The Government and Afghanistan. “A disaster – a betrayal of our allies.” Tugendhat’s committee’s excoriating report.

25 May

My godson claims that the Foreign Office has responded well to Putin’s war.  And that this is so for the simple reason that it devotes a lot of time, money, staff and attention to Russia.  It could scarcely be otherwise given its size as a military power, its strategic position, and the threat it poses to our allies in Eastern Europe.

In case you are wondering who he is, and whether he might be the voice of King Charles Street, I can promise you that’s not so – because he is Raphael Marshall, the whistleblower who resigned from the Foreign Office over the Afghanistan debacle, and gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry into it.

Select Committee reports are more prone to generate headlines than they once were, but even by today’s standards the report that Tom Tugendhat’s committee issued yesterday is excoriating. “Missing in action: UK leadership and the withdrawal from Afghanistan”, it declares.  And that’s just the title.

“The manner of the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan was a disaster, a betrayal of our allies, and weakens the trust that helps to keep British people safe. It will affect the UK’s international reputation and interests for many years to come,” it concludes.

“There were systemic failures of intelligence, diplomacy, planning and preparation, which raise questions about machinery of Government, principally the National Security Council. The UK Government failed effectively to shape or respond to Washington’s decision to withdraw, despite having had 18 months’ notice.”

“Most damning for the FCDO is the total absence of a plan – developed in conjunction with the Home Office – for evacuating Afghans who supported the UK mission, without being directly employed by the UK Government. The Government was never going to be able to evacuate all—or even many—of these people.”

“But it failed to deliver the bare minimum that we owed them: a well-considered plan for who would be prioritised for extraction, and clear communications to those seeking help. The lack of clarity led to confusion and false hope, hindering individuals from making the best decision for themselves.”

“The absence of the FCDO’s top leadership—both ministerial and official—when Kabul fell is a grave indictment of the attitudes of the Government, representing a failure of leadership…Decision-making was so unclear that even senior officials such as the National Security Adviser could not be certain how key decisions were authorised.”

“The FCDO has repeatedly given us answers that, in our judgement, are at best intentionally evasive, and often deliberately misleading…the Committee has lost confidence in the Permanent Under-Secretary, who should consider his position.

“Under the leadership of a Foreign Secretary who took up her post after these events, the FCDO has had the opportunity to make a fresh start and re-commit to transparency and positive engagement with Parliament. On this issue, it has so far failed to do so.”

I wrote at the time that “the case for the defence, not so much of Dominic Raab as Foreign Secretary but of the Foreign Office as an institution, is that it simply didn’t have the resources to cope. It will argue, as Raab has already done, that it had a limited number of employees with knowledge of Afghanistan.”

“To cut to the chase: if someone blows a whistle…they should do so with good cause. What’s the nub of the issue here? Is it really more than an over-stretched department not rising to events? I think so. Taken as a whole, Raffy’s account is an inside view of institutional failure.”

“For example, potential refugees were misled, according to Raphael, by being told that their emails had been logged, which suggested that these had been read when they had not. It is hard to see this device as other than a means of allowing Ministers to give a misleading impression to the Commons.”

“Elsewhere, a key refugee scheme, the Leave Outside the Rules (LOTR) scheme, was only approved four to five days after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, according to Raphael. However, the Ministry of Defence began planning for Operation Pitting, its own rescue scheme, in January.”

“It comes better out of Raphael’s account than the Foreign Office. He says that the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence communicated very ineffectively, to the extent that the Ministry of Defence was initially not informed of the Foreign Office’s evacuation plans.”

“And that the Foreign Office did not initially provide the soldiers responsible for emailing priority evacuees travel documents with working computers. There are darkly comic moments in his story – such as the British Embassy in Washington reporting an e-mail from him requesting a security clearance as a Russian phishing attack.”

“But its details, such as the fate of Afghans depending on whether the civil servants on a particular shift had entered their application on a spreadsheet or not, are no laughing matter.”  The committee wants the Government to share with it the results of its internal investigation into the failure to destroy sensitive documents at the Kabul Embassy.

It is easy for journalists, and perhaps for MPs, to damn institutions for specific failures without taking into account the wider context.  In the case of the Foreign Office, this must include Ukraine as well as Afghanistan.  Why has one worked well and the other badly?

One answer is that is because the Foreign Office must make choices about where to concentrate time, money and effort, there is an inevitable temptation to neglect second-order problems – which Afghanistan is, for all the blood and treasure that successive governments have expended on it.

If realism morphs into fatalism, one of the unintended consequences can be, say, not ensuring there are clear plans for prioritising evacuees from Kabul.  At any rate, the Foreign Office now has two months in which to respond to the Committee’s report.

P.S: for those of you with a special interest in Downing Street, the report says that “the failure to plan for the Special Cases evacuations, or to put in place a fair and robust prioritisation system, left the process open to arbitrary political interventions.” This is illustrated by the case of the Nowzad animal charity.

“Amid intense media attention, its staff were called for evacuation at the last minute, despite not meeting the FCDO’s prioritisation criteria, after a mysterious intervention from elsewhere in Government. 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.” Meanwhile, the charity’s founder was allowed to use a charter flight to rescue his animals, absorbing significant Government resources in the midst of the biggest military airlift in decades.”

David Gauke: Sue Gray’s report. Yes, the Met should have been more robust earlier. But there’s no evidence of a stitch-up.

31 Jan

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

The decision of the Metropolitan Police to request that Sue Gray make only minimal reference to those events that may result in a criminal prosecution has provoked great anger. Frustrating though the intervention is for all who want to see this matter resolved one way or the other (well, one way in particular, for many of us) and inept though the Met’s communications have been, a lot of the criticism is over the top.

There is no evidence of a ‘stitch-up’, as Ed Davey has suggested, between the Government and Number 10. Could the Met have taken a more robust approach earlier in this process? Yes, but their experience of investigating politicians and then getting drawn into political controversy (see Tony Blair and cash for peerages or the arrest of Damien Green) has made them cautious.

Could their communications have been much clearer in the last few days? Absolutely. Cressida Dick set out the criteria by which it was decided to launch an investigation, which was very helpful, but the Met appears to have been all over the place as to whether it wanted to limit what Sue Gray should say.

Is it clear why the police have now requested ‘minimal’ references? Not from what the police have said, and their reference to ‘prejudicing’ investigations is curious given that these matters are not going to end up in front of a jury.

But none of this suggests that the police are doing the bidding of Number 10. And there is an explanation for why the police would not want Sue Gray to set out all the facts she has uncovered, best set out by the Secret Barrister.

If the police are undertaking an investigation, they do not want all the evidence known to them to be available to a suspect who can then alter their story to take into account any inconvenient facts. When put this way, if this is the explanation, one can see why the police are not being explicit as to their reasons.

Does any of this matter for the fate of the Prime Minister?

He must have a hope that the longer this goes on, the public gets bored, new stories and issues emerge (Russia and Ukraine being the obvious example), momentum for a change is lost and he survives.

At the moment, this appears to be the predominant view and the intervention by the police appears to have helped him in that sense. But, to step back from this for a moment, the fact that the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has concluded that there is evidence of a “flagrant and serious breach” of the lockdown restrictions by people who knew or should have known that this was the case is not encouraging for the Prime Minister. So no, the Met Police have not saved him. His fate is still in the balance.

– – – – – – – – – – –

There was always something odd about the evacuation of animals cared for by the Nowzad charity in Kabul. A great deal of political pressure was placed on the Government to intervene and, no doubt, MPs were receiving plenty of representations from the public on the matter.

At the time, I got the impression that Ben Wallace was resisting prioritising Nowzad (much to his credit, in my view) but was overruled. I tweeted accordingly. (It has to be said that Wallace (who has impressed as Defence Secretary), has recently denied that this is what happened.)

In December, Raphael Marshal, the whistleblowing former Foreign Office official, alleged that resources that could have been used to assist deserving cases were diverted towards the Nowzad staff and animals.

At this point the Prime Minister denied any involvement, even though there was evidence that Trudy Harrison, Johnson’s Parliamentary Private Secretary was heavily involved in communicating with Nowzad, and Dominic Dyer, a colleague of Pen Farthing, had said that that the Prime Minister intervened. Since then, we have had evidence of numerous Foreign Office e-mails stating that the Prime Minister had made the decision.

What is going on? There is the obvious answer – but maybe the Prime Minister is telling the truth, and he did not issue an instruction. What is beyond dispute is that plenty of people in Whitehall thought that he had.

I am not sure what is more concerning – that the Prime Minister made a terrible decision and then lied about it, or that Johnson is telling the truth, someone else made the terrible decision, and persuaded Whitehall that it was the Prime Minister who had done so.

As Alex Thomas of the Institute of Government has pointed out, neither explanation is reassuring. Of course, if it is the latter, the one person who should be most furious and most determined to get to the bottom of this is Boris Johnson. He, after all, is the one who has had his authority usurped. What is he doing to find out?

– – – – – – – – – –

As with any issue, there will always be some people who will link it to Brexit – and “Partygate” is no exception. On one side of the debate there is Michael Heseltine and Andrew Adonis suggesting that the removal of Johnson will mean it is possible to reverse Brexit.

On the other side, there are those who argue that those calling for Johnson to go are unrepentant remainers seeking revenge. Speaking as an unrepentant remainer who thinks that Johnson should go, I do not think either position is true.

If Johnson goes, his successor will spend the leadership election campaign convincing the electorate of their Brexit credentials – the Conservative Party is too far gone in its espousal of Brexit to reverse course for a long time. Nor is the option of rejoining on the table until there is a seismic shift in public opinion, which has not happened yet. As for the campaign to unseat him being a Remainer affair, that is not the impression I get listening to David Davis, William Wragg or Steve Baker.

Nonetheless, those saying that being anti-Johnsom constitutes being anti-Brexit should keep up the argument. This might help in the short term but the longer that Johnson is linked to Brexit – that to be fully onside with Team Brexit you also have to be part of Team Johnson – the easier the task becomes for those of us who think that the 2016 result was a mistake and that the current distant relationship with the EU needs to be changed.

Go on. Make it all about being a Brexit loyalty test.

Johnson hands Truss the poisoned fruit of the Northern Ireland Protocol

19 Dec

At the start of the Theresa May Mark One era – that’s to say, when Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill were in charge – the Foreign Office lost charge of Europe policy.

Timothy didn’t trust this institutionally pro-Remain department, for which the European project had been a guiding mission for over half a century, to conduct the Brexit negotiation with the EU.

So David Davis was reinvented as Secretary of State in the new Department for Exiting the European Union, to be followed after his resignation by Dominic Raab, who soon quit himself, and then Stephen Barclay.

The Foreign Office lost out a second time round when David Frost took on responsibility for managing Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU – including the Northern Ireland Protocol.

One way of interpreting the appointment of Liz Truss to take on Frost’s former responsibilities is that the Foreign Office has got lucky third time round, as the legacy of Timothy’s restructuring is finally buried.

The change is certainly a shot in the arm for the boys and girls in King Charles Street – undeservedly, some would add, given Raffy Marshall’s recent discloures about its internal workings during this year’s Afghanistan crisis.

The loss of Europe policy was an existential agony for the Foreign Office, made worse by it getting overseas aid, which it didn’t want, but not gaining international trade, which some of its mandarians do want.

Regaining European policy in full will help raise spirits there, lowered recently not only by the Marshall revelations, but by news of a coming ten per cent cut in its budget.

Pro-Brexit Conservative MPs tend to have a low view of the Foreign Office and a high one of Frost.  They will greet the return of Europe policy to it with suspicion at best, hostility at worst.

Boris Johnson could have appointed a direct successor to Frost and kept Europe policy away from King Charles Street instead.

That he didn’t takes us to another view of the appointment.  That he is now weak, Truss is strong, she wanted European policy back at the Foreign Office…and has duly got her way.

We will find out soon enough how energetically she pushed for this outcome – if at all.  But whatever happened, let me offer a third angle from which to view the change.

The pro-Brexit right of the Parliamentary Party, broadly speaking, wants Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol moved soon.  In particular, they want the role that the Protocol grants to the European Court removed.

This swathe of Tory MPs includes much of the constituency that Truss must woo successfully in any forthcoming leadership election if she is to make it past the parliamentary stage of the contest.

She will therefore face a choice during the next few months, assuming that Johnson himself isn’t the victim of a confidence ballot.

To her right will be supporters of a “clean Brexit”, urging that Article 16 be moved as soon as possible.  To her left will be a band of former Remainers opposed to such a manoeuvre under almost any circumstances.

And while there aren’t necessarily many of them, there is a wider body of Tory MPs, mostly but not exclusively on the centre-left of the party, who will oppose her candidacy.

The future of the Protocol, of the UK’s relationship with the EU, and of Northern Ireland itself thus risk getting tangled up with Truss’s ambitions, and those who support and oppose them.

One further take on this mix is that, since Frost was a known factor in the province and Truss isn’t, the Executive is nearer collapse this evening than it was yesterday.

In particular, the DUP knew where it was with Frost – or thought it did, anyway.  It may not have the same confidence in Truss, however unreasonable that prejudice may be.

(Furthermore, it’s worth bearing in mind Dominic Cummings’ claim that this Government will bungle any attempt to move Article 16 – so it’s better not done now.)

All this is consistent less with a powerful Truss regaining Europe policy for her department than with a resourceful Johnson handing her a poisoned fruit.