In August, with Kabul on the brink of falling to the Taliban, the then foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, was advised to call his Afghan counterpart. Facilitating the swift evacuation of translators who had been working for British forces was becoming a matter of extreme urgency. But Mr Raab – holidaying in Crete at the time – failed to pick up the phone, and indeed remained on his break as the Afghan government collapsed.
The episode suggested a culpable lack of foresight and urgency on the part of the foreign secretary, as the Taliban swept back to power with unexpected speed. But we didn’t know the half of it until this week. The testimony of a former diplomat has painted a devastating picture of the chaos that Mr Raab blithely presided over when he came back from Crete. The evidence of Raphael Marshall, published by the foreign affairs select committee, points to a chaotic, complacent and woefully underpowered crisis operation.
According to Mr Marshall, in the final phase of the airlift effort from Kabul airport, when every minute counted, the former foreign secretary took “hours to engage” with exceptional evacuation cases brought to his personal attention. More broadly, the abject failure to prepare for the eventuality of a sudden Taliban takeover – despite warning signals for months – meant that no proper lists or criteria were in place to identify the vulnerable and expedite their evacuation. As a result, claims Mr Marshall, he and other junior officials had to arbitrarily take life-and-death decisions without proper guidance.
Those Afghans whose evacuation requests were actually considered constituted a tiny minority of up to 150,000 applicants – though saving animals from a rescue shelter founded by a former marine appears to have been made a priority. Most damningly of all, perhaps, Mr Marshall claims that tens of thousands of emails were wrongly flagged as read, to give the false impression of a functioning process.
Mr Raab, now the justice secretary, failed to satisfactorily deal with any of Mr Marshall’s points on Tuesday. As he pointed out, the British army and other actors on the ground played heroic parts in airlifting 15,000 people out of Kabul. But the former foreign secretary’s consistent lack of leadership set the tone and made a harrowing situation far worse. At a foreign affairs committee hearing on Tuesday, a top Foreign Office civil servant admitted that he chose to stay on holiday until 26 August, 11 days after the fall of Kabul. The trust of those who put themselves at risk of Taliban reprisals by working for the British or assuming leading roles in civil society – believing they would be protected – was betrayed. Many of those people are still in hiding.
It is too late to rectify the mistakes of last spring and summer. But frightened refugees are now attempting to make their own way to safety, and in some cases arriving in Calais. Scandalously, Priti Patel’s Home Office has still to open the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme announced almost four months ago, intended to offer a legal route to Britain for the vulnerable who were left behind. Rather than spending her time devising new ways to keep desperate people out of Britain, Ms Patel should get a move on and belatedly assume Britain’s moral responsibilities. Mr Marshall’s testimony should be a catalyst for the government to at least keep one promise to the people it let down so badly.