Britain's top civil servants accused of 'gross disinterest' in Afghanistan debacle

Permanent secretaries remaining on holiday bitterly criticised by MPs

British MPs have severely criticsed top civil servants for remaining on holiday during the Kabul evacuation in August. Reuters
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Britain’s most senior civil servants have been accused of “gross disinterest” after they remained on summer holidays while Afghanistan collapsed.

The National Security Council also came in for stinging criticism, with MPs accusing it of negligence and being a relic of the 19th century.

Politicians were also confounded when the deputy national security adviser suggested that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was not necessarily the worst outcome.

“Full-blown civil war now could have been an even worse outcome,” David Quarrey told the National Security Strategy committee.

National Security Adviser Sir Stephen Lovegrove faced harsh questioning over the intelligence failures that allowed for the Taliban to storm into Kabul in mid-August.

He was asked several times why the permanent secretaries from the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence remained off work while the country was falling city by city.

“I'm particularly surprised that, despite the fact that the British embassy was pretty close to being under direct attack, British officials were unquestionably in fear of their lives and the military had to deploy in order to hold the bridgehead to evacuate them, that various senior officials stayed on holiday,” said Tom Tugendhat, MP.

“Would you expect a platoon commander to go on holiday just before the whistle went?”

Sir Stephen responded that there were “structures right across Whitehall” that allowed for “the continuity of senior leadership, such that we do not have to rely on single points of failure”.

He added that “the lack of senior engagement” did not get in the way of achieving “the best result” in the evacuation operation.

“How much more dangerous an occasion, how much more strategic indication would it have had to be for us to cancel leave than the overrun of an embassy, the life endangerment of officials and the reversal of 20 years of Britain's foreign policy,” Mr Tugendhat added.

Several MPs on the committee joined in stinging attacks on Sir Stephen’s response.

Sir Stephen responded that he had himself been a permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence and “I know that quite a lot of the time, the heavy lifting is done by the director generals and the directors”.

Alicia Kearns, who before becoming an MP spent many years in government working in crisis management, said the permanent secretaries failing to return from holiday was “an abdication of duty of care to their staff”.

“This was a catastrophe of 20 years of foreign policy being brought down and there is either redundancy of the permanent secretaries in having any fundamental role to play in shaping a policy in the care of their staff or gross disinterest in their staff,” she said.

Margaret Beckett, the committee chairwoman, described Sir Stephen’s response as “very depressing”.

Dominic Raab, the then-foreign secretary, is understood to have lost his job in the recent Cabinet reshuffle for remaining on holiday in Crete as the Taliban entered Kabul.

Sir Stephen blamed the speed of collapse on the Afghan government’s lack of credibility among the population, the reliance of Afghan forces on foreign contractors to fix equipment and the withdrawal of military advisers.

The intelligence had suggested that “we would be capable of maintaining a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan and that the government of Afghanistan would be operative until probably, at a minimum the end of this calendar year,” Sir Stephen said.

Mr Quarrey appeared to place blame on the swift departure of the senior Afghan leadership who he said had been unnerved after reading reports of their likely demise in western media.

“There were decisions that could have been taken by the Afghan government that could have led to a different outcome,” he said.

Sir Edward Leigh, a Conservative MP, quoted Gen Sir David Richards, a former British head of the armed forces< who wrote that National Security Council mechanism was “completely broken”.

In response, Sir Stephen said that he was “not aware of the evidence” on which the remark was made and could not comment on it.

Updated: October 20, 2021, 6:16 PM