Johnson Defends Afghanistan Withdrawal in Face of Tory Backlash
(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended his decision to follow the U.S. in withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, even as he faced intense criticism from members of his own Conservative Party in the U.K. Parliament.
“The West could not continue this U.S.-led mission, a mission conceived and executed in support of America,” Johnson told the House of Commons as he opened an emergency debate on Wednesday. “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.”
Though there will be no vote, the Parliament session is uncomfortable for Johnson and again highlights the challenge he faces in calming restless Tories. Senior members of his party criticized both the decision to withdraw and the government’s response to the rapid takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban.
Ministers have acknowledged being taken by surprise, and Johnson and his Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab were forced to cut short their vacations to return to London as the Afghan capital, Kabul, was taken.
Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, suggested the prime minister had hoped “on a wing and a prayer it’d be all right on the night” in Afghanistan, and warned the U.K. now faces an increased terror threat due to the Taliban.
Some of the most dramatic interventions came from Tories who are themselves army veterans. Tobias Ellwood, Conservative chair of the House of Commons defense committee, said the U.K.’s withdrawal is “an operational and strategic blunder” and called for a formal inquiry -- which Johnson rejected.
“Our government should have more confidence in itself,” Ellwood said. “What we require is the backbone, the courage, the leadership to step forward -- yet when our moment comes such as this, we are found wanting.”
Tom Tugendhat, who leads the influential House of Commons foreign affairs committee and who served in Afghanistan, drew rare applause from MPs.
“Like many veterans this last week has seen me struggle through anger, grief, rage; the feeling of abandonment, not just of a country, but of the sacrifice my friends made,” he said. He criticized Joe Biden with “great sadness” over the U.S. president’s recent comments about the collapse of the Afghan military.
The U.K.’s military and development role in Afghanistan has been a central pillar of British foreign policy for two decades, and so Parliament’s recall during recess -- though quite rare -- was inevitable.
It’s the 34th time the House of Commons has been recalled since 1948. The previous time was in April, to allow for tributes following the death of Prince Philip. Other recent recalls include to pass coronavirus regulations and the government’s post-Brexit deal with the European Union. MPs sat shoulder to shoulder for the first time since the Covid pandemic forced social distancing.
But for Johnson, the session is a reminder of recent challenges in Parliament. His Conservatives hold a significant working majority of more than 80 seats, yet the premier has faced rebellions on a range of issues from China to coronavirus rules.
Now he must try to shift the narrative of defeat in Afghanistan. The prime minister promised the U.K. would honor its “enduring commitment” to Afghans, and called on world leaders to help prevent a humanitarian crisis.
The government announced a program for up to 20,000 Afghans at risk from the Taliban -- including 5,000 in the first year -- to resettle in the U.K. That’s on top of the 5,000 expected to relocate under an existing program.
Yet that pledge came under attack during the at-times heated debate. “The U.K. will be taking 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan but only 5,000 will be able to come this year,” Labour MP Chris Bryant said. “What are the other 15,000 meant to do? Hang around and wait until they’ve been executed?”
Labour leader Keir Starmer accused Johnson of “complacency” after the premier said in July: “there is no military path to victory for the Taliban.”
“The prime minister’s response to the Taliban arriving at the gates of Kabul was to go on holiday,” Starmer said. “No sense of the gravity of the situation, not leadership to drive international efforts on the evacuation.”
But the opposition jibes will matter less to Johnson than the strength of feeling on his own side. Johnny Mercer, a Tory MP who served in Afghanistan, called current events an “inherent injustice” and also accused the prime minister of failing to support former soldiers.
“We are not trained to lose and we are not trained for ministers to, in a way, choose to be defeated by the Taliban,” he said.
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