Boris Johnson will never sack ministers for being tawdry, lazy and incapable of doing their jobs — if he did, he would have to sack himself. Nevertheless, the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s investigation into the Foreign Office’s complicity in the Afghanistan catastrophe showed the consequences of the collapse in standards in ministerial competence better than any public inquiry I have seen.
The autopsy was all the bloodier because Tom Tugendhat, who should be foreign secretary, was asking the questions, and Dominic Rabb, who really shouldn’t be foreign secretary, was ducking them. Raab’s demonstration of what he did not know was almost awe-inspiring. Did he, for example, know how many ministers were overseas right now?
Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. Raab wouldn’t say for security reasons. His reply sounded convincing in a 'your question threatens the very fabric of the nation' manner until Tugendhat asked when was the last time a foreign minister visited Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Afghanistan’s northern neighbours.
Raab did not know,
His German counterpart would have had no difficulty with the question. The German foreign minister Heiko Mass toured central Asia as the crisis built, assuring its governments that Germany would take refugees entitled to sanctuary. For women and men who could not get out at Kabul airport, his presence and promise allowed them to cross the border. Too late for Raab to follow suit now, assuming he can find it in himself to get on a plane that isn’t heading to a luxury holiday destination. Uzbekistan has closed its borders. When was the last time Raab spoke to Her Majesty’s ambassadors in Pakistan and other neighbouring states?
Raab didn’t know.
He insisted it did not matter that he didn't know. Ambassadors fed their views into a central Foreign Office machine, which took a 'holistic view'. There was no need for him to pick up the phone and talk to the men and women on the ground.
Why was the UK humiliated by being caught so unawares? The systems and personnel ought to have been ready to cope with the needs of UK nationals, Afghan contractors working for the UK government and UK firms, and the potential victims of Islamist terror. Instead, there was botch and panic.
Tugendhat asked about a government principal risk report from 22 July that warned that a rapid Taliban advance would bring a political and humanitarian crisis. How did Raab react to the warning?
Raab didn’t know, or if he did know, wouldn’t say anything more than he was 'mindful' of its contents, a woozy, new age-y answer that told his audience nothing. Tugendhat asked when he last updated the non-combatant evacuation operation order for Afghanistan that would have got civilians out.
Raab didn’t know.
The truth is the UK government assumed the Afghan government could hold off the Taliban and did not prepare for the worst — as all governments should — by imagining the collapse of morale in the Afghan armed forces when the US abandoned them. But Raab would not admit it. Whitehall did foresee the possibility of a rout, he maintained.
'We had planned.'
If this fiasco was planned, I’d hate to see what Raab winging it looks like.
On his account, Raab lying down by the pool while 20-years of British blood and treasure went up in smoke was part of a plan. If it was, Raab forgot to tell his subordinates. There is clearly exasperation about his dilettantish response in Whitehall. The leaked news that Raab ignored the entreaties of his own officials and failed to call his Afghan counterpart to discuss evacuating translators comes from a civil service that has lost respect for its supposed master.
The Labour MP Chris Bryant pointed out that by 11 August the US was warning that the Taliban could be unstoppable. Was Raab already on holiday by then?
A simple question. The naïve might think Raab must surely know whether he was on holiday on 11 August or not. But Raab was giving nothing away. He had already made a 'full statement' on his holiday and was not prepared to add to it, even though his 'full statement' was not full enough to include the dates of the holiday.
As the hearing progressed, Raab did not know how many British citizens were left in Afghanistan. In an ominous interaction with Tugendhat, he gave an indication of how the undoubtedly generous attitude of the government towards the 15,000 people it flew out would change once the public eye had shifted elsewhere.
Tugendhat wanted to know about an Afghan interpreter who had worked for him. From 13 to 24 August, Tugendhat tried to get him permission to travel to Britain. By the time the bureaucracy had processed the claim, it was too late for Tugendhat’s friend to get through the crowds at Kabul airport. He had fled to one of Afghanistan’s borders but needed to show proof that the UK would accept him as a refugee before the guards would let him through.
Raab said that the interpreter and thousands in his position must undergo security checks before receiving permission to travel to the UK. If the interpreter had made it to the airport, he would be in London now without having undergone Raab’s new checks. Because he was unable to do so and is stuck on a dangerous border, he must undergo an additional box-ticking exercise. It makes no sense unless you see Raab’s policy as a harbinger of far stricter controls on Afghans who have a right to our support once public sympathy fades.
The greatest ignorance on display was one shared by most of the British foreign policy establishment. If Suez revealed the limits of British power, Afghanistan revealed the limits of British influence. The special relationship counted for nothing. Biden did what he wanted to do without consulting allies and Britain had no choice but to go along with it.
Obama, Trump and Biden — three apparently different US presidents — have made it clear that their main foreign policy concern is China. Instead of pathetically trying to tag along in the hope of favours, which Afghanistan shows will not be forthcoming, the UK ought to be joining and leading an integrated European defence force to protect our neighbourhood.
For as long as the Tories remain in power, it cannot. The British right has made Europe its monster. At times listening to Conservative MPs and reading Conservative papers it appears to hate it more than the real enemies of this country. Brexit had many causes. Among them was a large bet by Tory intellectuals that the 'Anglosphere' was more than just a meaningless concept and that the special relationship with the US would be forever.
Now that illusion has gone, the right has no solid replacement. Raab was reduced to repeating, 'the US remains our closest ally' as if the words actually contained substance. The worst ignorance Raab displays comes when you ask: what is Britain’s foreign policy now?
He does not know. And nor does Boris Johnson.