Foreign Office top official ‘regrets’ holidaying during Afghan evacuation

MPs said there was a ‘lack of leadership’ at the top of the department following whistleblower allegations about the handling of the mission.

Pa Political Staff
Tuesday 07 December 2021 20:42 GMT
The Foreign Office has faced criticism over its handling of the Afghanistan evacuation in August (LPhot Ben Shread/MOD)
The Foreign Office has faced criticism over its handling of the Afghanistan evacuation in August (LPhot Ben Shread/MOD) (PA Media)

MPs have lambasted the “lack of leadership” during the Afghanistan evacuation as the Foreign Office’s top civil servant admitted he regretted continuing with his holiday while Kabul fell.

Sir Philip Barton, permanent-under secretary at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), told a Commons committee he wished that he had “come back from my leave earlier”.

Having left for his holiday on August 9, the senior mandarin remained away for 11 days after Kabul was taken by the Taliban on August 15 following a lightning advance.

“I have reflected a lot…, and if I had my time again I would have come back from my leave earlier than I did,” he told MPs.

Later in the hearing, he said he did “regret the fact that I didn’t decide to come back to support” colleagues, but that he did not think his decision “affected the outcome” of the evacuation.

But he faced heavy criticism from MPs on the committee, including Conservative Alicia Kearns, who was heard to say he “couldn’t be bothered”.

In a statement after the hearing, Tom Tugendhat, the Tory chairman of the committee, said: “Today’s session left the committee concerned about the Foreign Office’s role in the evacuation effort.

“This crisis demanded, and deserved, the full attention of the Foreign Office

“The evidence we’ve heard today points to a lack of leadership, urgency and adequate resourcing.”

It comes after awkward questions were posed of both the Prime Minister and his deputy Dominic Raab by a whistleblower testimony given to the committee.

Former official Raphael Marshall, who worked for the Foreign Office during the effort, claimed that just 5% of Afghan nationals who applied to flee under one UK scheme received help as a result of the “dysfunctional” and “chaotic” handling of the situation.

Mr Marshall told MPs that some of those hoping to escape were murdered after being left behind in Kabul.

He also claimed Boris Johnson requested that “considerable capacity” was made available to evacuate animals from a shelter run by former Royal Marine Paul “Pen” Farthing, putting the lives of troops at risk to help aid their departure on a privately-funded plane.

Labour MP Chris Bryant, during Tuesday’s committee hearing, said a leaked letter from the Prime Minister’s then parliamentary aide to Mr Farthing confirming that the departure for him and Nowzad-shelter staff had been arranged, along with assistance for the transport of his animals, indicated that “the Prime Minister’s fingers are all over this”.

Tom Tugendhat MP criticised a ‘lack of leadership’ in the Foreign Office during the Afghanistan crisis (Commons/PA) (PA Wire)

Mr Johnson, speaking before the emergence of the letter, dismissed the allegations as “complete nonsense” as he sought to defend British efforts following the fall of the Afghan capital.

The Prime Minister told reporters “sometimes decisions took hours longer than we wanted” during the evacuation, but “you have to be careful about how you do it, it was still an astonishing thing to get 15,000 people airlifted out of Kabul in pretty harrowing circumstances”.

The Operation Pitting airlift – put in place as foreign forces withdrew after a 20-year occupation of the central Asian country – was “one of the outstanding military achievements of the last 50 years or more”, Mr Johnson added.

Giving evidence to MPs, former ambassador to Afghanistan Sir Laurie Bristow said he had warned officials in London around August 13 that Kabul was likely to be overrun by Taliban fighters.

According to reports, Mr Raab, who was then foreign secretary, did not return from his holiday on the Greek island of Crete until August 16 – three days after Sir Laurie had flagged that Afghanistan was falling quicker than anticipated.

Mr Raab also came in for criticism as part of Mr Marshall’s allegations, with it claimed that the Cabinet minister “did not fully understand the situation”, was slow to rule on cases and requested they were reformatted “in a well-presented table” before making a decision.

Lt Cdr Alex Pelham Burns, a member of the UK Armed Forces during the evacuation of entitled personnel from Kabul airport (Ministry of Defence/PA) (PA Media)

The senior Tory, who was moved to become Justice Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister after his handling of the crisis, said “some of the criticism seems rather dislocated from the facts on the ground”.

“I do think that not enough recognition has been given to quite how difficult it was,” he told the BBC.

Among the flaws alleged by Mr Marshall was that the process of selecting who could be airlifted out was “arbitrary and dysfunctional” and that thousands of emails were going unread.

Mr Marshall, who worked in the Afghan Special Cases team handling the cases of Afghans who were at risk because of their links with the UK, estimated “between 75,000 and 150,000 people” including dependents applied for evacuation under the “leave outside the rules” category.

But he calculated that “fewer than 5% of these people have received any assistance” and stated that “it is clear that some of those left behind have since been murdered by the Taliban”.

Asked by MPs about the figures cited by Mr Marshall to the committee, Sir Philip said: “There aren’t 75,000 to 100,000 people who are eligible to be in the UK.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Raab should have resigned over the Afghanistan crisis.

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