Britain and its Nato allies “reserve the right” to launch fresh military action should international terrorism flourish again in Afghanistan, according to the Government.
Defence minister James Heappey left the door open for military action should “ungoverned spaces” return which pose a threat to the UK homeland or the interests of allies, as well as the option of providing air support to Afghan forces.
But the army veteran stressed he hoped there is a successful political outcome in Afghanistan, telling MPs it is “almost certain” that a lasting peace settlement will “involve the Taliban as part of the Afghan government”.
Mr Heappey earlier suggested a review of the UK’s 20-year military campaign in Afghanistan will take place amid calls for a Chilcot-style inquiry, which took place for the Iraq war.
Several Conservative MPs used an urgent question in the House of Commons to raise concerns over the strategy for the country.
US President Joe Biden last week announced the remaining 2,500 US troops would leave by September 11 – the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the US – extending the May 1 deadline set by his predecessor, Donald Trump.
Other Nato allies confirmed that they would follow suit, including the UK, which is to begin withdrawing its remaining 750 military trainers from next month.
MPs heard 150,610 UK personnel have served in Afghanistan, with hundreds suffering “life-changing injuries” and 457 deaths recorded.
Conservative Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Defence Select Committee, warned Afghanistan is “heading towards another civil war” with the Taliban on the rise.
He went on: “This cannot be the exit strategy we ever envisaged. Our nation and our military deserve answers. So I request a Chilcot-style inquiry so we can learn the lessons of what went wrong.”
Mr Heappey replied: “It’s not for me to agree to such an inquiry right now but one would hope the lessons would be learned.”
Shadow defence secretary John Healey said Afghanistan has been “more failure than success” for the British military.
Senior Conservative MP Julian Lewis added: “When he says that the military process is over, does he not realise that the only thing that will prevent the Taliban going back to the position of before we intervened 20 years ago will be the threat that if they try to overthrow the government they themselves will face a military consequence – if necessary from outside the borders of the country?
“If he rules that out, he’s basically giving them carte blanche.”
Mr Heappey, in his reply, said: “It is very likely, indeed almost certain, that a lasting peace settlement within Afghanistan will involve the Taliban as part of the Afghan government.
“Now, it’s in all of our interests to support that political process as it plays out, but if there is a return to an ungoverned space that gives succour to international terrorism that is a threat to the UK homeland or to the interests of our allies, of course we unilaterally and multilaterally through Nato reserve the right to protect our interests.”
Labour former defence minister Kevan Jones asked if there are plans to provide air support to the Afghan forces following the withdrawal.
Mr Heappey replied: “Clearly the announcement has been made that there will be no military presence within Afghanistan. Clearly air support can come from outwith Afghanistan and I suspect that decisions like that will be made based on the security situation at the time.
“The priority of all within Nato is to force the pace of a political settlement, which I think our departure does, and what we should all hope for is a successful political outcome where the sort of capabilities (Mr Jones) draws our attention to wouldn’t be required.”
Labour’s Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central) said: “Many who fought in and are still affected by the conflict are wondering just what it was all for. We cannot allow the Afghan security forces to be completely over-run or for terrorist groups to re-establish training camps.”
Mr Heappey replied: “It is clear that the UK will not tolerate an ungoverned space in Afghanistan from which international terrorism can find a base and from which attacks to the UK homeland or those of our allies can be mounted, and so a CT effort within the… region will be required to counter that and of course the alliance reserves the right to go back in if those security situations deteriorate to such extent that our national security is threatened.”