Afghanistan today is a tragedy backlit by defeat—even the name of Operation Enduring Freedom has already exuded a sense of irony—but lest we rewrite history, let us remember why we went. We did not go to Afghanistan out of a sense of philanthropy towards the Afghan people; we went out of a hard-headed sense of protection of our own national security. Were we successful? Yes, we were: we were able to take down al-Qaeda networks in the region and beyond, and we did not see a repeat of 9/11. We owe an immeasurable debt to our armed forces. Those who say that their sacrifices were in vain utterly misunderstand the sacrifices that were made.
Are we safer than we were a week ago? Probably not. Under the Taliban, 5,000 of our most committed, vicious and determined enemies are out there once again, and they will seek their moment. We also need to understand that the strategic weakness of our alliance will have been noted not just in Kabul, but in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Islamabad.
Did we know that the Afghan Government would fall so swiftly? No, we did not. Many people today claim to have predicted it when they absolutely did not. The removal of 2,500 American troops, along with 8,000 coalition troops and 18,000 of those in support, brought about a catastrophic drop in morale among both the Afghan forces and the Afghan Government. It has been mentioned many times today that 70,000 Afghan police and armed forces died in the struggle to protect their own country. For anyone to say that they would not fight is a slight that is not worthy of any politician in a free country. But the question we must ask is: why, oh why, would anyone choose to remove their troops—even if they had decided to do so—during the fighting season, when the Taliban were at their greatest strength? The answer is that it was not a decision made for foreign policy or security reasons; it was done to suit a domestic political timetable. When security decisions are taken for political reasons, there is likely to be a detrimental outcome, and we would all do well to remember that lesson.
Although we did not go primarily for philanthropic reasons, rebuilding Afghanistan and giving its people a real chance of all the benefits that we take for granted became the main case used to maintain domestic public support for the mission in Afghanistan, and it was the main reason given to justify the continued sacrifices of our armed forces. They brought prosperity, political stability, human rights and the rule of law to the people of Afghanistan. It was an immense achievement, even on that timescale.
As one of the Defence Secretaries during the Afghan conflict, who had to send handwritten letters to the loved ones of those who died in action and visited many of the severely injured in hospital, including friends, I understand how raw the anger may be at the events of recent days. As several Members have said, those veterans will require extra support. For their sake and for its own sake, we must do all we can in concert with our allies to give support and sanctuary to all those who remain vulnerable in Afghanistan. Time is of the essence: the Taliban are already going door to door with their lists looking for victims. We must do everything we can as quickly as we can.
In Europe in recent days, there has been a lot of talk about how it is vulnerable to American decisions and has to ride on American coat-tails. The irony seems to be completely lost on those who refuse to build up their own security capacity that, in the end, they will actually become more dependent on American foreign policy, rather than less. Listening to our NATO allies who talk about why they should be spending—high-spending, big states in Europe—while American taxpayers carry the burden of security, one would think that they might have learned their lesson by now.
Finally, we can ultimately win the war in Afghanistan or against any similar oppressors only by winning the war of ideas, and we have to begin by believing that what we offer as a society is not just different from theirs, but better. We need to believe that democratic government is better than totalitarianism, that an impartial rule of law is better than theocracy, and that freedom and human rights are better than oppression and prejudice. Freedom will not come for free. There is a political and financial cost to be paid for it. If we are unwilling to pay for it, we have to accept the consequences.