LONDON — Boris Johnson faced hostile questioning from all political sides Wednesday as lawmakers vented their fury at the fate of Afghanistan.
Before the prime minister had even had a chance to begin a House of Commons statement, the government was forced to extend the day’s parliamentary sitting — which in itself has interrupted the usual summer recess — by three hours amid complaints from Conservative MPs that the session was too short.
That set the tone for a tense debate in which Johnson, speaking in a packed chamber for the first time since the start of the pandemic, came face-to-face with the intense anger felt by the political establishment at the manner of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the U.K.’s seeming lack of answer to it.
Here are the five key questions posed by lawmakers to the prime minister.
- Is the U.K. doing enough to help Afghans escape?
One of Johnson’s own MPs, John Baron, immediately sought assurances that the U.K. will pull out all the stops to evacuate Afghans who helped British forces, warning that the scheme set up for this purpose is “slow-moving.” Labour MP Chris Bryant questioned the timing of government’s proposed refugee resettlement scheme, which aims to offer a home to 5,000 Afghans in its first year, and 20,000 in subsequent years. “What are the other 15,000 supposed to do? Hang around and wait to be executed?”
Johnson said the U.K. was “proud to bring Afghans to our shores and appeal for more to come forward,” but did not have a substantive answer. Britain would not, he said, allow Afghans to arrive in an “indiscriminate way” — presumably meaning by boat — a line which only served to highlight the challenge his government faces in dealing compassionately with refugees after years of tough talk on asylum and immigration.
- Why didn’t the U.K. have better intelligence?
This point was leveled at Johnson by another of his party colleagues, Mark Harper, who claimed there had been a “catastrophic” failure to anticipate the speed and completeness of the Taliban’s takeover. This was Johnson’s first really sticky moment, as he replied: “Events in Afghanistan have unfolded and the collapse has been faster than even the Taliban themselves predicted. What is not true is to say the U.K. government was unprepared or did not foresee this, because it was certainly part of our planning.”
It’s not clear what the basis for that claim is, and it certainly strikes a different note from comments by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who said Tuesday that the whole world had been “caught by surprise” and the West “caught off-guard” by the speed of Afghanistan’s collapse. Johnson’s message could do with some honing.
- Is this a failure of “Global Britain”?
Former Prime Minister Theresa May’s intervention was always going to be closely watched, and she did not make life easy for Johnson. She wanted to know exactly when the prime minister had spoken to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg about the possibility of a coalition to replace the U.S. military presence. Although Johnson aimed a side-eye at Joe Biden when he said “the West could not continue this U.S.-led mission… without American might” he urged May and others to accept “it’s an illusion to believe there’s an appetite for continued military presence.”
But May was not done. In her subsequent speech she launched a blistering attack on her successor, asking: “What does it say about us as a country … if we are entirely dependent on a unilateral decision taken by the United States?” She called the U.K.’s response to the U.S. withdrawal “a major setback for British foreign policy” and, hurling a key post-Brexit slogan back at Johnson, demanded to know: “Where is Global Britain on the streets of Kabul?”
- What’s up with the foreign secretary?
Labour Leader Keir Starmer had some memorable lines of his own, name-checking every member of parliament who had served in Afghanistan and saying the latest events “shame the West.” More striking still was his direct attack on the prime minister and Raab, the foreign secretary, “The PM’s response to the Taliban at the gates of Kabul was to go on holiday,” he said. When Raab challenged Starmer to say what he would have done differently, the Labour leader shot back: “I wouldn’t have been on holiday when Kabul fell. You cannot coordinate an international response from the beach.”
It pressed on a sore spot for the government, with Raab feeling the heat in even right-leaning newspapers for his decision to go on holiday amid the Afghan turmoil. Raab also faces complaints that his department has not been pulling its weight in the aftermath of the fall of Kabul and that the Ministry of Defence has done most of the heavy lifting. A Foreign Office spokesman defended him earlier this week, saying Raab was “personally overseeing the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office response, and engaging with international partners.”
- Is the special relationship over?
There were few kind words for the U.S. president. Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative MP and veteran who has served in Afghanistan, delivered the stand-out speech.
MPs were rapt (and gave rare applause) as the foreign affairs committee chairman talked of the “anger, grief and rage” of the past week, and the “feeling of abandonment of not just a country, but the sacrifice that my friends made.” Tugendhat went on: “I have been to funerals from Poole to Dunblane. I have watched good men go into the earth, taking with them a part of me and a part of all of us. This week has torn open some of those wounds, has left them raw and left us all hurting.”
The Conservative MP attacked Biden directly, saying the U.S. president’s criticism of Afghan forces in an address Monday had been “shameful.” In order to honor the dead, he said, the U.K. and its allies needed to show the “will to endure.” Tugendhat’s contribution stood out for its intensity, but his critique of the U.S. president was repeated many times over by MPs of different stripes, adding up to the impression he has quickly lost the goodwill he started with in the U.K.
In the Lords, former head of the British Army Richard Dannatt said the Afghan collapse was “the direct result of president Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan.” And he added: “People had a glimpse of a better life, but that has been torn away.”
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