In the two-decades long military campaign in Afghanistan, Britain made a vital contribution to the coalition effort to provide the country’s long-suffering people security and stability.
A total of 454 British military personnel lost their lives in the conflict and thousands more suffered serious injury in a campaign that cost the British taxpayer an estimated £29 billion.
And yet, despite the enormous sacrifice, both in terms of blood and treasure, Britain’s involvement is likely to be remembered more for the chaotic nature of its departure than the heroism of its soldiers.
There certainly can be no denying that the legacy of Britain’s costly involvement in the coalition effort has been seriously tarnished as a result of the dramatic testimony provided by a whistleblower this week about the less-than-convincing performance of Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) as the Taliban seized control of the country.
In a damning indictment of the FCDO’s performance during this critical time, Raphael Marshall, a 25-year-old senior desk officer claims its handling of the Afghan evacuation after the Taliban seized control of Kabul in August was dysfunctional and chaotic. He claims the process of choosing who could get a flight out of the country was arbitrary, and that thousands of emails with pleas for help went unread.
Mr Marshall, who resigned from his position in September in protest at the department’s inept handling of the crisis, has now set down his criticisms in written evidence submitted to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. In his submission, details of which were made public earlier this week, Mr Marshall revealed that there were an estimated 150,000 Afghans who were said to be at risk because of their links with Britain and made applications to be evacuated. Of these, Mr Marshall asserted, only a paltry 5 per cent received any assistance. Mr Marshall concluded: "It is clear that some of those left behind have since been murdered by the Taliban."
Mr Marshall is particularly critical of the performance of former UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who was on holiday in Greece when the crisis erupted and delayed returning to London. He also takes issue with the “work-life balance” culture at the department, and a working-at-home policy that, he says, severely undermined British government efforts to rescue Afghan civilians in late August. This meant that, at one point in the rescue operation, the relatively inexperienced Mr Marshall was the sole person monitoring an inbox where pleas for help were directed.
Mr Marshall’s accusations of departmental incompetence, moreover, appeared to be confirmed after Sir Philip Barton, the head of Britain’s Diplomatic Service, admitted that he had spent 11 days on holiday at the height of the crisis. Sir Philip conceded he has “reflected a lot” on his decision to remain away from Whitehall while Britons and refugees were flown out, and now believes he was wrong to do so.
Another controversial issue to have emerged from Mr Marshall’s testimony was his claim that pets were given priority over humans in the evacuation plan on the orders of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s wife, Carrie, who intervened on behalf of a British-run animal charity. Mr Johnson has dismissed the allegations as “complete nonsense”.
Mr Marshall’s testimony has certainly taken the gloss off of the British military’s widely praised evacuation operation from Kabul, which resulted in the UK airlifting 15,000 people out of the country – 5,000 British nationals, 8,000 Afghans and 2,000 children.
Mr Raab, who is now the UK’s Justice Secretary, robustly defended his performance, pointing out that Britain did a far better job than many other countries in terms of evacuating vulnerable Afghans.
Nevertheless, while the UK military worked round-the-clock to deal with the unfolding humanitarian crisis, as the Taliban seized control of the country, a very different narrative was unfolding thousands of miles away in London, where the FCDO’s crisis centre struggled to cope with the sheer scale of the demand because of a chronic lack of staff and resources.
The accusations of Foreign Office incompetence have now provoked a major political row in the UK, one that threatens to overshadow Britain’s very real achievements during the course of its 20-year-involvement in the conflict.
Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee who served as a military advisor in Afghanistan, has been particularly scathing of both the FCDO’s performance and that of Mr Raab, whom Mr Marshall has accused of not fully understanding how the evacuation process worked.
Referring to Mr Marshall’s allegations, Mr Tugendhat told the BBC: “This is an individual, 25-years-old, who states that at various points he was completely on his own dealing with a huge casework of incoming emails and phone calls, in a Foreign Office that was effectively a Mary Celeste at the time of national emergency.” Mr Tugendhat told Radio 4’s Today programme, “Now if that’s true, that’s really concerning.”
For his part, Mr Raab has strongly defended his former department’s performance, insisting that it was inaccurate to describe the evacuation operation as dysfunctional. “Well over 1,000 Foreign Office staff were working often night and day on a rota system… as well as the troops on the ground in Afghanistan under incredible operational pressures. I would point to the fact that in just two weeks, 15,000 people were evacuated.
“I don’t think in living memory we’ve seen an operation on that scale and certainly in relation to this one, no other country bar the United States evacuated more.”
Nevertheless, while it might be true that Britain performed better than many of its European partners during the withdrawal crisis, the accusations made in London this week will merely add to the view that the Afghan people deserved much better support from their western allies than they received in their desperate hour of need.