In a packed, emotional session of Parliament, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced accusations Wednesday from lawmakers across the political spectrum of needlessly abandoning Afghanistan to the whims of the Taliban and of undermining Britain's position in the world.
The members of Parliament were recalled from their summer break to attend the emergency session in London. Many, including a large number from Johnson's Conservative Party, voiced strong regrets and fears at the chaotic turn of events in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have seized control 20 years after being driven from power by a U.S.-led international force following the 9/11 attacks.
Johnson said he had little choice but to follow the decision of U.S. President Joe Biden to take American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of August.
“The West could not continue this U.S.-led mission, a mission conceived and executed in support of America, without American logistics, without U.S. air power and without American might,” he said.
“I really think that it is an illusion to believe that there is appetite amongst any of our partners for a continued military presence or for a military solution imposed by NATO in Afghanistan," he added.
The Taliban used the impending withdrawal of all remaining NATO forces to rapidly sweep through Afghanistan, reaching Kabul on Sunday, a stunning advance that was faster than anticipated, if not unexpected. Thousands of people have fled to Kabul Airport in a desperate attempt to flee as Western nations evacuate citizens and Afghan employees.
“There’s been a major miscalculation of the resilience of the Afghan forces and a staggering complacency from our government about the Taliban threat,” said Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party.
Some of the most pointed interventions during the debate came from Johnson's Conservative ranks, notably his predecessor Theresa May, who asked whether Johnson had hoped “on a wing and a prayer it’d be all right on the night."
“We boast about global Britain, but where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul?” she asked. "A successful foreign policy strategy will be judged by our deeds, not by our words.”
With the Taliban now in charge of Afghanistan, the immediate priority of the British government is to evacuate the 4,000 or so U.K. citizens still in Afghanistan and the thousands of Afghans who have helped the U.K. over the past 20 years.
Johnson said a new “generous” refugee settlement program would allow up to 20,000 vulnerable Afghans, primarily women and children, to seek sanctuary in the U.K. in the next few years, including 5,000 this year. The total for this year is in addition to the 5,000 or so Afghan allies that the U.K. is now trying to evacuate from Kabul’s international airport.
Johnson said the U.K. would work to unite the international community behind a “clear plan for dealing with the Taliban.” The prime minister, who is the current president of the Group of Seven wealthy democracies, said he aimed to convene a meeting of the G-7 leaders in the coming days.
“We are clear, and we have agreed that it’d be a mistake for any country to recognize any new regime in Kabul prematurely or bilaterally,” said Johnson, who spoke with Biden and other world leaders on Afghanistan in recent days.
“We will judge this regime on the choices it makes and by its actions, rather than its words,” he added.
The refugee plan, which is similar to a refugee package for Syria in 2015, came under immediate attack from lawmakers and activists, who said it fell short of what was required and did not come close to matching Britain's responsibility.
“I have no words for it. This could have been so avoided," Paul Farthing, an ex-Marine who runs an animal sanctuary in Kabul, told the AP. “We have destroyed this country and I don’t see anybody regretting what they’ve done.”
Farthing is lobbying for the British government to take in 25 Afghans who work for his charity, including young female veterinarians in their 20s. “What’s their future going to be? They are probably going to end up being married to Taliban fighters ... Are you telling me that the West is OK with that? Because that’s what we’ve just created.”
Johnson said authorities had so far secured the safe return of 306 British citizens and 2,052 Afghans. Britain’s ambassador to Kabul, Laurie Bristow, said his team helped 700 people fly out on military flights on Tuesday, and the goal is to help 1,000 people get out each day. He said he's got “days, not weeks” to speed up the evacuation operation.
Bristow said the Taliban is supporting the operation and his team is working with them “where we need to, at a tactical, practical level.”
For many U.K. lawmakers, Britain's withdrawal represents a huge failure for the Afghanistan mission, which saw 457 British troops die in the effort to stabilize the nation.
“Let's stop talking about forever wars. Let's recognize that forever peace is bought not cheaply, but hard through determination and the will to endure,” said lawmaker Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the influential Foreign Affairs Committee and a former soldier who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While the lawmakers were debating the crisis in Afghanistan, dozens of former translators for the British Army protested outside Parliament, holding banners and signs that included images of people gravely injured in Afghanistan with the caption “Protect our loved ones.”
Dozens more people joined the translators, leading to a crowd of around 200. Women and children came bearing posters, red balloons and flags of Afghanistan painted on their cheeks.