August 19, 2021 - 7:15am

Our MPs spent yesterday debating the Afghanistan disaster as if Britain could have prevented it.

Keir Starmer got the ball rolling with a misjudged — and, at some points, unintelligible — speech, blaming it all on Boris Johnson. Accusing the Prime Minister of complacency, he reeled off a list of supposed policy failures, all of which had this in common: their complete irrelevance to the course of this week’s events.

But it wasn’t just Starmer. One MP after another held forth as if Britain could have stopped the advance of the Taliban — or, at least, changed Joe Biden’s mind about the American pullout.

But neither of these things are true. This may have been a NATO mission, but it’s one in which America made by far the greatest contribution. What America wanted, under both Trump and Biden, was to withdraw — and having already done the same ourselves we could hardly object. 

Several MPs, including Starmer, taunted the PM with his July prediction that “there is no military path to victory for the Taliban”. But the prediction was correct. The 300,000 strong Afghan army was not defeated on the battlefield, rather the country was handed over to the insurgents by its own political leadership. 

This is the single most important fact about the fall of Kabul, but our MPs ignored it. Instead, they queued up to condemn President Biden for his statement that the Afghan military had collapsed, “sometimes without trying to fight.” Biden could have chosen his words more carefully — placing the blame on the leaders not the soldiers — but he was basically right.

On this and every other issue, the preference of our MPs is to emote rather than confront harsh realities. 

The issue of refugees is a case in point. Clearly we owe a duty of care to those Afghans who helped us. But over-and-over again, MPs confused this specific moral obligation with a responsibility for the Afghan people as a whole. Starmer claimed that while the situation required an international response, Britain “must take the lead.” He never explained why.

Layla Moran, for the Lib Dems, called for a humanitarian corridor to be opened up to an international border — but failed to say how it might be secured or indeed which of Afghanistan’s neighbours should be at the other end. 

Some MPs, like Yvette Cooper, did have constructive suggestions for how the immigration paperwork could be expedited for priority cases, but let’s not forget that the evacuation process at Kabul airport is only taking place with the agreement of the Taliban, which we can hardly rely upon. Needless to say, that didn’t stop other contributors to the debate from engaging in what Tom Tugendhat called a “political auction of numbers”.

The Prime Minister announced a resettlement programme for 20,000 Afghans. This was instantly pronounced inadequate. The Labour leader complained it was “number without rationale”, which should instead be based on a “risk assessment.” The SNP’s Ian Blackford also got into the numbers game; but when challenged on the Scottish Government’s contribution, he was reduced to spluttering indignation. 

The Green MP, Caroline Lucas, took the opportunity to attack government efforts to stop illegal immigration. She claimed that “a woman fleeing the Taliban with her children on a boat across the Channel would be criminalised.” Unless the Taliban advance all the way to the French coast, that’s unlikely. Furthermore, those currently making the crossing are almost exclusively male. However, it didn’t seem to cross Lucas’s mind that illegal immigration not only compromises our security, but takes places from those with much greater need of our help.

Her attitude is typical of a political culture that refuses to accept that tough choices have to be made — if indeed there’s anything we can do at all. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.