Pressure has mounted on foreign secretary Dominic Raab over the past 24 hours after it emerged that he declined to break his holiday in the Mediterranean to talk to his Afghan counterpart as the Taliban neared Kabul last week.
Yesterday Raab faced calls to resign for delegating the task of talking to now-former minister Hanif Atmar about the evacuation of British interpreters to a junior colleague as the crisis in Afghanistan unfolded.
It has subsequently emerged that the call was never placed. As such, Raab’s decision meant no dialogue took place between ministers at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and their former Afghan counterparts.
The Sun today reported a “senior Whitehall source” saying prime minister Boris Johnson was “livid” and defence secretary Ben Wallace was “apoplectic” at Raab’s decision, taken while he was at a five-star resort on Crete.
The paper quoted a “key ally” of the prime minister saying Raab would “not be foreign secretary after the reshuffle”, which could take place next month.
It suggested the reshuffle might see Raab moved to the Cabinet Office and current current Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove offered another job.
In a statement issued by the FCDO, Raab said the whole of government had been working tirelessly to help as many people get out of Afghanistan as possible and that the UK government’s “overriding priority” had been to secure Kabul airport so that flights could leave.
“On Friday afternoon, 13 August, advice was put to my private office (around 6pm Afghan time) recommending a call to the Afghan foreign minister,” Raab said.
“This was quickly overtaken by events. The call was delegated to a minister of state because I was prioritising security and capacity at the airport on the direct advice of the director and the director general overseeing the crisis response.
“In any event, the Afghan foreign minister agreed to take the call, but was unable to because of the rapidly deteriorating situation.”
Raab added that because of the government’s approach to prioritising security at the airport 204 UK nationals and their families, as well as Afghan staff and nationals of other countries, were evacuated on the morning of 16 August.
“Since then, 1,635 have been evacuated,” he said. “I pay tribute to the excellent team we have in place, and we continue to prioritise what is required to evacuate people to the UK safely.”
Raab was not the only senior figure in government taking flak for their holiday plans, despite the fact that parliament is in recess and it is peak holiday season. The Times reported that FCDO permanent secretary Sir Philip Barton, Home Office perm sec Matthew Rycroft and new Ministry of Defence perm sec David Williams were all on leave.
The paper quoted an FCDO spokesperson saying Barton had remained "closely involved throughout" the department’s work on the Afghan crisis, while it said an MoD source confirmed the department’s second perm sec Laurence Lee was deputising for Williams. The Times said it had not received a response from the Home Office.
West was ‘overambitious’ with Afghan plans, ex-MI5 boss says
Allied powers would not be facing the current crisis in Afghanistan if they had been less ambitious in their goals for invading the country in 2001, former MI5 boss Lord Jonathan Evans has said.
Evans – who held the top job at the security service from 2005 to 2013 – said he believed a narrower focus on counterterrorism rather than nation-building would have a been “more achievable” in Afghanistan, which came under Taliban control for the first time in almost two decades this week.
As efforts to evacuate UK and some Afghan nationals from Kabul continue, Evans told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that it had been “absolutely imperative” to move in on the terrorist training camps that al-Qaida operated in and from which the 911 attacks on the US emerged in 2001.
But he said the idea that the United States, the UK and Nato allies would be able to reshape the politics of the region and rebuild Afghanistan on a new footing had been “overambitious” in retrospect.
“It would have been a great thing to have achieved, but we raised expectations that we were not able to follow through on and the overall effect of that, I think, has been a significant failure and setback for us,” he said.
“We need now to make the best of it and see what we can salvage in terms of our security.”
Evans, who is currently chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, acknowledged that if the west had focused exclusively on counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan it the results would have been more limited.
Echoing comments from former cabinet secretary and national security adviser Lord Mark Sedwill, Evans said the return to power of the Taliban probably did mean an increased terror threat over the coming months and years.
Increased terror threat
“There are two problems,” he said. “There is more operating space likely to be available to groups like al-Qaida. There have been reports already of Islamic State elements present in Afghanistan and if they get the opportunity to put down infrastructure and to train and to operate then that will pose a threat to the west more widely.”
He added: “There’s also the psychological threat of the inspiration that some people will draw from the failure of western power in Afghanistan, and that may well create a certain amount of energy in the wider networks that are still in existence in Britain and across the west.”
Evans said he could not foresee a full-scale return to Afghanistan on the part of western powers, but said “particular interventions” or “covert operations” were more likely alternatives to deal with future terror threats.
This story was updated at 15:00 on 20 August 2021 to include a statement from Dominic Raab