Away from the shenanigans of partygate pictures, a rather more sobering publication has today been released by the Foreign Affairs Committee. The dozen-strong panel of MPs has issued one of the most damning parliamentary reports in modern times, describing Britain's evacuation from Afghanistan as 'a disaster and a betrayal of our allies that will damage the UK’s interests for years to come.'
The 66-page report said Afghan allies and British soldiers were 'utterly let down by deep failures of leadership' in the government during last August's evacuation of Afghan translators and others who worked alongside British troops for more than 20 years. The cross-party inquiry found that 'mismanagement' of the evacuation as the Taliban quickly took over the country 'likely cost lives' and that the top civil servant at the Foreign Office (FCDO), Sir Philip Barton, ought now to consider resignation.
Below are six of the most damning revelations from the report into Britain's pull-out from Afghanistan...
The complete lack of planning
A lack of preparation for the evacuation is a consistent theme throughout the report, from the UK government’s inability to predict the speed of the Taliban’s takeover to its complete failure to shape or respond to Washington's decision to withdraw, despite 18 months' notice. The FCDO was found to have not made the necessary preparations for withdrawal – for example, by laying the groundwork for an evacuation with third countries. There was limited cross-government co-ordination and little consideration for which of the UK’s in-country partners such as Afghan interpreters should be prioritised for evacuation. That failure likely cost lives.
Little work was done too to prepare Britain’s Embassy in Kabul to fast-changing scenarios. The committee said that while junior officials at the Foreign Office demonstrated courage and integrity, chaotic and arbitrary decision-making marked the planning and execution of the evacuation. ‘Sadly, it may have cost many people the chance to leave Afghanistan, putting lives in danger,’ the report said. It added: 'Most damning for the FCDO is the total absence of a plan...for evacuating Afghans who supported the UK mission without being directly employed by the UK government'
Johnson’s involvement in Operation Ark
The government has repeatedly denied that Boris Johnson was involved in the decision to authorise the evacuation of Pen Farthing's Nowzad animal sanctuary, dubbed 'Operation Ark.' Yet the committee concluded that 'multiple senior officials believed that the Prime Minister played a role in this decision. We have yet to be offered a plausible alternative explanation for how it came about.' It adds that 'the fact that nobody can state who made the decision that Nowzad staff should be evacuated suggests at best that the political leadership was chaotic and at worst that senior figures are not telling the truth.'
Sir Philip Barton's own role
The committee found that there were ‘systemic failures of intelligence, diplomacy, planning and preparation, many of which were due, at least in part, to the Foreign Office’ – a damning conclusion that ought to make Sir Philip, as departmental head, consider his position. Yet leaving aside his representative role as the FCDO’s top civil servant, Sir Philip is personally criticised throughout this report.
Part of this stems from Barton’s refusal to cut short his holiday for 11 days during August 2021, even when it became inevitable that Afghanistan’s capital would fall. The report notes drily that ‘when the Taliban took Kabul, the Prime Minister, the then-Foreign Secretary, the Minister responsible for Afghanistan, and the FCDO’s top civil servant, Sir Philip Barton, were all on leave. All returned that day, except Sir Philip, who returned on 26 August— the day civilian evacuations ended… the fact that the department’s top civil servant did not return until the civilian evacuation was over, while staff across the department struggled to implement a poorly planned evacuation process under intense pressure, is difficult to understand and impossible to excuse.’
There are also questions as to just how reliable Barton’s testimony to the committee actually was. Humiliatingly, on page 35 of the report, the MPs actually do a ‘fact check’ of what the mandarin said compared to ‘counter evidence’ offered up by other events. The MPs note that the ‘Permanent Under-Secretary initially told us that Nowzad staff had been included in the original list of potential evacuees and simply called forward when space became available… this account was revealed to be false by the evidence of the two whistleblowers.’
The conclusion of the report is simply damning for Sir Philip: ‘At best, the Permanent Under-Secretary displayed a worrying lack of knowledge of the department he leads, and a determination to avoid unearthing the facts that would allow him to answer our questions.’ It ends by stating:
“the FCDO failed to take the basic administrative step of recording its decisions. It is fundamental to any bureaucracy to know precisely what decisions have been made, by whom, with what authority, and when. This would be a serious failure at any time, but during the withdrawal from Afghanistan may have led to the loss of life. It is the responsibility of the Permanent Under-Secretary to ensure that this system operates effectively. The Committee has lost confidence in the Permanent Under-Secretary, who should consider his position.
Dominic Raab's failings
It's not just the Foreign Office's top mandarin to blame of course. The report was also damning of then-Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who it said had demonstrated a serious failure of leadership and 'vacillated' on key decisions before trying to palm the blame off onto other departments. The MPs note that Raab shared with his department a reluctance 'to admit to any shortcomings'. When the committee asked the then-Foreign Secretary what his department could have done better, Raab 'struggled to name a single area, except for regret that he had not returned from holiday sooner.' Given the many failings listed in this report, it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in Raab's stewardship of his department.
The Foreign Office's evasions
The answers of Barton and Raab appear to reflect a much broader culture at the Foreign Office which shirks responsibility and refuses to accept blame. According to MPs, 'the FCDO has repeatedly given us answers that, in our judgement, are at best intentionally evasive, and often deliberately misleading'. Without the resignation of two whistleblowers, the parliamentarians claim that they would not even 'be aware' of an 'unknown decision-maker in government completely overruling the FCDO’s system for prioritising individuals for evacuation' during Operation Ark. They conclude that:
“Parliament can only perform its role of holding government to account if it can be confident that it is receiving honest answers to its questions. The relationship between the Committee and department relies on a degree of candour and rigour, and this appears to have been sadly missing, with the integrity of the department’s senior leaders called into question. Officials should not be expected to engage—nor be complicit—in obscuring the facts in order to shield others from political accountability
Such evasions have been accompanied by a complete lack of humility. The committee complains that 'on occasion, officials appeared frustrated about the time taken up by responding to this inquiry' and that 'the department’s leadership has appeared to be more focused on defending themselves from criticism than on identifying and resolving issues.' Indeed, the findings of the Foreign Office's own 'Lessons Learned' inquiry opens with the claim that 'the FCDO was not unprepared for this crisis'— a statement which suggests something of a failure to face the reality of the situation. Unsurprisingly the MPs conclude that:
“The FCDO has repeatedly given us answers that, in our judgement, are at best intentionally evasive, and often deliberately misleading. On Nowzad, they only admitted that the case had been in any way unusual when faced with the evidence of whistleblowers.
Afghanistan could have inspired the Ukrainian invasion
While some might prefer to move on from the Afghanistan evacuation, the authors of this report make clear that the consequences of that disaster are still being felt across the world today. The word 'Ukraine' features five times in this publication, with MPs noting how the lack of departmental co-ordination with regards to Afghanistan is 'particularly disturbing at a time when the UK faces significant foreign policy challenges.' The reports also mentions the farce of the incompatible IT systems between the Foreign Office and the merged department for International Development, which 'make it difficult or impossible to collaborate on documents' – something which 'hampered the response to the Afghanistan crisis... and is now hampering the response to the Ukraine crisis.'
Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, went even further this morning. In an interview with Sky to mark the release of this report he said that the manner of Afghanistan's fall 'inspired people like Vladimir Putin to think that we weren't serious, and so it allowed him to believe that he could attack Ukraine without us reacting... the diplomatic cost is that people around the world thought that we weren't serious, thought that British values and British allies didn't matter.'
With Sir Philip Barton remaining in post and so many of the failures of the Afghanistan evacuation not being resolved nine months on, who could blame them?