Boris Johnson has faced fierce criticism from senior Tories as MPs returned to Westminster for an emergency debate on the fall of Afghanistan.
In a packed Commons chamber, the Prime Minister defended the final pull-out of British troops, saying it was an “illusion” to think the international military mission could have continued without US forces.
But he faced cries of disbelief when he denied the Government had been unprepared for the lightning takeover by the Taliban which saw the Western-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani collapse in just days.
In a series of highly charged interventions, he was accused by senior Conservatives of presiding over an “operational and strategic blunder” which would weaken the West in the eyes of its adversaries.
Former prime minister Theresa May said it was “a major setback for British foreign policy” nearly 20 years after UK forces first entered the country in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks on the US.
In an emotional speech which drew rare applause from some MPs, Tory Tom Tugendhat – who served as an Army officer in Afghanistan – said the UK and its Western allies had received a “very harsh lesson”.
“This doesn’t need to be defeat but at the moment it damn well feels like it,” he said.
Mr Johnson said ministers had considered the possible options when the US announced its intention to withdraw, but they came up against the “hard reality” that there was no will among allies to continue without the Americans.
Deploying “tens of thousands” of British troops to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban was not, he said, “an option that would commend itself either to the British people or to this House”.
“The West could not continue this US-led mission, a mission conceived and executed in support of America, without American logistics, without US air power and without American might,” the Prime Minister said.
“I really think that it is an illusion to believe that there is appetite amongst any of our partners for a continued military presence or for a military solution imposed by Nato in Afghanistan. That idea ended with the combat mission in 2014.”
Mr Johnson said planning had been under way for “many months” for the US withdrawal – which precipitated the collapse of the Government – and that a decision to commission an emergency handling centre at Kabul airport was taken two weeks ago.
He said the UK was doubling humanitarian aid to Afghanistan to £260 million while the immediate priority was to evacuate the remaining UK nationals and those Afghans who had worked with the British in the country.
However, Mrs May said she found it “incomprehensible and worrying” that the UK had been unable to put together an alternative alliance to sustain the Afghan government.
She accused Mr Johnson of hoping “on a wing and a prayer it’d be all right on the night”.
“We boast about global Britain, but where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul? A successful foreign policy strategy will be judged by our deeds, not by our words,” she said.
“Russia will not be blind to the implications of this withdrawal decision and the manner in which it has been taken.
“Neither will China and others have failed to notice the implications because in recent years the West has appeared to be less willing to defend its values.”
The Conservative chairman of the Defence Committee Tobias Ellwood said the collapse of Afghanistan was the result of “an operational and strategic blunder”.
“What we require is the backbone, the courage, the leadership to step forward, yet when our moment comes such as this we are found wanting,” he said.
“We are complicit in allowing another dictatorship to form as we become more isolationist.”
Mr Tugendhat, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the criticisms by US President Joe Biden of the Afghan forces had been “shameful”.
“Those who have not fought for the colours they fly should be careful about criticising those who have,” he said.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said there had been a “failure of preparation” by the Government for which Mr Johnson bore a “heavy responsibility”.
He said the Prime Minister was in a position to give a lead on the international stage but had failed to do so.
“The desperate situation requires leadership and for the Prime Minister to snap out of his complacency,” he said.
“We do not turn our backs on friends at their time of need. We owe an obligation for the people of Afghanistan.”
Mr Johnson said the Government had so far secured the safe return of 306 UK nationals and 2,052 Afghans, with a further 2,000 Afghan applications completed and many more being processed.
He acknowledged the sacrifice of the British forces who had served in the country since 2001, and said he was committed to working with allies to ensure it did not again become a centre of international terrorism.
“Even amid the heart-wrenching scenes we see today, I believe they should be proud of their achievements and we should be deeply proud of them,” he said.
“They gave their all for our safety and we owe it to them to give our all to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a breeding ground for terrorism.”