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.”