The grim legacy of the western withdrawal from Afghanistan can be seen every day: former government officials, soldiers, activists killed by the Taliban, a continuing ban on women working, denial of education for girls. And, along with all that, a country facing widespread starvation – with a medical system close to collapse – as winter approaches.
Some of those murdered, often after being abducted and tortured, worked for or had links with the British. It was recognised that they would be in danger and needed to be evacuated when the Taliban seized the country, but they were not. This was, it is now revealed, due to poor organisation, lack of resources being allocated, infighting and fatal delays in Whitehall.
Those of us covering the violent chaos of the evacuation in Kabul, including harrowing scenes of people – mostly women – dying in the heat and crush with their terrified children crying beside them, did not know of the bureaucratic chaos that is said to have been taking place in London.
British forces – including from the Parachute Regiment, Special Forces Support Group and the RAF – as well as diplomats and officials worked on the ground under extremely difficult circumstances while the airlift was taking place. They did so often without food or sleep for long hours, and always without complaint. Their conduct, we thought, was exemplary.
It was an emotional and distressing experience for the soldiers. They were the first of the western contingents that Afghans met trying to reach the airport. The conditions on the packed, narrow dusty road – with Taliban fighters on the other side of a barricade – were always hard and, at times, fatal.
One soldier trying to comfort a weeping young girl whose mother had died said to me: “Do you know, I have been in the army for 12 years, I’ve been to Afghanistan twice before – what’s happening here is the worst I have ever experienced.” A younger soldier said simply: “I have never seen a dead body before. Joining the army I expected to see people die, but not this, I didn’t expect this.”
It was a risky situation, shootings on many days and most nights, and the very real threats of attacks, with sightings of suspected gunmen and bombers. There was a savage culmination to the escalating threat – with an Isis suicide bombing which killed 183 people; 170 Afghans and 13 members of the US military.
All the time the soldiers, officials and we, the journalists, were telling the people in the desperate and fearful crowd not to panic, not to charge the barriers. There was, we wanted to stress, a system in place that would ensure that those eligible would get on the flights.
But, according to the testimony of a whistleblower to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, that system was deeply flawed and this resulted in pleas for help from tens and thousands of Afghans under threat going unanswered.
Raphael Marshall, who was a desk officer at the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) during the crisis, described how for one afternoon in the middle of the airlift he found himself the only one monitoring the Afghan Special Cases inbox – when requests for help, from government ministers, MPs and charities, as well as Afghans, were pouring in.
Marshall estimates that between 75,000 and 150,000 people, including dependents, applied for evacuation. “Fewer than 5 per cent of those received any assistance” he said, with the consequence that “it is clear that some of those left behind have since been murdered by the Taliban”.
It is unclear whether he was basing his statement on the killings on Foreign Office knowledge or media reports. It is, however, certainly true. Quite a few of us who have reported from Afghanistan over the years know of Afghan friends and acquaintances who have been murdered, or have disappeared after being arrested by the Talibs not to be seen again.
The evidence of Marshall, who worked for three years at the FCDO, comes a day after western states acknowledged that the Taliban had been carrying out targeted killings of former members of Afghan security forces. It followed a report by Human Rights Watch that documented, in just one investigation, more than a hundred killings of ex-government and military officials.
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 that were actually read did not have their details recorded, according to Marshall. “We never returned to these emails due to lack of time. They were therefore de facto eliminated from the evacuation process,” he said.
For one week “emails were processed by marking them with a flag once read but were not entered into a spreadsheet”. The former official said 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”.
One of the shortcomings Marshall mentioned was the rigid enforcement of an eight-hour working day culture that continued during the evacuation. That was surprising and disappointing to hear considering what was going on – and considering what the British team on the ground was having to go through at the same time.
There were other failings. The computer systems for the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development (DfID), which merged to form FCDO could not be matched. Soldiers were drafted in (Marshall was impressed by their professionalism and dedication) but for a period of time “the soldiers worked with one computer shared between roughly eight people ... some of them were likely using Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Outlook for the first time in a professional context”.
There were ministerial failures. Marshall claims that the then foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, took several hours to deal with cases that needed his approval as the window for the airlift was ending. 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”. This was when there was very little time for people to get to airport and shows, Mr Marshall said, that the “foreign secretary’s choice to cause a delay suggests he did not understand the desperate situation at Kabul airport”.
Raab’s departure from the Foreign Office came, it has been said, after criticism of his performance, including that he continued a holiday in Cyprus as the Taliban advanced on the Afghan capital. Now the justice secretary, Raab has denied that his move from the FCDO was related to the Afghan debacle. He rejected that he had delayed decisions, saying “it was a reasonably swift turnaround time”. He added: “I make no apology for saying I needed the clear facts for each case presented precisely so that we can make swift decisions.”
One senior Whitehall official said to me that Marshall, a young man, had become “too emotionally attached with the situation”. But that is what tends to happen when you deal with people who may be killed if you do not help them. The official I spoke to had himself served once in Afghanistan. How did he feel about the withdrawal and the evacuation? “A bit embarrassed really, no quite a bit embarrassed,” he said, “but you know once Joe Biden had made up his mind...”
President Biden’s failure to extend the evacuation deadline, in line with his abject failures over the overall retreat, was certainly a key factor in the mess of the withdrawal. But Boris Johnson’s government had exhibited next to no interest on what was about to unfold in Afghanistan, despite repeated warnings. Biden’s actions also do not really explain away the dysfunctional nature of the British evacuation programme described by the whistleblower,
There are still many who are entitled to seek refuge in the UK trapped in Afghanistan. Some of them are trying to get to neighbouring countries in the hope of evacuation, but say they are getting little guidance from London. The government say they are working on the process – let’s hope the system is now in a better shape than it appeared to have been in the turbulent days of the summer.
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