House of Commons at full capacity for the first time since pandemic for debate on the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan

The House of Commons was back to its pre-COVID capacity for an emergency debate on the escalating situation in Afghanistan.
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The recent invasion of Afghanistan by the Taliban was the focus of the most recent House of Commons debate, which saw the chamber back to its bustling usual ambiance as the restrictions on the number of MPs present were lifted.

The Taliban breached the walls of the Afghanistan capital Kabul on Monday 15th August as the local Afghan Government and Army resistance collapsed and could no longer hold the group at bay.

Taliban members have vowed that the transfer of power will be non-violent, however Afghan citizens do not buy into their promises, with shocking videos and images showing people attempting to hold onto a US evacuation jet after it had took off at Kabul airport. Some unfortunately plummeted to their death as the plane gained altitude.

Other images showed the Taliban firing gunshots to disperse the crowds at the airport, with US and UK troops being drafted in to help with the evacuation of their respective nationals. The UK has also announced an Afghan resettlement scheme for Afghans to seek refuge from the Taliban in the UK.

When the Taliban had control of Afghanistan in 2001, women were treated as second class citizens since they were subject to Islamic Sharia and Purdah law. Women were ruled by misogynistic rules, such as being forced to wear the burqa at all times when they were in public (as the Taliban believed that the faces of women are sources of corruption) and they were not allowed to receive any forms of education past the age of eight. From this age onwards, Afghanistan girls could not be in any direct contact with their male counterparts, unless it was with a blood relative, husband, or in law (also known as a mahram). Further, the Taliban often encouraged girls to get married before they turned 16, with Amnesty International reporting that approximately 8 out of 10 Afghan marriages were forced.

Women are also not permitted to make any appearances on radio or television, or to be present at public meetings under any circumstances. A recent interview showed a female Afghan reporter being ousted from her job and taking refuge in her home hoping the Taliban would not find her, as they conduct house to house searchings for lawbreakers. The Taliban have also recently closed all beauty salons, since makeup and cosmetics are prohibited.

If women were found to be in breach of these restrictions, they could suffer public beatings (such as being whipped) or even execution. The Taliban were notorious for showing little to no mercy for their victims, and sometimes even their mahrams were punished, for example when women were unaccompanied when getting into a taxi. Recently, a woman was beaten to death by the Taliban for wearing clothing that was too tight and was not with a male relative.

The severe and harsh treatment of Afghan women under Taliban rule has forced the majority of women into hiding and fearing for their lives, and highlights the urgent evacuations that are needed for the people of Afghanistan to flee the country. However, with many Taliban personnel patrolling the streets and the airport in Kabul, this is by no means an easy task.

The House of Commons back in the UK held an emergency debate on the situation on Afghanistan, with many MPs (some of them having served in the army and even Afghanistan itself) challenging the government’s position on the international affair.

Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, said that ‘the sacrifices in Afghanistan are seared into our national consciousness, with 150,000 people serving throughout the UK.’ The 20 year long tour in Afghanistan is one of the most notorious operations in the UK’s military history. The tour was in response to the 9/11 bombings of the World Trade Center in the United States, at which Johnson stated that 67 British citizens lost theirlives in the attack. The UK therefore joined forces with the US in Afghanistan to extirpate the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, who claimed responsibility for the attack, Johnson continued. The leader of that group, Osama Bin Laden, was killed in May 2011, but there was controversy surrounding his death since his body was never actually recovered, with some speculating that his body was cast into the sea.

Johnson reminisced on the 20 year tour of Afghanistan and said that overall the operation was an success for both the people of Afghanistan and modern diplomatic relations:

“Alongside this core mission, we worked for a better future for the people of Afghanistan. The heroism and tireless work of our armed forces contributed to national elections as well as to the promotion and protection of human rights and equalities in a way that many in Afghanistan had not previously known. Whereas 20 years ago, almost no girls went to school and women were banned from positions of governance, now 3.6 million girls have been in school this year alone and women hold over a quarter of the seats in the Afghan Parliament.”

He did however add that ‘huge difficulties were encountered at each turn, and some of this progress is fragile.’ Certainly the 20 year progress that was set in stone by the western world has now been undone by the Taliban in a mere matter of days. Women are subject to abhorrent treatment and many are attempting to flee the country before the UK and US’s evacuation deadlines, which are the 28th and 31st August respectively.

Johnson also told the House about the options the government had when the US took the step to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, which were: ‘the potential for staying longer ourselves, finding new partners or even increasing our presence.’

The Prime Minister also announced a five part approach to achieve the ultimate objective: to avert a humanitarian crisis. He added:

‘First, our immediate focus must be on helping those to whom we have direct obligations, by evacuating UK nationals together with those Afghans who have assisted our efforts over the past 20 years. I know that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the bravery and commitment of our ambassador, Sir Laurie Bristow.’

Alan Brown, the SNP MSP for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, asked the Prime Minister on how many people he believes will be eligible for the new settlement scheme announced by the government and how he plans to evacuate those who are hiding from the Taliban.

Johnson responded:

“That is why it is so important that we maintain a presence at Kabul airport and that is why we have been getting the message out that we want people to come through. As I said earlier, it is important for everybody to understand that in the days that we have ahead of us, which may be short, at the moment this is an environment in which the Taliban are permitting this evacuation to take place. These are interpreters, they are locally engaged staff and others who have risked their lives supporting our military efforts and seeking to secure new freedoms for their country. We are proud to bring these brave Afghans to our shores and we continue to appeal for more to come forward.”

Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow, asked if the government has any plans to send British troops back into Afghanistan, to which Johnson responded:

“The hon. Lady is entirely right that we will not be sending people back to Afghanistan; nor, by the way, will we allow people to come from Afghanistan to this country in an indiscriminate way. We want to be generous, but we must make sure that we look after our own security. Over the coming weeks, we will redouble our efforts, working with others to protect the UK homeland and all our citizens and interests from any threat that may emanate from a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, from terrorism to the narcotics trade.” As part of the five part approach Johnson set out, he also called on the United Nations to ‘lead a new humanitarian effort in the region [Afghanistan].’

The Prime Minister alsoreiterated the details about the new settlement scheme:

“…while we must focus on the region itself, we will also create safe and legal routes for those Afghans most in need to come and settle here in the UK. In addition to those Afghans with whom we have worked directly, I can announce today that we are committing to relocating another 5,000 Afghans this year, with a new and bespoke resettlement scheme focusing on the most vulnerable, particularly women and children. We will keep this under review for future years, with the potential of accommodating up to 20,000 over the long term.”

Johnson concluded his statement as follows:

“Fifthly, we must also face the reality of a change of regime in Afghanistan. As president of the G7, the UK will work to unite the international community behind a clear plan for dealing with this regime in a unified and concerted way. Over the last three days, I have spoken with the NATO and UN secretaries-general and with President Biden, Chancellor Merkel, President Macron and Prime Minister Khan. We are clear, and we have agreed, that it would be a mistake for any country to recognise any new regime in Kabul prematurely or bilaterally. Instead, those countries that care about Afghanistan’s future should work towards common conditions about the conduct of the new regime before deciding together whether to recognise it, and on what terms.

We will judge this regime based on the choices it makes and by its actions rather than by its words—on its attitude to terrorism, crime and narcotics, as well as humanitarian access and the right of girls to receive an education. Defending human rights will remain of the highest priority, and we will use every available political and diplomatic means to ensure that those human rights remain at the top of the international agenda.

Our United Kingdom has a roll-call of honour that bears the names of 457 servicemen and women who gave their lives in some of the world’s harshest terrain, and many others who bear injuries to this day, fighting in what had become the epicentre of global terrorism. Even amid the heart-wrenching scenes we see today, I believe they should be proud of their achievements, and we should be deeply proud of them, because they conferred benefits that are lasting and ineradicable on millions of people in one of the poorest countries on earth, and they provided vital protection for two decades to this country and the rest of the world. They gave their all for our safety, and we owe it to them to give our all to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a breeding ground for terrorism.

No matter how grim the lessons of past, the future is not yet written. At this bleak turning point, we must help the people of Afghanistan to choose the best of all their possible futures. In the UN, the G7 and NATO, with friends and partners around the world, that is the critical task on which this Government are now urgently engaged and will be engaged in the days to come.”

As is clear through the debate in the Commons, the situation in Afghanistan is a fast moving situation and the government must act swiftly in order to evacuate all UK nationals and those eligible for the settlement scheme. However, with thousands of planned evacuations still to be performed, and the 28th August deadline quickly approaching, the window of opportunity for the terrified refugees to escape the grips of the Taliban regime is becoming increasingly narrow.

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