Whistleblower left to process thousands of pleas for help sheds light on chaos of UK’s Afghan evacuation

Tens of thousands of pleas for help went unaswered by Britain amid delays at vital moments and poor communication, according to a whistleblower

Kim Sengupta
Diplomatic Editor
Tuesday 07 December 2021 09:37 GMT
The fall of Kabul | Behind The Headlines

Chaos, failure to allocate resources, fatal delays at critical times, and a lack of communication in Whitehall severely damaged the British government’s Afghan evacuation operation, according to a whistleblower.

Tens of thousands of pleas for help from those under threat went unanswered in a system incapable of handling the situation, said a former Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office official. Some of those who were abandoned were subsequently murdered by the Taliban and other Islamist groups.

Raphael Marshall, who worked as a desk officer during the crisis, described how for one afternoon in the middle of the airlift he found himself as the only one monitoring the Afghan Special Cases Inbox when thousands of requests for help, from government ministers, MPs and charities, as well as Afghans, were pouring in.

He estimated that between 75,000 and 150,000 people, including dependents, applied for evacuation. “Fewer than 5 per cent of those received any assistance” with the consequence that “it is clear that some of those left behind have since been murdered by the Taliban”, Mr Marshall said.

Giving evidence to an inquiry into the Afghan evacuation by the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr Marshall claimed Dominic Raab, then foreign secretary, took several hours to deal with cases which needed his approval as the window for the airlift was coming to a close.

Mr Raab, he says, then stipulated through his private office that he needed “all the cases set out in a well-presented table to make decisions”. The foreign secretary’s “choice to cause a delay” when time was running out for people to get to Kabul airport “suggests he did not understand the desperate situation”, Mr Marshall said.

Raphael Marshall

His testimony will add to the controversy surrounding the Afghan evacuation and lead to further questions about a process which has already come under scrutiny. Mr Raab’s departure from the Foreign Office came after criticism of his performance, including that he continued with his holiday in Cyprus as the Taliban advanced on the Afghan capital.

The whistleblower’s evidence comes a day after western states acknowledged the Taliban had been carrying out targeted killings of former members of Afghan security forces. It follow a report by Human Rights Watch which documented, in just one investigation, more than 100 killings of ex- government and military officials.

Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said: “These allegations are serious and go to the heart of the failures of leadership around the Afghan disaster, which we have seen throughout this inquiry. These failures betrayed our friends and allies and squandered decades of British and Nato effort. The evidence we’ve heard alleges dysfunction within the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and substantial failings throughout the Afghanistan evacuation effort.”

The Special Cases team was set up to look after Afghans who were under threat from the Taliban because of their links with the UK, but did not work directly for the government in London. These included members of the armed forces, activists, politicians, judges, civil servants, aid workers as well as those who worked through subcontractors.

Mr Marshall said in his testimony that many of the emails for evacuation they received “were not read” despite a “usually false ... automatic response that the request for assistance had been ‘logged’”. A large number of emails which were actually read did not have their details recorded, he added: “We never returned to these emails due to lack of time. They were therefore de facto eliminated from the evacuation process.”

For one week “emails were processed by marking them with a flag once read but were not entered into a spreadsheet”. The former official holds that “the purpose of this system was to allow the prime minister and the then foreign secretary to inform MPs that there were no unread emails”.

The vast majority of these people seeking refuge did not get visas. However, the Afghan staff of an animal charity, Nowzad, run by a former British Royal Marine, got visas and assistance to get to Pakistan, despite not being in any of the “at risk” criteria, while other Afghans who qualified were left in the country.

The Special Cases programme worked alongside Arap (Afghanistan Relocations and Assistance Policy) which was for those Afghans who worked directly for the British government.

The eligibility on Special Cases was often unclear, according to Mr Marshall.

“Therefore guards who had protected the British Embassy and, also I believe, the guards of a [UK] National Crime Agency compound in Kabul were not prioritised for evacuation,” he said.

Mr Marshall claimed the UK’s ambassador to Kabul, Sir Laurie Bristow, had made a personal promise to the guards that he would secure their evacuation if they got to the airport on 26 August.

But the whistleblower said the Foreign Office crisis centre in London “was frustrated with Sir Laurie for making this promise because capacity at the airport was so limited. This was due to a concern that the 130 guards and their families would ‘swamp’ the limited available capacity.

“The Crisis Centre attempted to insist Sir Laurie reverse his promise due to limited capacity. I believe he refused to do this.”

The guards attempted to get to the airport on 26 August, but were prevented by the bombing by Isis on that day which killed 183 people, including 170 Afghans and 13 members of the US military.

Mr Marshall also cited the case of the Nomad Concept group, run by another British ex-serviceman, Ben Slater, which was involved in a range of activities including security and women’s empowerment.

Mr Slater was said to have travelled to the Pakistani border with 50 of his staff, mainly women, after being assured by UK authorities that they would receive visas. But, in the end, only two visas were offered.

Mr Slater, who had been a member of the security detail for Lord Sedwill, the former national security advisor, when he had been in Kabul in a previous post, chose to stay with his staff in Afghanistan. He was arrested by the Taliban and beaten. He was eventually freed after a visit to Kabul by the UK’s High Representative for Afghan Transition Sir Simon Gass, and Dr Martin Longden, charge d’affaires of the UK Mission to Afghanistan.

Mr Marshall said in his evidence that none of the Special Cases team had “studied Afghanistan, worked on Afghanistan previously, or had a detailed knowledge of Afghanistan”. His own knowledge of the country came from reading a book by the former minister Rory Stewart.

Junior officials were “scared by being asked to make hundreds of life and death decisions about which they knew nothing”, according to Mr Marshall. On one occasion, he says, “they initially essentially declined to do the task. I persuaded them that unless they accepted the task the emails would not be read at all which would be worse”.

The Ministry of Defence complained the confusion in the FCDO was endangering Operation Pitting, the evacuation programme. At one point a list of candidates for airlifting could not be shared between the two departments because of a dispute over vetting.

Troops were drafted into the FCDO to help with the evacuation effort. For a period of time “the soldiers worked with one computer shared between roughly eight people” and “some of them were likely using Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Outlook for the first time in a professional context”, he said.

The soldiers were issued login details for the FCDO’s non-secure phone system but the list was lost during handover between shifts. Mr Marshall and his colleagues contacted British embassies abroad to obtain logins which they could not get any other way. One of emails was to the embassy in the US.

“The British Embassy in Washington found the situation described so implausible that they reported my email to FCDO security as clearly a Russian phishing attempt”, said Mr Marshall.

A government spokesperson said: “UK government staff worked tirelessly to evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a fortnight. This was the biggest mission of its kind in generations and the second largest evacuation carried out by any country. We are still working to help others leave.

“More than 1,000 FCDO staff worked to help British nationals and eligible Afghans leave during Op Pitting. The scale of the evacuation and the challenging circumstances meant decisions on prioritisation had to be made quickly to ensure we could help as many people as possible. Regrettably we were not able to evacuate all those we wanted to, but our commitment to them is enduring, and since the end of the operation we have helped more than 3,000 individuals leave Afghanistan.”

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