Perhaps the most singularly significant ceremonial duty that I perform each year in the constituency is laying a wreath on Remembrance Sunday at one of our local churches. Yes, like other civic representatives I am honouring those who served their country. But in so doing there is the added dimension that, in bearing the Parliamentary portcullis, the wreath I lay is on behalf of the one authority ultimately responsible for the grave decisions involved in sending our men and women to fight. Those decisions must be open to the greatest possible public scrutiny and so it is right that Parliament was recalled yesterday, in light of events in Afghanistan.
Of course, the service of Remembrance involves not just the ceremony of wreath laying, but a religious service and sermon, and so many that I have heard have essentially asked the age old question rightly raised by all military conflict – ‘why’? As our news is full of a total and demoralising retreat from the Afghan theatre in a way no one could truly have imagined when our first deployments began, I entirely understand why this question is being asked again. Above all, the bereaved families of 457 personnel lost in Afghanistan will be asking if their loves ones died in vain.
First and foremost, let us be clear that nothing that results from the Taliban’s resurgence in any way undoes the fact that the professionalism, skill and bravery that every serving member of our armed forces will have displayed throughout their deployment will have been second to none; a source of pride to us all, and in particular, to the families of those who served on the frontline. Furthermore, seeing US Apache attack helicopters on patrol in the skies around Kabul airport in recent days is a reminder of our part of the world’s contribution to the Afghanistan campaign. Our own Apaches and their crews from the Wattisham Flying Station played a significant role up to the end of UK military operations in 2014, serving as a valuable tool to defend ground troops and launch precision attacks on the enemy.
But to the broader question of ‘why’, let us also remember what brought about the initial invasion of Afghanistan back in 2001: the 9/11 terror attacks, when almost 3,000 innocent people were murdered in a way that could not go unanswered. Let us also not forget that NATO triggered Article 5 in response, drawn up originally for a cold war clash with the USSR, so that these terror attacks on the US were formally seen as an attack on all NATO states, including the UK. I stress again that we could not have left such a justifiable call to arms unanswered.
So the original purpose of our military effort in Afghanistan was to support the effort to degrade and dislodge Al-Qaeda, the terror organisation which orchestrated 9/11. To this end we were successful, and our armed forces played their part in that crucial endeavour.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the longer-term policy of stabilising Afghanistan, built up over two decades, appears to have been shattered almost overnight by the rapid return of the Taliban. It is hard to believe that this was the best way to withdraw the west’s remaining military presence and a whole plethora of hard questions for ourselves - but particularly our US allies - need to be answered.
For now, it is right that we focus entirely on evacuating our nationals and those Afghans who supported our armed forces, and I welcome the fact the Government is looking at a bespoke 'Syria’ style settlement regime for refugees.