Foreign Office perm sec urged to resign over Afghanistan evacuation ‘disaster’

Philip Barton and Dominic Raab slammed for “deep failures of leadership” and failure to record decisions
Photo: REUTERS/Tom Nicholson

By Tevye Markson

24 May 2022

MPs have called for Foreign Office permanent under-secretary Sir Philip Barton to “consider his position” over his handling of the Afghanistan evacuation.

The Foreign Affairs Committee said it has lost confidence in Barton, criticising him for a lack of leadership during the crisis, failure to document decisions and misleading the committee.

MPs slammed the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s “appalling mismanagement of the Afghan crisis” in today’s report, saying it had likely cost hundreds of people their chance to leave the country.

The committee criticised “deep failures of leadership” in government before, during and after the fall of Kabul.

MPs said there were systemic failures of intelligence, diplomacy, planning and preparation, with the department at least partly to blame. This included failing to adequately prepare for the withdrawal despite having 18 months’ notice and failure to predict the speed of the Taliban’s takeover, the committee said.

MPs highlighted the FCDO’s failure to record its decisions during the crisis as a key reason for its loss of confidence in Barton, saying: “It is fundamental to any bureaucracy to know precisely what decisions have been made, by whom, with what authority, and when.

“This would be a serious failure at any time, but during the withdrawal from Afghanistan may have led to the loss of life. It is the responsibility of the permanent under-secretary to ensure that this system operates effectively.”

The committee also slammed both Barton and then-foreign secretary Dominic Raab for being on holiday at the beginning of the evacuation.

Barton did not return to work until 26 August – 11 days after the evacuation began.

“The absence of the FCDO’s top leadership – both ministerial and official – when Kabul fell is a grave indictment of the attitudes of the government, representing a failure of leadership across the board in the Foreign Office,” MPs said.

The fact that the department’s top civil servant did not return until the civilian evacuation was over, whilst staff across the department “struggled to implement a poorly-planned evacuation process under intense pressure”, is “difficult to understand and impossible to excuse”, the committee said.

“Whilst it is essential for those at all levels in government to take leave, this must be tempered at the most senior level by the need to exercise leadership in a crisis.”

Political leadership was also lacking, the MPs said. “It might be convenient to blame FCDO officials or military intelligence for these failures, but ministers should have been driving this policy,” they said.

The committee said the FCDO’s lack of a plan for evacuating Afghans who supported the UK mission but were not directly employed by the government was the “most damning” of the department’s failures.

The resulting 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 committee said.

The committee also slammed Foreign Office leadership for their lack of transparency about what happened when giving evidence to the committee on the crisis.

“The FCDO has repeatedly given us answers that, in our judgement, are at best intentionally evasive, and often deliberately misleading,” the report said. It added that officials had only admitted that events around the evacuation of animals looked after by the Nowzad charity – which it later emerged FCDO staff had believed to have been signed off by the prime minister – were unusual “when faced with the evidence of whistleblowers”.

“At best, the permanent under-secretary displayed a worrying lack of knowledge of the department he leads, and a determination to avoid unearthing the facts that would allow him to answer our questions,” the MPs said.

They said that Barton’s account of a “routine process” being followed for the Nowzad operation had been shown to be untrue, and that it seemed “unlikely” he had not been aware of the actual events that happened.

They said leaders in the Foreign Office “should be ashamed” that civil servants who gave evidence to the committee, including Barton, “felt compelled to risk their careers to bring to light the appalling mismanagement of the Afghan crisis, and the misleading statements to parliament that followed”.

The committee also criticised the National Security Council for failing to adequately coordinate cross-government planning and preparation for the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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.”

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