The British withdrawal from Afghanistan was a “disaster” and holidays taken by leaders during the crisis reflected a “fundamental lack of seriousness” in government, MPs have concluded in a report.
Members of the foreign affairs committee also found that Boris Johnson probably intervened to demand the evacuation of 173 stray dogs and cats from Nowzad, an animal charity in Kabul. They further condemned the Foreign Office for being “intentionally evasive, and often deliberately misleading” about what had happened.
The MPs said that Pen Farthing, the founder of the charity, had left Kabul on August 28 last year as the only passenger on a 230-seat private jet. Farthing had used media appearances on TV shows to lobby for his evacuation.
“The arbitrary and chaotic nature of the Foreign Office’s role in the evacuation process is illustrated by the case of Nowzad,” the MPs said. “Amid intense media attention, its staff were called for evacuation at the last minute, despite not meeting the prioritisation criteria, after a mysterious intervention from elsewhere in government. Multiple senior officials believed that the prime minister played a role in this decision. We have yet to be offered a plausible alternative explanation for how it came about.”
About 18,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan amid desperate scenes at Kabul airport.
Dominic Raab, who was foreign secretary at the time, was on holiday with his family in Crete as the crisis began. Sir Philip Barton, permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, stayed in France until the evacuation was over. The MPs said that he had made the wrong decision. “The fact that the department’s top civil servant did not return until the civilian evacuation was over, while staff across the department struggled . . . under intense pressure, is difficult to understand and impossible to excuse,” the report said.
The report called for Sir Philip Barton to consider resigning from his position over a “determination to avoid unearthing the facts” during the inquiry.
Raab and Sir Philip neglecting to return from holiday as Kabul fell demostrated a “fundamental lack of seriousness, grip or leadership”, the MPs said.
With the exception of Sir Laurie Bristow, who was then the ambassador to Afghanistan, all Foreign Office officials in Kabul fled the country early in the evacuation, leaving soldiers to process complex visa applications before a back-up team of civil servants was eventually deployed.
The MPs said that the government had failed to adequately prepare for the withdrawal of US troops despite having 18 months’ notice and amid warnings that the Taliban could rapidly seize control of the country. “The manner of the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan was a disaster, a betrayal of our allies, and weakens the trust that helps to keep British people safe. It will affect the UK’s international reputation for years to come,” they said.
Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the committee, said that the government’s failures cost people the chance to flee Afghanistan, putting their lives in danger. “The timeline of misery exposed by this report reveals serious systemic failures at the heart of the UK’s foreign policy,” he said.
A government spokesman said: “Our staff worked tirelessly to evacuate over 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a fortnight . . . We carried out a thorough review to learn lessons from our withdrawal and have drawn on many of the findings in our response to the conflict in Ukraine.”