The seeds of failure that have produced the outcomes we are seeing today, go back twenty years and are partially caused by the main protagonists, UK and USA, having different objectives from day one. While the UK was driven by Tony Blair’s doctrine of liberal intervention, continuing the practice of the UK being the world’s police force, he also saw an opportunity to destroy the poppy fields that produce 90% of the heroin that comes into the UK. These goals were miles apart from the USA who were primarily driven by retribution for the 9/11 attacks. For twenty years we have seen military operations in Afghanistan that have resulted in many service personnel being seriously injured and many have lost their lives. But it should be noted that Afghanistan has been a political failure rather than a military one. We were never prepared to commit to a campaign that would require to take decades if it was to be successful, as that was politically not acceptable. And as has become obvious in the last few months, we never designed an exit strategy that would guarantee the safety of those left behind. As a result the similarities between Afghanistan today and Vietnam in 1975 are striking.
The withdrawal of military support by western allies to the Government of Afghanistan, and the subsequent seizure of power by the Taliban, has exacerbated the refugee crisis in the region, which has seen significant numbers of people displaced, with more certain to flee in the short and medium-term. Reports coming out of the country describe wide-scale atrocities, including attacks on women, torture, and forced marriage. The UK should be fulfilling its humanitarian responsibilities by offering protection to those fleeing the Taliban. Instead, we now have a UK government dithering over what action should be taken. While Pakistan and Iran have taken 90% of the refugees, the UK has been turning them away. We have been slow to engage with the re-settlement schemes and we have neglected those eligible for the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP) scheme. Since April, ARAP has been in place to move Afghan staff to the UK who worked locally for the UK Government (known informally as the Afghan interpreters’ scheme). This group are in particular danger, but access to this scheme is limited, and has left many people who have supported the UK Government ineligible. The terms of this scheme must be urgently reviewed to ensure those who need it are able to access it.
The UK has a duty of responsibility that it can’t be allowed to walk away from. Many people fleeing Afghanistan, and those who have been in danger after the takeover by the Taliban, have relatives who are already refugees in the UK, but are unable to join them because of restrictive rules around refugee family reunion. The Home Office should change these rules to expand refugee family reunion, and ensure that people are able to join loved ones in the UK via this safe and legal route. Up to now the behaviour of the Home Office has been shameful and their mix of incompetence and lack of compassion will result in more casualties of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.
Ronnie Cowan MP
My thanks to the Refugee Council and the United Nations HCR for engaging with me on this subject. Their input is invaluable.