British troops to return from Afghanistan: PM’s statement to the House of Commons

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a statement to the House of Commons on Afghanistan:

Mr Speaker, with permission I will make a statement on the UK’s policy towards Afghanistan.

Twenty years ago, Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership had turned Afghanistan into the epicentre of global terrorism where, in the words of the author, Ahmed Rashid, “everything was available – training, funding, communications and inspiration”.

And it was in the mountain ranges of this sanctuary that al-Qaeda operated a formidable network of terrorist training camps, drilling and indoctrinating thousands of recruits.

The terrorists who acquired their murderous skills in Afghanistan – or who were organised from its soil – dispersed across the world, inflicting bloodshed and tragedy on three continents.

They detonated truck bombs in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998, killing 224 people; they attacked the USS Cole in Aden in 2000, killing 17 people; and then they perpetrated their most heinous atrocity, claiming almost 3,000 lives in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington on September 11th 2001.

Today – thankfully – the situation is very different.

The training camps have been destroyed, what remains of al-Qaeda’s leadership no longer resides in Afghanistan, and no terrorist attacks against Western targets have been mounted from Afghan soil since 2001.

We should never lose sight of these essential facts.

On the morning after September 11, few would have predicted that no more terrorist attacks on that scale would be launched from Afghanistan in the next 20 years.

These gains were achieved by an American-led military intervention, mounted with overwhelming international support – including troops from dozens of countries and the first and only invoke of NATO’s Article V security guarantee – and we can take pride that Britain was part of that effort from the beginning.

Over the last two decades, 150,000 members of our Armed Forces have served in Afghanistan, mainly in Helmand province which was, from 2006 onwards, a focus of our operation.

In the unforgiving desert of some of the world’s harshest terrain – and shoulder-to-shoulder with the Afghan security forces – our Servicemen and women sought to bring development and stability.

The House will join with me in commending their achievements and paying heartfelt tribute to the 457 British service personnel who laid down their lives in Afghanistan to keep us safe.

We always acted in the closest partnership with the Government and people of Afghanistan, and we owe an immense debt to the translators and other locally employed staff who risked their lives alongside British forces.

We have already helped more than 1,500 former Afghan staff and their families to begin new lives here in the UK.

This year we adopted a new policy, offering priority relocation to the UK to any current or former locally employed staff assessed to be under serious threat to their lives, together with their close families.

British diplomats and development experts worked alongside our allies to rebuild the country, opening schools and clinics where there had been none, and bringing safe water and electricity to millions of people for the first time.

Anyone who lives in comfort as we do should not underestimate the importance of their advances.

In Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, virtually no girls attended school: they were, as a matter of declared policy, driven from the classroom and forbidden from returning.

Today 3.6 million girls are going to school in Afghanistan, seizing their chance to escape from illiteracy and poverty.

The Girls Education Challenge Fund, established by the British Government, has helped over a quarter of a million Afghan girls into the classroom, and our priority now must be to work alongside our Afghan and other partners to preserve these vital gains and the legacy of what has been achieved.

Under the Taliban, women were excluded from governance; today women hold over a quarter of the seats in Afghanistan’s parliament.

And since 2002, over 5 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan under the UN’s voluntary repatriation programme, aided by the fact that Britain, the UN and our Afghan and international partners have together cleared over 8.4 million landmines or other unexploded munitions, restoring 340,000 acres of land for productive use.

In 2018, Herat province was declared free of mines after 10 years of painstaking work by the HALO Trust, based in Dumfriesshire, in a UK-funded programme.

So no-one should doubt the gains of the last 20 years, but nor can we shrink from the hard reality of the situation today.

The international military presence in Afghanistan was never intended to be permanent.

We and our NATO allies were always going to withdraw our forces: the only question was when – and there could never be a perfect moment.

As long ago as 2014, the UK ceased all combat operations and brought the great majority of our troops home, re-orientating our role and our involvement.

About 750 service personnel stayed in Afghanistan under NATO’s mission to train and assist the country’s security forces.

Last year, the US decided to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, while the Taliban undertook to prevent “any group or individual, including al-Qaeda, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies”.

President Biden announced in April that all American forces would leave by September at the latest, and the NATO summit declared last month that the alliance’s military operations in Afghanistan were “coming to an end”.

As a result, all British troops assigned to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan are now returning home.

And for obvious reasons, I will not disclose the timetable of our departure, though I can tell the House that most of our personnel have already left.

I hope that no-one will leap to the false conclusion that the withdrawal of our forces somehow means the end of Britain’s commitment to Afghanistan.

We are not about to turn away, nor are we under any illusions about the perils of today’s situation and what may lie ahead.

We always knew that supporting Afghanistan would be a generational undertaking and we were equally clear that the instruments in our hands would change over time.

Now we shall use every diplomatic and humanitarian lever to support Afghanistan’s development and stability.

We will back the Afghan state with over £100 million of development assistance this year, and £58 million for the Afghan national security and defence forces, and we will of course continue to work alongside our Afghan partners against the terrorist threat.

Our diplomats are doing everything they can to support a lasting peace settlement within Afghanistan, and they are working for regional stability, particularly by promoting better relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and here I commend General Carter, the Chief of the Defence Staff, for his steadfast efforts.

I spoke to President Ghani on 17th June to assure him of the UK’s commitment and I was moved once again to hear his tribute to the British soldiers who strove so hard to give the Afghan people better lives.

We must be realistic about our ability alone to influence the course of events: it will take combined efforts of many nations, including Afghanistan’s neighbours, to help the Afghan people to build their future.

But the threat that brought us to Afghanistan in the first place has been greatly diminished by the valour and by the sacrifice of the armed forces of Britain and many other countries.

We are safer because of everything they did.

Now we must persevere alongside our friends for the same goal of a stable Afghanistan, but with different tools in our hands, and I commend this statement to the House.

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