanistan was never intended to be permanent”—[Official Report, Commons, 8/7/21; col. 1104.]

and, therefore, that it was inevitable that we would be withdrawing now.

The US has shown, most notably in Germany and South Korea, that it is willing, in certain circumstances, to station its troops in a foreign country for decades, if it thinks it necessary for regional and global strategy. It simply chose not to take the same view about Afghanistan. Time will tell whether international security will be jeopardised, as al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other terrorist groups now eye Afghanistan as potential future operational bases. There is no doubt that, for the population of Afghanistan, particularly women and girls, the return of the Taliban threatens a return to the Dark Ages—and this was preventable. The decision by the western allies to withdraw all forces brought it about, and it is to our shame.

No doubt China and Russia will be pointing out today that the US and NATO lack staying power and cannot be trusted long-term allies, and that the global influence of the US, the UK and NATO as a whole will be much diminished. Realisation of this new reality will be causing alarm across western capitals, but for the UK it is particularly chilling. For this complete and utter debacle has laid bare the hollowness of the Government’s claims to be a global power. We may be able, as a gesture, to send an aircraft carrier to the South China Sea, but we cannot act on our own in a real-life crisis such as Afghanistan.

The US did not even consult us when it decided on its final troop withdrawal timetable, and there is no indication that we even attempted to suggest that it had got it wrong. Perhaps the Prime Minister realised that there would not have been any point. Speaking to President Biden yesterday was good, but the horse had already bolted. With minimal influence in Washington, greatly reduced involvement and influence with our European partners, cuts in our most effective tool of soft power—the aid budget—a shrinking Army and a Navy incapable of independent action, the Government’s promotion of “global Britain” is a sad delusion.

In the absence of any credible action, the Government have resorted to platitudes. On 8 July, the Prime Minister said:

“I hope that no one will leap to the false conclusion that the withdrawal of our forces somehow means the end of Britain’s commitment to Afghanistan.”—[Official Report, Commons, 8/7/21; col. 1104.]

This week, he said that Afghanistan must not become a “breeding ground for terror”—but what does our current commitment amount to and what exactly do the Government intend to do to stop the country becoming a terrorist breeding ground? These are questions to which we now need clear and urgent answers.

In the months ahead, we will need to explore how all the western intelligence agencies were so off the pace as to the consequences of the troop withdrawals. Given the lead role that the UK—not the US—played in the Kabul security force, we have some particular soul searching to do in this respect. Most importantly, we will have to look afresh at a credible role for Britain in the world. How do we adjust to a situation in which our interests and those of the US may increasingly diverge? How do we rebuild links with our closest natural allies—our neighbours in Europe? We will have to work very hard to persuade much of the world that we can again become credible, reliable partners.

However, for today there are more pressing issues. The most important is how to respond to the humanitarian crisis. As the Government accept, the starting point must be to offer residency not only to interpreters who worked for our troops and their families but to any locally recruited staff who worked for our troops, for our embassy or on our aid effort, and who might now be at risk. More broadly, as a minimum, we should certainly resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees, as the Government now propose. We need to identify those most at risk of persecution, with a particular focus on women in public life, those who have set up girls’ education schemes and other marginalised groups, and we should offer sanctuary to journalists, who are particularly under threat, starting with the 100 or so BBC staff in Kabul.

But we must move quickly. The threat to these people is urgent and we should certainly not limit our ambitions to taking just 5,000 refugees over the next 12 months. We should also move rapidly to resolve the status of the 3,000 Afghan asylum seekers already in the UK and make it clear that we will not return a single one to Afghanistan. We must work with allies to investigate the possibility of establishing a safe-passage corridor for those who now wish to leave the country, and we need clearly to refocus and increase our aid to help deal with the immediate humanitarian crisis. The Foreign Secretary said yesterday that we have increased the aid budget to Afghanistan by 10%. Great—but, as we know, this is a small fraction of the cuts that have taken place since this Government came to power.

We need to stiffen the UN’s resolve to remain in Afghanistan to co-ordinate the humanitarian effort. It has the trust of the Taliban, which we simply lack, and could now play a powerful humanitarian role. On broader issues of respect for human rights, the role of women and girls, and the re-establishment of terrorist camps in Afghanistan, we must accept that our direct leverage over the Taliban is extremely limited. We should, however, be asking our allies, particularly in the Gulf and Pakistan, to use the influence they undoubtedly have to hold the Taliban to the commitments it made yesterday in these areas.

It is difficult to imagine your feelings today if you served with our forces in Afghanistan or are a family member of a British soldier or airman who died in the conflict. How could you satisfy yourself that all that effort and suffering was not in vain? I do not believe that the Government can give a comforting answer to that question, but the least we can do now is to take every action, limited though that may be, to show that we have not ended our commitment to Afghanistan and that, more generally, we are finally prepared to accept a more realistic view of our role in the world. There are clear lessons to be learned from this disaster, and it is imperative that we learn them now.

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  • nigel hunter 19th Aug '21 - 12:06am

    The tactics of the Taliban have a similarity to the Chinese Communists who set up their system of regional governments after WW2.The setting up of regional govnt, law, social structure hospitals in areas they controlled .Building up the populace support .The Chinese Nationalists controlled the cities but lost influence in the rural areas. The result being that the Afghan army had influence in the cities but not the countryside.A difficult military position.Equally Muslim killing Muslim is not always the ‘done thing’ (extremism is different). Building up this structure over decades has led to quick Taliban victory whilst the towns became ‘Westernised’
    It is equally known that Biden did not ‘get on’ with Johnson. I doubt that the President or his representatives communicated with Johnson. Equally Raab followed Johnson,s lead of not maintaining a dialogue.

  • A good speech by Dick Newby. I have been to conference events hosted by the Pakistan government where Dick Newby has spoken on the importance of UK/Pakistan relations.
    This would not be the first time (nor the last) that intelligence reports have under estimated the capacity of a military adversary. If there was complacency around the capacity of the Taliban, there was no basis for it after the difficult experience of the British military in Helmand province when engaged in combat operations there or the escalating casualties incurred by the Afghan armed forces in 2019 prior to the Doha agreement between the USA and Taliban.
    Soldiering is a dangerous job and soldiers have no control over where they may be posted. Whether military personnel served in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere in conflicts like Libya and Syria it is how you conduct yourself personally during your military service that counts, not the theatre of operations you are sent to or whether your unit/regiment was victorious or pushed back in the actions it undertook.

  • Simon Horner 19th Aug '21 - 9:34am

    Dick Newby reminds us yet again of the inverse relationship between the current Prime Minister and the truth. And he is obviously proving to be a good role model for his acolytes. Andrew Bowie M.P. has just told us on Good Morning Scotland that “no country in Europe has taken in more Syrian refugees than the UK”. This was particularly brazen given Angela Merkel’s well-publicised willingness to welcome large numbers of Syrians fleeing from their civil war (the reported figures are Germany 800,00, UK 29,500).

    Needless to say Mr Bowie’s statement was not challenged by the interviewer. I have asked the programme to broadcast a correction but, since they only provided the platform for the misinformation, I don’t hold out much hope.

  • Peter Hirst 19th Aug '21 - 1:27pm

    However professional an army is fighting forces that are united by a common belief is always going to be challenging whether this is nationalism, religous or terrorist. There is no hope for democracy in Afghanistan as long as the Taliban remain in control. The best we can hope for is that circumstances will alter how it views its governance though poverty will maintain the status quo especially if China increases its influence.

  • Helen Dudden 19th Aug '21 - 7:19pm

    I listened to a post online where a newspaper reporter on Question Time, stated how she would have liked the idea the chance to help her country and people. She came to this country under similar circumstances several years ago.
    I listened, as those trying to leave were told to leave their pets, and only take what they could carry.
    There was no comments on the possibility this situation was in the pipeline. Most certainly, children will find it very difficult living through these times. The women and those considered not a friend will not be safe.
    Total mayhem. The Minister was sunning himself on a beach with his family, I thought a position of responsibility meant just that.
    Biden has gone on holiday again.
    I wondered, as the many crossed the Channel trafficked by criminals intent on making a good living from this evil trade of people trafficking, were there no families?
    Surely, this situation should, and could have been supported by the UN.
    Johnson, has again shown both him, and his government to be less than honest, it looks as though Biden, is not the trusted politician we thought he was.
    Politician’s without any thoughts of end result.

  • Charles Smith 19th Aug '21 - 8:30pm

    The British government said it would take in 5,000 Afghan refugees this year, primarily women and children, as lawmakers packed Parliament Wednesday for a heated emergency debate on the U.K. response to the Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan.

    Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has come under fire for the chaotic turn of events in Afghanistan, said a new “generous” refugee settlement program would allow up to 20,000 vulnerable Afghans to seek sanctuary in the U.K. in the coming years. That number is over and above the 5,000 or so Afghan allies the U.K. is trying to evacuate from Kabul’s international airport.

  • Of course Charles, you have to remember that in 2015 our party called for “the government to step up its acceptance of Syrian refugees, and opt in to Save the Children’s proposal to rehome 3000 unaccompanied refugee children from with Europe.” This was one of the criteria to determine whether we should support the motion to allow RAF bombing in Syria. We ultimately accepted the criteria as completed as “It is my judgement that, on balance, the five tests I set out have been met as best they can.” However David Cameron had apparently only “agreed to look carefully at the proposals to take 3000 unaccompanied children from within Europe, which is a big step given they previously wouldn’t even accept that there were unaccompanied children.”

    Ultimately in March 2020, the Government announced proudly it had relocated 478!

  • Now let’s slam Biden for his excruciatingly arrogant and callous response on being questioned about human beings falling from an American transport plane ‘That was four days ago’…so that’s ok then Mr President??

  • Peter Martin 21st Aug '21 - 10:30am

    “No doubt China and Russia will be pointing out today that the US and NATO lack staying power and cannot be trusted long-term allies, and that the global influence of the US, the UK and NATO as a whole will be much diminished. ”

    What about a mention of the EU or any EU countries?

    The US and UK may not have had the staying power, but they didn’t even have the starting power. Their effort was token and half hearted at best.

    Anyone who was acting with the courage of their convictions should have opposed the war from day one or given it their total support.

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