STEPHEN GLOVER: The damning questions that MPs must ask the Minister who failed at every stage
The blame game is intensifying in Westminster over who is responsible for Britain’s hasty and humiliating retreat from Kabul, which has left many British citizens and Afghans at the mercy of the Taliban.
Most of the brickbats are being directed at the Foreign Office in general and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in particular. Unidentified officials at No 10 and in the Ministry of Defence are falling over one another to put the boot in.
Tomorrow, Mr Raab appears before a session of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, which has been called even though Parliament is still in recess. To say that he can expect a rough ride from MPs would be an understatement.
Tomorrow, Mr Raab appears before a session of the Commons foreign affairs select committee
But they should beware. The Foreign Secretary is a thick-skinned fellow adept at batting away searching questions.
That the Foreign Secretary and his department have fouled up can hardly be denied. Instead of burnishing the image of Global Britain, they have offered us another version of Carry On Up The Khyber. But this one hasn’t been remotely funny.
Mr Raab’s first faux pas was to linger on holiday in Crete while the Taliban were at the gates of Kabul. Ignoring advice from his own officials, he declined to make a crucial call to the Afghan foreign minister to seek help to evacuate translators who had worked for the British.
The call was delegated to a junior minister, who never made it because Kabul collapsed at such speed on Sunday, August 15. Mr Raab finally returned to Heathrow in the very early hours of August 16.
According to newspaper reports, he had been asked by No 10 to return the preceding Friday, but pleaded with Boris Johnson to let him stay two more days. In a subsequent radio interview he wouldn’t confirm this, though he admitted that ‘with the benefit of hindsight’ he wouldn’t have gone to Crete in the first place.
So that is the first question the foreign affairs committee should ask him tomorrow: Why didn’t you come back when you were instructed to — if you were — and why didn’t you make that call to the Afghan foreign minister?
The second question is whether it is true, as has been widely reported, that Mr Raab didn’t make a single telephone call to the Afghan and Pakistani foreign ministers in the six months before Afghanistan was overrun by the Taliban. Please answer the question, Secretary of State.
Moreover, are reports accurate — this is a third question — that Foreign Office diplomats thwarted requests by No 10 to develop overland escape routes out of Afghanistan, for example to neighbouring Pakistan?
The sad truth is that the dysfunctionality goes much deeper than the Foreign Secretary’s personal failures, serious though they are. For it has emerged that he wasn’t the only important person on holiday when he should have been at his desk. Sir Philip Barton, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office and its most senior official, was also reportedly on annual leave.
Incredibly, the Home Office Permanent Secretary, Matthew Rycroft, and David Williams, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, are said to have been absent, too, as Afghanistan disintegrated.
Make no mistake: this was a failure of planning on a huge scale, and since it was the Foreign Office which was responsible for coming up with a plan for extricating former translators, the main responsibility for this dereliction falls on that department — and Dominic Raab
With the wonders of modern communications, it is possible for mandarins to keep in touch with their offices. But if you are in holiday mood on a beach, or half-way up a mountain, you are inevitably less effective. Otherwise we might as well all be permanently on holiday.
And that introduces a fourth question which MPs should pursue tomorrow. Whitehall insiders suggest that a critical reason for the poor planning to evacuate translators and others was that many important Foreign Office officials were at home because of the Covid pandemic.
In other words, it wasn’t just that the big chiefs were away on their hols. Because of the reluctance of civil servants to return to work — and the refusal of ministers to force them — the right officials across departments were unable to meet to make detailed plans. Is there a voice in the back of my mind saying that we should bring back Dominic Cummings, and that all is forgiven? The Prime Minister’s former chief adviser famously inveighed against the mediocrity of senior civil servants.
Make no mistake: this was a failure of planning on a huge scale, and since it was the Foreign Office which was responsible for coming up with a plan for extricating former translators, the main responsibility for this dereliction falls on that department — and Dominic Raab.
As soon as President Biden announced in April that America would withdraw its remaining troops by September 11, it was obvious that the Taliban could win back power — and might do so as swiftly as they lost it in December 2001. Some people have been warning the authorities for a long time — not least this newspaper, over the past six years — of the need to protect Afghans who had worked for us. Shamefully little was done.
Towards the end of July, 45 retired senior officers wrote to The Times, warning that the Government’s relocation scheme was ‘not being conducted with the required spirit of generosity and urgency’.
So a fifth question to Mr Raab tomorrow should be: why didn’t you and the Foreign Office act much sooner? It’s no good saying that Kabul fell quicker than anyone had predicted. The advance of the Taliban — and the extreme vulnerability of our Afghan friends — was foreseeable.
If only the Foreign Office had shown one-tenth of the enterprise of former marine Pen Farthing, who managed to get 170 cats and dogs out of Kabul. It’s appalling that animals should have escaped when hundreds of humans did not, but you can’t fault Mr Farthing for lack of effort and grit.
The same could not be said of Dominic Raab and his flawed department. It took the fall of Kabul to galvanise the Government, and our splendid servicemen and women to rise to the occasion. The great majority of Afghans who were rescued have been saved in the past two weeks.
Most British diplomats left Kabul as soon as they could find an aircraft to take them
Even then, the Foreign Office didn’t cover itself in glory. Our embassy staff in Kabul vacated their premises with such haste that they left documents with the contact details of at least seven Afghans who’d worked for them scattered on the ground.
Most British diplomats left Kabul as soon as they could find an aircraft to take them, though, to their credit, the ambassador, Sir Laurie Bristow, and others agreed to stay on (possibly after pressure was put on them by senior Army officers) to help with the paperwork.
Tomorrow’s meeting isn’t, of course, the last word. Mr Raab will face further grilling. Some of the errors are personal ones; others are institutional, and arise from a defective Foreign Office mindset, for which, as Foreign Secretary, he must take ultimate responsibility.
Not that I believe it’s all the fault of Mr Raab’s department. I’ve no doubt that the Ministry of Defence and No 10 are also to blame, though to a lesser extent. This is not a story of a competent, joined-up, smoothly running Government.
In the end, all that counts is that we have abandoned to an uncertain fate hundreds, possibly thousands, of Afghans who served this country.
They could, and should, have been saved. Why should anyone ever trust the British again?