Analysis: most damning of claims refer to period when Raab was in direct control of evacuation – after his return from holiday
The extraordinary claims in the testimony from a young Foreign Office whistleblower of the chaos of the Afghanistan withdrawal will raise fresh questions about Dominic Raab’s leadership of the department – and not just during his absence on holiday.
The most damning of Raphael Marshall’s allegations refer to the period when Raab was in direct control of the evacuation, the week after his return.
Marshall was a desk officer who has told MPs on the foreign affairs select committee that he worked in the Foreign Office’s Afghanistan crisis response team.
In a 39-page statement provided to MPs, he described to them how he loved the department and how he had hoped to spend his career there.
During last August, however, he said he witnessed turmoil, incompetence and irrationality with potentially deadly consequences for those Afghans who begged the FCDO for help.
During the fall of Kabul in mid-August, Raab was holidaying with his family in Crete. With the country descending into chaos, Raab was forced to deny he was actually paddle-boarding at the time the Taliban entered the capital. He claimed he had been kept informed throughout and had been involved in key meetings.
But he also admitted he had delegated crucial tasks, including telling another minister to make a call to assist in the evacuation of former British military translators.
That moment made him the focal point for the anger of Conservative MPs at the spectacle of a humiliating retreat from the Taliban after 20 years of military involvement.
Yet Marshall’s testimony suggested there was little improvement in the situation once Raab returned from holiday on 16 August. He described how junior staff with no experience or knowledge of Afghanistan were asked to make life-or-death decisions.
In the final days of the evacuation effort, with extremely limited capacity for removals, Raab was asked to personally approve exceptional cases. But Marshall claimed Raab took “hours to engage” – and then returned the files, asking for them to be submitted in a different spreadsheet format.
“There was very little time left for anyone to enter the airport, therefore the foreign secretary’s choice to cause a delay suggests he did not understand the desperate situation at Kabul airport,” Marshall told MPs on the committee.
Yet, according to Marshall, Raab still declined to defer the judgment to officials. “In the circumstances, it is hard to explain why he reserved the decision for himself but failed to make it immediately.”
Marshall said he believed the delay meant some never made it to the airport.
The prime minister’s own conduct has also been called into question.
Few visas were granted after 25 August, apart from those for the staff of animal rights charity Nowzad, which had become a cause célèbre, on the direct intervention of Boris Johnson.
Marshall has claimed the intervention to bring some of the animals to the UK put soldiers at risk and that staff were prioritised ahead of British army interpreters.
Raab has insisted everyone was caught by surprise by what happened in Afghanistan and that criticism of him was irresponsible. He also defended himself for having been on holiday, saying he had been in constant contact as the Afghan situation deteriorated before his return.
Despite his protestations, Raab has arguably paid some price for his leadership during those weeks after Kabul fell, being demoted from foreign secretary to justice secretary – with the consolation prize of the title of deputy prime minister.
That role has so far appeared to have little consequence, apart from an unedifying row over whether Raab’s successor, Liz Truss, or Raab should have access to the grace-and-favour stately home Chevening.
And cross-government reviews, which might have been designated to Raab, such as the investigation into measures to stop small boats crossing the Channel, have been handed to the Cabinet Office minister, Steve Barclay.
But Neil Coyle, a Labour member of the select committee that heard Marshall’s testimony, believes Raab has not paid anywhere near enough of a political price for what had happened.
“It speaks volumes about this government that the minister ultimately responsible for the chaos, deaths and dysfunction in trying to evacuate from Afghanistan was promoted to deputy prime minister,” he said.
Raab was once viewed as a likely future Tory leader, talked of in the same breath as Truss and Rishi Sunak, especially after his caretaker leadership during the prime minister’s Covid hospitalisation.
The Afghanistan debacle most likely means the end of that ambition – though Johnson himself managed to overcome a blundering stint in the same role.
It will be little comfort those whose emails sat in FCDO inboxes, asking the foreign secretary to save their children’s lives.