What did we learn from the foreign secretary during the Foreign Affairs Committee session on Afghanistan?
2 September 2021
Yesterday the foreign secretary Dominic Raab appeared before MPs from the Foreign Affairs Committee to respond to robust questioning on the FCDO’s handling of its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
What did we learn?
How many people, British and eligible Afghan nationals, have been left behind and what should they now do to reach the UK?
Raab confirmed that, from the 15 Aug to end of August, around 15,000 people have been evacuated since the country fell to the Taliban. However, he was unable to commit to a specific number of people, both British and eligible Afghans, left behind, though he did state he believed the number of British people left behind was in the "low hundreds" and he supported the PM statement earlier on this week that the majority of those eligible to come to the UK had been evacuated.
The foreign secretary said the UK had evacuated many people at risk, including 287 journalists, 65 women's rights activists and nine judges.
Raab stated that the UK needed to secure safe passage out of the country until Kabul Airport is up and running again and that the government had identified countries most likely to be the port of call for those looking to leave. The Secretary of State also stated that the FCDO had focused on establishing the documentation required to allow people to cross into third counties.
When asked what advice he would give to those left behind, Raab outlined the “third country plan”, stating that the FCDO were working with the UN and allies to secure safe passage out of Afghanistan, as well as speaking with neighbouring countries to ensure those eligible are allowed to pass through borders and security checks are carried out. A "rapid deployment team" from the UK government is to operate in countries bordering Afghanistan such as Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
When asked whether those who have filed an application for leave of entry to the FCDO for individuals would have to resubmit details, Raab stated that he was committed to replying to all emails from MPs received on or before 30 of August by 6 September and that the FCDO would be able to sign-post to the current guidance regarding getting to the UK via third countries.
Raab stated that the leave outside the immigration rules scheme for Afghans would transition into broader resettlement criteria, based on asylum criteria being worked on by the Foreign Secretary alongside the Home Secretary and the UN. The main stumbling block at present, he said, was ensuring third countries were confident that those eligible would be able to come to the UK and making sure that non-UK nationals received security clearance. When asked whether the date to reply to emails would also apply to NGOs, Raab stated that he would need to look into that.
Will aid be used to put pressure on the Taliban and will that have an impact on Afghans?
The secretary of state said that the UK needed to be discerning between the pressure the UK seeks to put on the Taliban whilst not exacerbating the situation for Afghan people. He stated that he wants to get humanitarian aid to people, and that there was also questions around how we support neighbouring countries, who are now seeing an influx of Afghan refugees, using aid.
Raab believes the UK does need to talk to the Taliban and whether they allow a permissive environment to allow UN and humanitarian organisations to act will be one of the tests placed on the Taliban. If they are, the UK has doubled its aid to Afghanistan this year and have allocated £30 million to regional partners.
When asked whether it will be a coalition led decision as to how we use aid or how we allow access to the IMF or whether UK will operate unilaterally, Raab stated that Britain would lead by example but needed support from regional partners, the G7 and a wider group of actors beyond NATO. so the response is based on both security and humanitarian considerations.
Raab stated that there needed to be a contact group made up of the key regional players that are influential on the Taliban, including the Gulf countries, who will not want to see Afghanistan collapse.
When asked whether any work was being done to create safe zones for vulnerable at-risk groups in Afghanistan, the secretary of state responded that that would require military enforcement, which is not something that is being proposed right now and that it was difficult to see how something like that would be possible without political commitment and support. Raab also said he would provide the Committee with a list of organisations the FCDO are currently engaged with on the ground.
Implications for Britain foreign policy in future?
The secretary of state agreed with the sentiment that “if we don’t have the capability, we don’t have the responsibility” and stated the need to “reconcile your ends and your means”. Raab said there were questions about the objectives, mission and whether we reconciled our means with our ends and what the exit looked like in a strategic and realistic way, which he believed to be historic questions as well as based on the lessons coming through now.
Raab stated the need face the new reality as there was too much wishful thinking despite being clear where the debate around “forever wars” was going to end up and how much was going to change under the US administration. He emphasised that the UK, and the US, still believed in being open and outward looking nations, but there were bigger questions around nation building, though he was quick to add that this did not mean we should not promote liberal democracy and values around the world but ultimately the foreign secretary felt it came back to the point about reconciling ends to our means.