Support exists among MPs for new Afghanistan inquiry, says ex-defence minister

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Tobias Ellwood warned Afghanistan is ‘now in freefall’ (Ahmad Halabisaz/AP)
Tobias Ellwood warned Afghanistan is ‘now in freefall’ (Ahmad Halabisaz/AP)

UK governments should be legally required to review major British military campaigns, a former defence minister has said amid calls for an Afghanistan inquiry.

Senior Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood said he would consider proposing a “formal wash-up” of long-term campaigns if he had the opportunity to move legislation in the Commons, although he feared the Government would whip his colleagues to oppose it.

But he predicted MPs would approve a new investigation into the Afghanistan campaign if a free vote was allowed.

Foreign Office minister James Cleverly countered the request by explaining the army had conducted a “thorough internal review” when combat operations ended in 2014.

Whitehall departments are also undertaking “lessons learned exercises” related to Afghanistan, Mr Cleverly added.

Inquiries being held by the Foreign Affairs Committee and Defence Committee in the Commons were welcomed by the minister.

Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood warned Afghanistan is ‘now in freefall’ (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Archive)
Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood warned Afghanistan is ‘now in freefall’ (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Archive)

The UK’s 20-year military mission in the country ended in August.

A total of 457 members of the UK armed forces were killed, with hundreds more personnel suffering life-changing injuries.

Mr Ellwood, who chairs the Defence Committee, said there had been “schoolboy errors” in the Nato campaign and said the UK’s involvement in the mission must be examined.

Raising the number of casualties and “trillions” spent in Afghanistan, Mr Ellwood told a Commons debate: “After two decades, we then decided to exit before the job was done, handing back the country to the very insurgency we went in to defeat.

“The country is now run by the Taliban, but they are not in control. It is now in freefall, with the freezing winter approaching, likely to cause the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation.

If there was a free vote on whether we should have an inquiry then absolutely many members of this House, particularly Conservatives but I think on all sides, would support it

Tobias Ellwood, Conservative MP

“The list of challenges we faced, and the lessons to be learned, are huge. Yet this Government stubbornly refuses to hold an independent inquiry.

“Does the Government think that there is nothing to learn, or more importantly, to explain to those who served and to the families of those bereaved what it was all for?”

Later in the debate, Mr Ellwood said: “I actually believe there should be a default position that whenever this country goes to war, is involved in a long-term conflict, there should be some form of formal wash-up provided by the Government.

“If I had a private member’s Bill opportunity I’d put that forward, but I’d be worried the Government would whip against it and it therefore wouldn’t get through. That’s another matter.”

On an Afghanistan inquiry, Mr Ellwood added: “If there was a free vote on whether we should have an inquiry then absolutely many members of this House, particularly Conservatives but I think on all sides, would support it.

“It’s the right thing to do.”

Mr Cleverly, on the need to learn lessons from the Nato-led mission, said: “We must and we will.”

But Mr Cleverly said the main focus is on helping people to leave Afghanistan and supporting new arrivals in the UK following the Taliban takeover.

Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said lessons are being learned from the operation in Afghanistan (Danny Lawson/PA) (PA Archive)
Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said lessons are being learned from the operation in Afghanistan (Danny Lawson/PA) (PA Archive)

He added: “Learning lessons from Afghanistan has been a continuous process. That is why after the conclusion of Operation Herrick in 2014, the army conducted a thorough internal review.

“We also incorporated lessons from that into the Integrated Review that we published earlier this year, and departments are undertaking their own Afghanistan lessons learned exercises in their areas of expertise and contributing to Nato’s own lessons learned exercise.

“All of which will inform our defence strategy and future UK military operations.”

For Labour, shadow Foreign Office minister Stephen Kinnock said Mr Ellwood had made an “eloquent” case for the need for a wide-ranging inquiry.

He said: “We agree with the principle of the need for an inquiry, but it is our firm view that the failures that need investigating are primarily those failures of political leadership which started with the Trump-Taliban Doha Agreement.”

Mr Kinnock later added multiple inquiries have taken place into the Afghanistan intervention pre-2010 – when Labour was in power.

SNP defence spokesman Stewart McDonald supported Mr Ellwood’s inquiry call during the 65-minute debate.

Addressing the lack of MPs in the chamber, he added: “Perhaps the acres of green benches scream out the need for an inquiry that (Mr Ellwood) asks to take place.”

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