The senior civil servant in charge of the Foreign Office should consider his position after presiding over a disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan that betrayed UK allies, put lives in danger, showed a total absence of planning and was chaotically managed, MPs have concluded in a damming report .
The report from the foreign affairs select committee said the absence of leadership – both ministerial and official, including the permanent secretary, Sir Philip Barton – when Kabul fell was inexcusable and a grave indictment on those supposedly in charge. It added that Barton failed to give candid evidence to the committee, and says as a result it had lost confidence in him. The committee also accused him of covering up political interference in the fast-tracking of some individuals out of Afghanistan.
The committee said that while junior officials at the Foreign Office (FCDO) demonstrated courage and integrity, chaotic and arbitrary decision-making marked the planning and execution of the evacuation. “Sadly, it may have cost many people the chance to leave Afghanistan, putting lives in danger,” the report said.
It also found that senior officials were intentionally evasive and often deliberately misleading to parliament, noting: “The integrity of the civil service depends on those leading these organizations showing the courage to tell the truth to the British people.”
The report, one of the most damning to be issued by a select committee under the Conservative government, also extends criticism to the then foreign secretary, Dominic Raab. “It might be convenient to blame FCDO officials or military intelligence for these failures, but ministers should have been driving this policy,” it said.
“The fact that the Foreign Office’s senior leaders were on holiday when Kabul fell marks a fundamental lack of seriousness, grip or leadership at a time of national emergency. At several key stages in the evacuation there seemed to be no clear line of command within the political leadership of the government, as decisions were made on the basis of untraceable and unaccountable political interventions. ”
The report found there was a “total absence of a plan for evacuating Afghans who had supported the UK mission, without being directly employed by the UK government, despite knowing 18 months before the collapse of Afghanistan that an evacuation might be necessary”. It added: “The hasty effort to select those eligible for evacuation was poorly devised, managed and staffed; and the department failed to perform the most basic crisis-management functions.
“The lack of clarity led to confusion and false hope among our Afghan partners who were desperate for rescue. They, and the many civil servants and soldiers working hard on the evacuation, were utterly let down by deep failures of leadership in government. ”
The all-party committee, which is chaired by the Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, said answers given by senior officials were “at best intentionally evasive, and often deliberately misleading”. It said: “Those who lead the department should be ashamed that civil servants of great integrity felt compelled to risk their careers to bring to light the appalling mismanagement of the crisis, and the misleading statements to parliament that followed.”
Two whistleblowers who worked in the FCDO resigned their posts to give scathing written evidence about the handling of the evacuation.
The report also found there was an optimism bias inside the Foreign Office that the Biden administration would change the planned US withdrawal date from Afghanistan, and that when this proved incorrect, the UK revealed a lack of influence by failing to make Washington change its plans.
Raab did next to nothing to engage with regional partners before the fall of Kabul, the report said. In a sign of the chaos, it found: “In the rush, staff failed to remove sensitive documents identifying Afghan job applicants, leaving them to fall into the Taliban’s hands. An internal review of the incident concluded that the FCDO cannot be certain that all other physical and electronic documents containing personal data were removed. ”
The report said the Foreign Office acted too late, largely after the fall of Kabul in August, in trying to devise a special category of people for evacuation such as journalists, judges and others who had helped the British government but had not been directly employed.
The committee found that, as a result, the government “failed to deliver the bare minimum that we owed them: a well-considered plan for who would be prioritized for extraction, and clear communications to those seeking help. The lack of clarity led to confusion and false hope, hindering individuals from making the best decision for themselves based on a realistic understanding of their situation. ”
Singling out Barton, the committee found: “The fact that the department’s top civil servant did not return until the civilian evacuation was over, while staff across the department struggled to implement a poorly planned evacuation process under intense pressure, is difficult to understand and impossible to excuse. ”
Barton has already apologized for what he regards as an error, but he has so far refused to resign. The report criticized the department for failing to “perform the most basic crisis-management functions, such as rostering an adequate number of staff to key teams”. It said: “The political leadership on offer vacillated so much that no clear priorities were set for who should be evacuated and in what order, giving many thousands of vulnerable people, to whom we owed a debt, a hope that could never be met. ”
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “Our staff worked tirelessly to evacuate over 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a fortnight. This was the biggest UK mission of its kind in generations and followed months of intensive planning and collaboration between UK government departments. ”