Unanswered emails, irresponsible holidays and “chaotic” processes: these are some of the accusations levelled against the Foreign Office over its handling of the Afghan crisis in August. Here's what we know – and what we don’t
Evidence from a former Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office staffer about the handling of the Afghanistan crisis sent shockwaves through the government and led to outrage among MPs earlier this month – as did permanent secretary Philip Barton’s admission that he was on leave for the first 11 days of the evacuation. But the evidence left Whitehall watchers with more questions than answers.
Were the problems avoidable?
In evidence to parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Raphael Marshall, a former desk officer at the FCDO, said “avoidable problems” and a “chaotic system” undermined the department’s handling of the Afghanistan crisis.
The whistleblower’s evidence described an understaffed and ill-coordinated operation, which “significantly undermined the efficacy of our evacuation effort” as thousands of emails calling for help went unread. He said better guidance, more visible leadership and stricter requirements for staff to man shifts were needed.
In its own evidence to the committee, the FCDO said it would be carrying out a review “to establish any lessons we can learn and which can inform future contingency planning”.
But former Foreign Office chief Peter Ricketts, in a letter to The Times, said that while there were “evident shortcomings” in how the department handled the crisis, the “fundamental failing was one of political leadership”.
Lord Ricketts, a former national security adviser, said the “chaos” Marshall described could have been avoided if the prime minister had treated the fall of Kabul as a “whole-of-government crisis” and held daily National Security Council meetings.
“If Dominic Raab had made clear early on that FCDO could not cope with the huge caseload it was receiving, the PM could have told the cabinet secretary to mobilise help from across the civil service,” he added.
Why won’t Raab answer questions about his leave?
Raab’s decision not to return from his Crete holiday as Kabul fell led to calls for his resignation and likely to his demotion to justice secretary in September. “What the foreign secretary Dominic Raab thought he was doing on holiday the whole period, I’ve no idea… there are upsides to having these positions, huge privilege [but also] huge responsibilities, especially when you have a crisis,” ex-foreign secretary Jack Straw told an event at the Institute for Government this month.
Committee member Stewart Macdonald said the MPs had found it “incredibly difficult to get any kind of information or accountability” about when Raab was on holiday or “about what he was up to, whom he was talking to, and what he was discussing as the Taliban were advancing across Afghanistan towards Kabul”.
Asked if he could provide the dates Raab was away, Barton said he did not have them to hand and declined to say if he would write to the committee with the information – saying only that he was “happy to take that question away”.
Did Philip Barton let his department down?
By contrast, Barton has confirmed the dates he returned from his own holiday – 26 August, 11 days after the evacuation began. “If I had my time again I would have come back from my leave earlier than I did,” he told the MPs.
He would not confirm when he booked the leave, but said when it began on 9 August, there was “no inevitability” Kabul would fall when it did. He left an acting perm sec and a DG leading on Afghanistan in his absence, and “stayed in touch” with officials.
Back in October, national security adviser Sir Stephen Lovegrove insisted Barton’s absence did not inhibit the mission, telling MPs Whitehall structures provided continuity of senior leadership and he would be “astonished” if officials felt “they lacked senior air cover”.
But critics say Barton was wrong not to return sooner. In a letter to The Times, former Army head General Lord Dannatt said Barton’s “leadership and commitment to his junior staff was woefully lacking” and warranted his resignation.
Defence Select Committee chair Tobias Ellwood said intelligence showing Kabul could fall “should have meant leave was cancelled”. Appearing alongside the former defence minister at the IfG’s event, Straw added: “In deciding both to go on holiday and to stay on holiday, those senior people decided to send out entirely the wrong messages to the rest of the office and they treated [the crisis] as a sort of second-order issue.”
Was the operation properly staffed?
Marshall’s evidence described an understaffed operation with “extremely high” turnover and insufficient resources. This was exacerbated by the FCDO’s over-emphasis on work-life balance that had “undermined organisational effectiveness”, he said – including a “default expectation” that staff would only work eight hours a day, five days a week. With the crisis centre reliant on people volunteering for shifts, he claimed, there was limited cover for night and weekend hours.
Barton said shift working was to avoid burnout, and said a “directorate crisis list” created following staffing problems during the 2017 hurricanes crisis in the Caribbean had enabled the FCDO to call in officials from different areas of the department.
Afghanistan Task Force head Nigel Casey added that there had been an “element of compulsion” as DGs were told to produce a quota of staff for the response. He told the MPs there were night shifts rostered throughout the evacuation, but that he would write to confirm how many staff turned up rather than risking giving “misleading” answers.
Barton confirmed the lessons-learned exercise will consider “the extent to which that worked effectively, how we can be more agile, how we can be able to access contingent capability” without significantly reducing day-to-day work.
Did the FCO-DfID merger contribute to the chaos?
Marshall’s comments raised questions about how effectively Department for International Development and Foreign Office systems had been integrated when the ministries merged in September 2020.
He said it had been “hard to integrate” six former DfID staff who volunteered to help with the evacuation because they could not access FCO IT systems – denying them access to documents and emails. “They were visibly appalled by our chaotic system,” Marshall said.
The lessons-learned exercise will undoubtedly want to investigate whether any hold-ups with properly merging the two departments contributed to problems with the evacuation.