On Monday 6 September, Sir David Amess spoke at the Conference of the Parliamentary Intelligence Security Forum in Budapest about our involvement in Afghanistan and the importance of intelligence agencies. Sir David was a keynote speaker joined by industry experts, CEOs and Government officials from across the world.
Sir David Amess said:
From Brexit and presidential elections to Coronavirus and now to Afghanistan, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the rest of the world have been thrown into everchanging political circumstances. In July 2021, the United Nations reported that nearly half of the Afghanistan population needed humanitarian support and a third were suffering from malnutrition. This has been an ongoing problem, escalating recently, which requires international aid in the long-term. We cannot turn our backs on our nationals living in Afghanistan or the Afghans that need our help. As my Prime Minister has said, we will judge this regime based on the choices it makes and by its actions rather than its words.
Our Foreign Secretary has appeared in front of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee where he was scrutinised regarding the United Kingdom’s actions in Afghanistan. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Parliament has been in a hybrid version of itself – having Members speak either physically or virtually. I was delighted that Parliament was recalled last month during recess to properly debate and hold the Government to account for what has been happening recently. It is not possible to suitably scrutinise legislation or actions in a near empty Chamber with Members speaking on video teleconference platforms. One of the things I most cherish about our remarkable institution is the traditions and history which are contained within its walls. I am very much looking forward to a return to normal and a full chamber at the House of Commons which actually starts today.
One of the proudest things I have ever done in my political career is to support the National Council of Resistance of Iran which calls for the Iranian regime to be replaced with a safer and more democratic government. I hope that we can achieve similar things in Afghanistan, as well as limit the scale of nuclear power and threat from some countries in the Middle East. I myself was at the 2018 Paris conference where an Iranian diplomat planned a terrorist attack but was thankfully stopped before the explosion could be triggered. The world now more than ever needs to be aware of the international threat that Iran poses. With the recent violence in Afghanistan, I hope that the media will also shed light on the other countries which pose an international security risk.
I am the Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Qatar and also work closely with the Iranian resistance as we promote peace, stability and democracy in the region. We must be doing this in Afghanistan too. With the world cup being hosted in Qatar next year and the country receiving its first ever gold medal, two of them in fact, in Tokyo this year it is promising to see countries in the Greater Middle East region, which includes Afghanistan, win such prestigious events. Similarly, Iran got their second ever highest number of gold medals at Tokyo. These are countries that our Government works hard to promote democracy, free speech and equal rights in. I believe that we should ensure the basic safety and health of the people in Afghanistan, but also push for a free and democratic political system which encourages women and men to compete in international competitions, such as the Olympics.
Ultimately, however, the most important aspects we need to consider as separate countries and as international allies are to ensure our overseas nationals and their families in Afghanistan are safe and to stop the spread of terrorism and violence. I, just like my Parliamentary colleagues in the United Kingdom I am sure, have received countless emails from worried constituents with family members stuck in Afghanistan. I and my team have been working hard during the recess contacting the Home Office to assist my constituents’ families in Afghanistan with safety, support and information. This is certainly an international crisis and we must deal with the Taliban quickly and hold them to account for their drastic reverses in human rights.
It is a question of past, present and future – we cannot simply send British troops into a country and subsequently withdraw them without considering what remains to be done. It’s all very well going into Afghanistan, but you need a concrete and detailed exit strategy which is seen as a long-term prospect. We first became involved in Afghanistan following the devastating events of 9/11 to combat the advances of al-Qaeda and the Taliban that backed them and now with the final British flight leaving Kabul, it ends our 20-year military involvement in the country. Even though we have withdrawn from Afghanistan, it is still our responsibility to stop the spread of terrorism and protect our allies in the future. By applying pressure on the Taliban, with the prospects of using sanctions, we can cut off their supplies and therefore their reach.
It is not over though and there will undoubtedly still be Afghans left that need our support, especially women, and even animals. Throughout my 38 years as a Member of Parliament, I have been very involved in animal welfare and have consistently championed for improving animal rights. After finally leaving the European Union we have been able to put many of these improvements into place. The Nowzad Dogs charity, set up by a formal Royal Marines commando, Pen Farthing, reunites servicemen with dogs and cats and aids animal welfare in Afghanistan. I am delighted that Pen Farthing left Afghanistan along with the animals safely last month and they are being looked after in the United Kingdom.
The Home Office has announced a resettlement scheme for Afghans which intends to help around 5,000 Afghan nationals at risk this year, and up to 20,000 in the longer term. Priority will rightly be given to women and girls, and religious and other minorities. We need to protect those who are at most risk of human rights abuses from the Taliban and this is a great start at doing just that. However, we ultimately need to ensure that people are not put in this situation in the first place. That is where our intelligence agencies come into play because with the most up to date and relevant information about what is happening inside the Taliban, we can be as prepared as possible. Our military intelligence has played a crucial role in our involvement in Afghanistan with Simon Gass, the Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, holding talks with the Taliban.
The international security risk is not just a question of Afghanistan as an isolated country though, we need to ensure its bordering countries are on the same page as us. The head of our intelligence agency, MI6, has held talks with Pakistan and MI6 officers have had talks with the Taliban about preventing Afghanistan becoming a haven for terrorists. However, there certainly are challenges facing intelligence agencies in Afghanistan going forward. The country has become a hard target for these organisations because most of the human informants have fled or gone into hiding. Therefore, we will have to rebuild an established network of informants to successfully place agents inside terrorist groups. These agents can warn of attacks before they happen, they can infiltrate supply lines and they can provide crucial names and dates. This, however, could take years which is why it is vital to start immediately.
I am pleased to say that our Government has introduced “Operation Warm Welcome” which is a plan to support Afghans who have been evacuated to Britain. There will be £12 million of funding to provide additional school places, £3 million to help the arrivals with health care and £5 million for councils to help meet rent costs. This will truly help those Afghans most in need settle into our country, learn English and secure a career which they can succeed in.
While the current phase of our engagement in Afghanistan is coming to an end, our commitment to the country should continue. We are supporting the Afghan people in the long-term by ensuring the Taliban are held accountable for the pledges they have made to respect human rights. We have already doubled the amount of humanitarian aid to the region, up to £286 million, and I do hope international partners commit to giving aid to promote democracy, safety and freedom.
Unfortunately, however, in the House of Commons a vote to decrease our foreign aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% was successful in July. I and a few of my Parliamentary colleagues voted to keep the budget at 0.7% in order to help those countries less fortunate than ourselves. I truly believe that we need to invest money internationally to combat the forces of terrorism. Similarly, investing in, and expanding, security and intelligence organisations is crucial in fighting the ever-spreading forces of the Taliban. A large proportion of the Taliban’s income comes from opium production and with the necessary information, intelligence and power countries can unite and shut off their funding supply and ultimately halt their devastating attacks.
With the sudden withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan from a number of countries, it is of upmost importance that the Taliban do not get hold of lethal abandoned military equipment. If they do, they will be able to use them in their violent attacks or sell them on the black market only increasing their income and therefore their terrorism. We need to use specifically targeted intelligence and contacts in the country to ensure the procurement and sale of this powerful equipment is curbed. We do not want to be inadvertently funding the Taliban.
According to the United Nations, Afghanistan remains one of the least developed countries in the world and the Taliban’s effective control of the country could have damaging impacts on the delivery of aid and development programmes. Since 2001, the United Kingdom has given Afghanistan £3.3 billion in aid which has specifically focused on improving governance and providing humanitarian assistance. The positive effects of this aid have been especially apparent as the number of girls in education and greater political representation for women has increased. However, Afghanistan still remains below many other countries in these measures and despite the recent conflicts and terrorism, we must do everything we can to improve the equal access to opportunities for women in everyday life. It should start at grass root levels, such as education. If we give women in Afghanistan the freedom of an education and the opportunities to enter a political career, then hopefully we will see a decrease in domestic violence and human rights abuses and an increase in underrepresented demographics achieving greatness.
Even though we have withdrawn our troops from Afghanistan, our role is not over. We still have a commitment to the broader counterterrorism mission with our overseas allies. Our Minister for the Armed Forces has said that some military equipment would be gifted to the Afghan National Security Forces as well as potential training and mentoring. Our connection to the Afghan armed forces should not be completely ceased as we need to help them combat terrorism and promote peace from the inside. It is predominantly an outside-in approach that we are now adopting and we must ensure there is a long-term plan in place as we do not recognise a Taliban government, and neither should other countries.
As the United Kingdom holds presidency of the G7 this year, we have an added responsibility to protect global security. If the Taliban continue to abuse basic human rights, they cannot expect to enjoy any legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people or the international community. The international community must unite against this terrorist force.
In conclusion, countries have recently done what they had to do in the short-term – taking their armed forces and nationals out of Afghanistan whilst trying to offer support for those families still stuck in the country. However, this is not a short-term problem that will simply disappear. We needed a strong exit plan with a clear programme for the future. Efficient cooperation domestically and internationally is what will speed up the process of ceasing violent threats. We should be using intelligence agencies and Government officials to promote peace and facilitate talks between countries and terrorist groups. Our work in Afghanistan has only just begun.