The collapse of Afghanistan’s government happened faster “than even the Taliban predicted”, the prime minister has told MPs, but he denied the UK had been caught “unawares” by the militant group’s takeover of the country.
Opening a recalled session of parliament to discuss the crisis in Afghanistan, Boris Johnson claimed it was “not true” to say the UK was “unprepared” for or “did not foresee” events in the south Asian country.
“It was certainly part of our planning,” the PM 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 centre at the airport took place two weeks ago.”
Mr Johnson’s comments in the emergency debate come after he told MPs at the start of last month that there was “no military path to victory for the Taliban”.
But the militants swept into Kabul at the weekend after a lightning advance through the country.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the government of displaying “staggering complacency” about the Taliban threat and “the result is that the Taliban are now back in control of Afghanistan”.
Referring to the fact that the US decided in February 2020 to withdraw its forces by May 2021, he said the UK had 18 months to prepare for what would follow.
“The very problems we are confronting today in this debate were all known problems… and there has been a failure of preparation,” Sir Keir told the debate, adding that this is “unforgivable” and the PM “bears a heavy responsibility”.
He also hit out at Dominic Raab’s decision to go on holiday last week before swiftly returning home, telling the foreign secretary: “He stayed on holiday while our mission in Afghanistan was disintegrating. He didn’t even speak to ambassadors in the region as Kabul fell to the Taliban. Let that sink in.
“You cannot co-ordinate an international response from the beach.”
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said Mr Raab has “no dignity whatsoever” and was “lying on a sunbed” as the crisis in Afghanistan unfolded.
Backbench MPs were also critical, both of the UK government and US President Joe Biden.
Former PM Theresa May claimed her successor in Downing Street had hoped “on a wing and a prayer it’d be all right on the night” in the wake of the US withdrawal and labelled the situation a “major setback for British foreign policy”.
“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 position on the ground so inadequate? Or did we really believe this?”
The recall of Parliament comes after the Taliban seized power at the weekend, almost 20 years after the invasion of Afghanistan was launched in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to oust the Taliban and prevent it from harbouring al Qaeda, the group behind the 2001 terror attack on the US.
Once the US took the decision to withdraw from the country, the PM said the UK came up against a “hard reality”.
“That since 2009, America has deployed 98% 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, he said.
“The West could not continue this US-led mission, a mission conceived and executed in support of America.”
Amid calls for other nations to act in lieu of any change in stance from Washington, Mr Johnson told MPs it was 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 deploying tens of thousands of British troops to fight the Taliban is an option,” he added.
Mr Johnson also said the new Taliban regime would be judged based on its actions, not words, adding that the militant group was currently allowing the evacuation in Afghanistan to proceed.
“The situation has stabilised since the weekend but it remains precarious,” the PM said.
“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.”
Mr Johnson said it would be a “mistake” for any country to recognise the new Taliban regime “prematurely or bilaterally”, adding that the UK would work with other nations to unite the international community behind a “clear plan for dealing with this regime in a unified and concerted way”.
A total of 456 British forces personnel or Ministry of Defence civilians died in Afghanistan.
In his statement to MPs, the PM said the “sacrifice” of British troops in Afghanistan was “seared into our national consciousness” and would “never” be forgotten.
“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,” Mr Johnson added.
“No matter how grim the lessons of the past, the future is not yet written.”
And Mr Johnson told MPs that the UK would do “everything to support” those who have helped its mission in the country and “do everything we can to avert a humanitarian crisis”.
He said the UK has ensured the safe return of 306 UK nationals and 2,052 Afghan nationals as part of the government’s resettlement programme, with another 2,000 Afghan applications completed and “many more being processed”.
“UK officials are working round the clock to keep the exit door open in the most difficult circumstances and actively seeking those we believe are eligible but as yet unregistered,” the PM said.
The UK has announced it will take up to 20,000 vulnerable Afghans over the coming years as part of a resettlement plan.