Afghan evacuation failings blamed on lack of leadership at heart of UK government

MPs hit out at Foreign Office chief accused of prioritising animals over people

Senior British officials in charge of the country's Afghanistan policy at the time of the Taliban takeover stood accused of lack of leadership on Tuesday after a whistle-blower claimed bureaucratic confusion led to a shambolic evacuation operation from Kabul.

The head of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office admitted his regrets that he had stayed on a 17-day holiday during the peak of the crisis, only returning on the 26th August – 11 days after the Taliban captured the Afghan capital.

“If I had my time again I would have come back from my leave earlier,” Sir Philip Barton said.

A Foreign Office whistleblower painted a scene of absolute internal disarray as the system was overwhelmed by the Afghan evacuation effort, detailing a short-hours working culture and a lack of planning at the governmental department.

Tens of thousands of Afghans who applied to Britain for help to flee the Taliban did not receive assistance because few staff were unhand to deal with the demands, the whistleblower Raphael Marshall had claimed.

He said tens of thousands of Afghans who applied to Britain for help to flee the Taliban did not receive assistance because of the turmoil.

Eight British soldiers in Afghanistan were forced to share one computer because the foreign office IT department had not issued passwords to unlock software.

He said emails were opened but not acted upon to prevent senior government ministers from claiming that emails had been left unread.

Following the allegations, Tom Tugendhat, an Afghan veteran and chair of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, raised questions about leadership at senior levels of government and the civil service, with many leaders away on holiday in August as the Taliban rapidly took over.

“The concern is that if both leaders are out of the country at the same time it does raise some very serious concerns,” Mr Tugendhat said, referring to the fact that Sir Philip was on holiday at the same time as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

Mr Tugendhat said the Foreign Office was “effectively a Marie Celeste at a time of national emergency” and called the allegations made by the whistleblower “extremely concerning".

Fellow Conservative politician Alicia Kearns described the chaotic withdrawal as “a catastrophe of incomparable nature”.

Another damning accusation by Mr Marshall had been that Prime Minister Boris Johnson intervened to order the rescue of animals from Afghanistan.

The move potentially put British troops’ lives at risk and prevented people from fleeing Kabul, something Mr Johnson has dismissed as “complete nonsense”.

Mr Tugendhat questioned whether animals were put ahead of humans, including the five-year-old son of his friend, who was unable to secure a place on a flight out.

Former Royal Marine Paul “Pen” Farthing, who ran the Nowzad shelter, started a high-profile campaign to get his staff and animals out, using a plane funded through donations.

Meanwhile, Prince Charles’ local interpreter in Afghanistan condemned the British government for failing to “stand shoulder to shoulder” with people it employed, leaving them at the mercy of the Taliban.

Afghans feel “very, very betrayed,” Nazir Ayeen told The National.

"The whole evacuation process was very messy and confusing. It did not have trained and professional people installed on the planning who could recognise the danger that the people who had worked to foreign governments faced.”

Mr Ayeen, who is now in Britain, has worked as a translator during high-profile VIP visits, including Prince Charles in 2010.

“I think there could have been other ways to evacuate Afghans, especially those who stood shoulder to shoulder with the British government to the very last point. They have been neglected in a bad way,” he said.

Nigel Casey, Mr Johnson’s special representative to Afghanistan, said it had been estimated that only 7,000 people had to be evacuated from the country. But 15,000 people ended up being flown from Afghanistan – including 5,000 Britons and 8,000 Afghans, with the rest made up of third-country nationals.

Mr Marshall, a former Foreign Office desk worker, had claimed that during the Kabul evacuation there was limited staffing capacity, with one afternoon where he was the only person processing emails.

Despite the urgency of the situation, the expectation remained that staff would only work eight hours a day, five days a week, he said.

Bob Seely described the state of affairs at the Foreign Office, especially when British troops were working throughout the night at Kabul airport, as “a bit rubbish”.

Sir Philip insisted “there isn't a clocking off culture at all” at the Foreign Office when asked about working from home and the shift culture.

“We spend more time actually trying to persuade not to work too hard and to burn out. In terms of the eight hours, when we are in a full-blown crisis we do have an eight-hour shift system. We make sure therefore that people are getting a period of rest and then coming back on to shift …

“Sometimes depending on the time zone and the pace of work in a crisis we might have a long day with two shifts. In this case we went for a three shift system. This wasn't about work-life balance, this was about rostering shifts in a crisis to make sure people don't burn out in a crisis.”

Animal evacuation in the spotlight

The former British high commissioner to India and Pakistan was confronted with a letter reportedly from Boris Johnson’s former parliamentary private secretary in relation to the evacuation from Afghanistan of former Royal Marine Paul “Pen” Farthing, his charity workers and animals in their shelter.

Chris Bryant, a Labour MP said a letter from Trudy Harrison, the aide, informed Mr Farthing he and his staff would be provided a flight by the Royal Air Force as part of the evacuation programme.

Any animals under the care of the charity, Nowzad, could be “evacuated on a separate chartered flight” which would be “made available” by the Ministry of Defence, according to the letter read out by Mr Bryant.

He added: “It feels very much like a direction from the Prime Minister to me, I have to say.”

Mr Barton said it was not right animals had been prioritised over the potential evacuees. “There was no decision to evacuate animals over people,” he said. “There was a charter flight arranged for animals, we helped enable that charter flight.”

The Prime Minister’s special representative to Afghanistan Nigel Casey said the Nowzad flight “left only after we had concluded evacuating people”.

Asked how much staff time it took up to facilitate the animal evacuation, Sir Philip said: “I don’t know.”

Updated: December 7th 2021, 7:42 PM