Boris Johnson’s national security adviser has suggested lives were “potentially put at risk” after UK left behind sensitive documents at its former embassy in Kabul in the midst of the western evacuation from Afghanistan.
Sir Stephen Lovegrove told MPs and peers the incident was “extremely regrettable” after reports in the summer that embassy staff had left contact details of Afghans, who had worked with British forces, scattered on the ground.
It occurred as the government frantically attempted to evacuate British nationals and Afghans who had worked alongside them, including translators, amid fears of reprisals as the Taliban insurgency seized power in the region.
Papers identifying seven Afghans were found by reporters, according to The Times newspaper, which handed over the details to the Foreign Office team involved in the airlift from Kabul international airport in August.
“There is yet an unfinished Foreign Office inquiry into that so I don’t want to pre-judge that,” Sir Stephen told the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy when asked about sensitive documents being left behind.
However, he added: “To put it very mildly it is extremely regrettable and potentially put lives at risk and should not have happened. I can’t be clearer than that.”
The Foreign Office has previously suggested that during the evacuation “every effort was made to destroy sensitive material and our staff worked tirelessly to secure the safety of those who worked for us”. The Whitehall department had also reported the incident to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
Elsewhere, Sir Stephen also told members of the committee that he did not believe the UK should “tear up” the way intelligence assessments are conducted — despite the failure to foresee the rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.
He said: “The assessment of what happened in Afghanistan — with the single but absolutely crucial exception of the rapidity of the collapse — was correct.
“So we do need to look at why we got the rapidity of the collapse question wrong, we are doing that… but I don’t think candidly that we need to tear up the way we do assessment and the way we do intelligence. A great deal of what we thought came to pass — the speed of which it came to pass was what we got wrong.”
The prime minister’s national security adviser also insisted that while the speed of the fall of the Kabul was included in intelligence assessments, it was at a “very low” level of confidence.
Sir Stephen said the central scenario was that the UK would maintain a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan and its government would remain operative until “at a minimum the end of this calendar year”.
“Clearly at that level the assessment was wrong but nobody ever said the assessment was definitely going to be right, it just happened to be a lower level probability we thought at the time – and everybody else thought at the time, including the Taliban”.