The US-led retreat from Afghanistan should shame us all. Pictures of frightened people clinging on to aircraft leaving that country will live on in our minds as well as the certainty that some fell to their deaths. The people of Afghanistan, ordinary men and especially women, face uncertainty and stories are already coming in of atrocity and murder. Some will argue, as US President Biden did, that Western powers only went into that country to expel terrorists and defend our own countries. If that were true, I’m bound to ask why we stayed so long after the death of Osama bin Laden and the expulsion of Al-Qaeda. And of course, over the years UK government ministers have talked the language of the great job we’ve been doing in reconstructing Afghanistan, making it safe for women and building a capacity for education and welfare. All that is now at risk.
So the question isn’t whether we should leave; it’s obvious we shouldn’t be there twenty years on. The real question is why was the withdrawal handled so badly. And this generation of Western leaders have to answer for that. And as we leave, we leave with obligations. But this clumsy withdrawal has prevented us from protecting those to whom we owe a debt. It’s bound to be right that we have to protect our own nationals but we have got to accept an obligation to look after those who worked with British troops and personnel to keep them safe along with their families. And, though I know some will disagree, we’ve got to accept that those most at risk need to be protected and given refugee status. It’s not good to hear that many are being refused. But in the longer run, the UK has a self-interest in stability in this region. We know instability is the breeding ground for refugees and the breeding ground for terrorism. So we walked away but we cannot simply abandon the Afghani people we claimed until some months ago we were supporting. If, as seems likely, we see a flow or flood of refugees into neighbouring countries, we should help. We should support organisations like the International Rescue Committee which has worked in Afghanistan all the way through and will continue to work there. Some will resent these ideas but I remind them it is in our self-interest. Others will recognise our obligations. In the end, let’s do what’s sensible and what’s right.
This article was originally published in the Rochdale Observer on 21 August 2021.