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‘The West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has been shameful - but we must not give up’

Opinion | South Cambridgeshire MP Anthony Browne writes for the Cambridge Independent

The terrible events in Afghanistan over the last few weeks are a blow to Western credibility, a boost for terrorism, and a tragedy for the people of Afghanistan. They have not just had their dreams and aspirations stolen. Many now live in very real fear of their lives.

Members of the UK armed forces are currently involved in evacuating people from Kabul airport in Afghanistan. Picture: LPhot Ben Shread/MoD/Crown Copyright/PA
Members of the UK armed forces are currently involved in evacuating people from Kabul airport in Afghanistan. Picture: LPhot Ben Shread/MoD/Crown Copyright/PA

I warmly welcome the government’s announcement of an extra 20,000 places for refugees from Afghanistan, on top of existing programmes. I am sure many will be welcomed to Cambridgeshire. Under the ARAP scheme, the government has rightly prioritised those who are at risk for having worked for the UK in Afghanistan. But it should also prioritise those who have not worked directly for the UK, but whose lives are at risk for trying to build a modern nation and resisting the medieval Taliban. This includes aid workers and teachers. But it also includes reform-minded political leaders who have been staunch Allies of the UK, but whose lives are now at risk as a result.

Over the last few days, though a constituent who is an Afghan activist, I have been trying to help one high profile former Afghan minister who is in hiding, raising his case with ministers at the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence. One message he sent me last week said: “I am surrounded by the Taliban. They might capture me very soon.” His only crime was helping to improve human rights, economic development and women’s education in Afghanistan. But tragically, there appears to be nothing the UK can do to help him. Outside Kabul airport, we now have basically no military operational capacity, and getting to the airport can be impossible for the most at risk.

We must not let down Afghanistan’s former leaders who have been our allies. We also must do what we can to protect the persecuted minorities, such as the Hazaras. The Hazaras are the largest and most persecuted minority in Afghanistan. In the past they played a critical role resisting the Taliban, and were particularly targeted by them. Western governments including the UK should recognise that they are at particular risk and help them accordingly.

A soldier in Afghanistan. Picture: LPhot Ben Shread/MoD/Crown Copyright
A soldier in Afghanistan. Picture: LPhot Ben Shread/MoD/Crown Copyright

We are leaving Afghanistan, but must not give up on it. We must use what levers we can – particularly through aid programmes and diplomatic relations with neighbours – to curb the worst excesses of the Taliban. We must also make sure that Afghanistan does not become a breeding ground for terrorism again.

On September 11, 2001, I was in New York, and saw the Twin Towers fall in the worst terrorist attack in history. I witnessed the murderous devastation wrought on our closest ally by Al Qaeda, enabled by the Taliban. Five years later, I flew with then PM Tony Blair to Camp Bastion in Helmund Province, in the south of the country, where he told the brave British troops in the desert that what they were doing was crucial for civilisation. It certainly was.

Our troops made huge sacrifices rooting out terrorist training in Afghanistan and helped defeat international terrorism for the past 20 years. Our lives have been safer as a result. Working with our allies, we must do all we can to make sure this beautiful mountainous country doesn’t return to being a training ground for terror.

Anthony Browne. Picture: Keith Heppell
Anthony Browne. Picture: Keith Heppell

The West’s withdrawal has been chaotic and shameful, but responsibility lies with the last three US presidents (Obama, Trump and Biden) who all pushed to leave and failed adequately to plan. It has been a severe blow to Western credibility. It isn’t just Islamist terrorists who will be cheered by events, but politicians in Moscow, Tehran and Beijing too. Our values of democracy, human rights and freedom face a greater challenge now than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

Around the globe, free speech and fair elections are in retreat. We need a determined plan to nurture and support our liberal democratic values around the world. Global Britain should not shy away from the challenge, but aim to be a beacon showing the way. We must stand up for freedom and democracy, or we stand for nothing.

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