Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has promised a “rigorous process” to establish how UK intelligence failed to foresee the swift Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Mr Raab came under pressure from MPs at an emergency hearing of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee over the UK’s delay in evacuating the bulk of its nationals and Afghan employees from Afghanistan ahead of the 31 August deadline for withdrawal of US troops.
And he was attacked over his decision to go on holiday in the days before Taliban troops took control of capital Kabul, threatening the lives of thousands of people who had worked for the UK military over the past 20 years.
The foreign secretary told MPs he was due to travel to the region later on Wednesday to look at arrangements in place in neighbouring countries to help those left behind to leave Afghanistan and reach sanctuary in Britain.
But he admitted he was “not confident with any precision at all” on how many people eligible to come to the UK remain in Afghanistan. British nationals still in the country were “probably in the mid to low hundreds”, he said.
The foreign secretary admitted that “with the benefit of hindsight” he would have come back from holiday earlier as the crisis unfolded, but told the commitee that he had at no point considered offering his resignation.
Labour MP Claudia Webbe accused Mr Raab of being “missing in action” during the crisis and asked him: “Are you the person to take us forward and will you now again consider your position.”
But Mr Raab accused her of playing politics. And he told MPs: “I considered getting on with the job of what has been the Herculean task of getting 17,000 people out.”
Committee chair Tom Tugendhat, who served as a soldier in Afghanistan, said that the debacle in the country would be “the single biggest challenge that I suspect the UK deals with in terms of redefining our foreign policy”.
He described it as “the single biggest foreign policy disaster that the UK has faced since Suez, in the sense that it has exposed a weakness in our alliances and in our stance”.
Mr Raab told the committee that the “most likely central proposition” presented by UK intelligence ahead of the crisis was that Kabul was unlikely to fall until next year. While it was clear that the militant Islamist group had the intent to restore its rule over Afghanistan, it was not thought to have the capacity to do so swiftly, said Mr Raab.
Dominic Raab attacked by Chris Bryant over his holiday during Afghan crisis.mp4
He said the UK had been “clearly… caught unawares” by the scale and pace of the Taliban seizure of control.
And he admitted: “Clearly, the assessment that they wouldn’t be able to advance at that speed was not correct, and we’ll need to look and assess why that is the case.
“We will have a very rigorous process to look at how those systems got it wrong.”
Mr Raab was asked why the UK did not follow France in ensuring those eligible for evacuation were removed well before the date of US withdrawal, which was known long in advance.
He told MPs that 1,500 had been removed between April and August, but that the majority of people only came forward for evacuation “relatively late on” when there was a “surge for the door” as it became clear that the Taliban would soon seize control.
Mr Tugendhat said that a risk report produced by the Foreign Office as early as 22 July warned of “rapid Taliban advances” which could lead to the fall of cities and the collapse of Afghan government security forces.
Mr Raab said that contingency plans had been made for this outcome, but insisted that the central assessment, shared by allied states including the US, was of a much more gradual takeover.
Conservative MP Bob Seely asked if the Government was caught “slightly on the hop” due to an “intelligence failure”, with Mr Raab replying: “We always try and … game out for these things.
“We’ve got a very professional way of approaching these things but when they’re wrong … you need to look at how you correct that.”
Labour committee member Chris Bryant demanded to know why not only the foreign secretary, but also prime minister Boris Johnson, chose to go on holiday in the weeks before the US pullout.
“Of course it’s perfectly legitimate for ministers to go on holiday, everybody has that right,” said Mr Bryant. “The difficulty for us is that the prime minister was on holiday and the deputy prime minister – yourself – was on holiday, and as I understand it the permanent under-secretary was on holiday.
“All three at the same time, when British nationals were at risk. Many people – thousands of people by our own estimation who stood by us in a difficult time in Afghanistan – were in peril of their lives. And there was still not a proper crisis centre in place.
“Do you not see that it’s important for British people to understand why you thought it was right to go on holiday?”
Mr Raab accepted that “with the benefit of hindsight, I wouldn’t have gone away”.
The foreign secretary said the central assessment of a slow Taliban takeover remained in place “until late”, adding: “The planning for military withdrawal began in April but the contingency plan was also there for a more rapid deterioration.”
Work to develop evacuation, medical and security capacity was ongoing before August, he said.
“We started planning in June for the contingency of an evacuation and therefore a full drawdown of the embassy,” he told the committee.
And he insisted he had been closely involved, telling MPs: “From the period mid-March to 30 August, I had over 40 meetings or telephone calls where Afghanistan was on the agenda.
“So that’s broadly one every four days.”
Mr Raab said that the UK military and civilian staff had “pulled off a quite remarkable evacuation of people, greater in challenge and scale than anything in living memory”.
And he turned on critics who accused him of falling short: “I think there’s been a little bit of breezing over some of the operational challenges, given the rapid fall – beyond expectations – of Kabul and what that really meant on the ground.
“What it meant for Afghans, whether they were willing to get to the airport, whether we can get our nationals to the airport, not just because of the logistical obstacles but because of fear and anxiety. We were dealing with all of that.”
Mr Raab said he has ordered a “full review” of the closure of the UK’s embassy in Kabul, amid concerns over the details of UK-linked Afghans – as well as portraits of the Queen – falling into the hands of the Taliban.
Pressed by Labour MP Neil Coyle, Mr Raab said it was “regrettable” but reflected the “pressure on the ground”.
He said: “We had a five-day schedule approach for closure of the embassy and it got brought forward because of the situation on the ground.
Dominic Raab asked to consider his position after going ‘MIA’ on Afghanistan
“I have nonetheless asked for a full review of what happened to make sure we can learn lessons.”
All Afghan staff whose names were found by The Times on documents in the ransacked embassy were now in the UK, he said.
Mr Raab appeared surprised to hear that a portrait of the Queen had been seized by the Taliban, asking MPs: “My understanding was that it was destroyed. Are you saying that it wasn’t?”
Told that militants had been pictured posing with the portrait, he replied: “We had a very clear – in fact I talked through with the team – policy for destroying not just documents but anything relating to HMG. It’s not clear to me whether that came from outside or inside the embassy.
“Clearly we were conscious of the attempted propaganda coup around the Taliban taking over embassies.”