24 May 2022
A damning report by the Commons foreign affairs committee exposes the full scale of failure by ministers and officials
The excoriating parliamentary report on Britain’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan is such a lengthy catalogue of failure that it is far quicker to say what was done well: there were heroic efforts by individuals, working under enormous pressure, to save lives. Unfortunately, as the inquiry by the Commons foreign affairs committee – chaired by the Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat – makes clear, they were utterly let down by both ministers and top officials. It describes the British withdrawal as a disaster and a betrayal, and is particularly damning about the evacuations.
Politicians and senior officials showed too little interest, were absent at key moments, took inadequate or misguided action and failed to record what they did. MPs found that the “chaotic and arbitrary” Foreign Office response probably cost hundreds of people their chance to leave, and thus is likely to have cost lives. Yet those who are to blame have utterly failed to take responsibility. Indeed, when challenged, the Foreign Office provided answers that “in our judgment, are at best intentionally evasive, and often deliberately misleading”.
The chaos in the days before and after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on 15 August 2021 looked appalling enough at the time. The detail provided by Foreign Office whistleblowers and others shows it was worse. The government should have begun planning when the US withdrawal was announced in February 2020, instead of simply hoping the US might change course. What action it did take was late, inadequate and often incompetent. It was hopelessly slow in addressing the cases of Afghans who had worked for it, and failed to design a scheme to help others who had supported UK objectives until Kabul fell. Emails from desperate people went unread.
Sensitive documents were left to fall into Taliban hands. Multiple senior officials believe that the prime minister played a role in the disgraceful decision to prioritise the case of the Nowzad animal charity. While Downing Street has denied that, the report notes that “we have yet to be offered a plausible alternative explanation”.
Dominic Raab, then foreign secretary, had a single one-to-one conversation with the British ambassador in Kabul in the two weeks before the city fell, as the Taliban advance accelerated. He – like the prime minister, the minister for Afghanistan, Lord Ahmad, and the Foreign Office’s permanent secretary, Sir Philip Barton – were still on holiday on 15 August. Though Sir Philip, like Mr Raab, has expressed regret for not returning sooner, his failure to come back until 26 August, the day the civilian evacuation ended, is – as the committee notes – impossible to excuse; it is right to call for his resignation. Mr Raab, demoted to justice secretary (with the consolation title of deputy prime minister), has surely proved himself unfit for high office.
Beyond holding those who failed accountable, three issues are paramount. First, as the human rights group Global Witness says, the failure continues; people are still waiting for visas and the criteria have been tightened to bar some of those originally told that they had valid claims. Second, those who have made it to the UK must be properly supported to make their home here; thousands of Afghans remain in temporary accommodation. Finally, Afghanistan is in desperate straits. Development as well as humanitarian aid is necessary, along with serious consideration of how to get the economy back on to its feet. Britain has failed Afghans appallingly. It must not continue to do so.