Perm secs' holidays did not impact Afghan crisis, national security adviser says

Whitehall structures delivered “continuity of senior leadership”, Stephen Lovegrove tells MPs
Sir Stephen Lovegrove Credit: Parliament TV

By Jim Dunton

21 Oct 2021

National security adviser Sir Stephen Lovegrove has told MPs and peers that government decision making during August’s Afghan crisis was not impacted by the absence of senior officials who were on annual leave at the time.

Lovegrove also admitted to parliament’s National Security Strategy Joint Committee that the emergence of a Taliban-dominated government in Kabul had been a “central scenario” in expectations for Afghanistan following February 2020’s Doha Agreement.

The national security adviser faced a particularly tough grilling from MP Tom Tugendhat, chair of the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Select Committee and a former British Army officer who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Tugendhat said he was surprised that the permanent secretaries at both the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Home Office had been away as the crisis intensified,  and that “various senior officials” stayed on holiday as the situation worsened.

Dominic Raab was reshuffled out of his role as foreign secretary last month after he drew fire for staying on holiday in the Mediterranean as the Taliban swept back into power in Kabul and efforts to evacuate British nationals and Afghan allies intensified.

Tugendhat asked Lovegrove: “Would you expect a platoon commander to go on holiday just before the whistle went? Or a general to stay on holiday at the time of a major operation?”

Lovegrove said “structures right across Whitehall” allowed for the continuity of senior leadership.

“I cannot remember a moment throughout any of the time that we were doing this that I felt the lack of senior engagement in an entirely empowered way in order to be able to get the best result for the Afghan civilians to whom we owed a debt and to British nationals and indeed to many other nationals of other countries as well,” he said.

Tugendhat said that at a time when extremely fine judgment calls were being made, it was strange that top officials weren’t “quite literally walking the rooms” to have the backs of more junior civil servants and answer “the kind of question that you only ask when you’re face to face”.

“It strikes me as a little odd that the formal chain through the emails or the official phone call once a day or once a week would be seen as an alternative to that,” Tugendhat said.

“I can only speak from my own experience of a few years in the military, a few years in operations, to say that it strikes me as very odd that at a time of a major operation the general doesn’t walk the full plate to support the junior officers.”

Lovegrove rejected the scenario painted by the MP.

“I chaired the daily Whitehall meeting throughout the whole period of the evacuation, every day for the evacuation and shortly afterwards and the kinds of decisions you are talking about were discussed intensively at those meetings,” he said.

“Very senior officials, headed by me in the main, provided advice to ministers – most notably the home secretary, who had to make the most difficult decisions and did so very fast.

“I don’t believe that there would be many officials who were involved in the exercise and making some of those decisions – certainly in Whitehall, and I would hope on the ground as well, because we obviously did devolve a great deal of responsibility to those brave men and women who were on the ground, both official and military – who felt that in some way or other they lacked senior air cover. I would be astonished if they thought that and I have not heard anybody say so.”

Civil war seen as a possibility

Lovegrove told yesterday’s session that a civil war had been one scenario officials had feared could result from February 2020’s Doha Agreements between the US government and Taliban leaders, paving the way for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“Pretty much from the moment at which the Doha Agreements were signed, there was an intensive set of activities drawing on many, many different points of information and intelligence to assess what the likely outcome was going to be,” he said.

“The central scenario was going to be a Taliban-dominated government, we assessed. We thought there was a considerably lower likelihood – but not negligible likelihood – of civil war.

“But when we were thinking about the Taliban-dominated government and how quickly that would  come to pass, we certainly did not have the speed of the collapse as the central scenario. In fact nobody did. The Taliban didn’t, the Afghan government didn’t, the Americans didn’t.”

Lovegrove, who became national security adviser in April, said it was “a matter of great regret” that there were Afghans to whom the UK owed a duty who were “still in country”.

He said it had originally been estimated that the government’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy would be able to get around 3,000 people out of the country, but current figures suggested that between 7,000 and 8,000 Afghan nationals had been evacuated.

“We managed to get 2,000 out before the evacuation even started and another 5,000 out during the evacuation, which was known as Operation Pitting. And we’ve got some hundreds out subsequent to that as well,” he said.

“On any calculus that must be looked upon as a qualified success against some very difficult and challenging circumstances on the ground.”

Committee chair Dame Margaret Beckett asked why the original estimate had been so low.

Lovegrove said the 3,000 figure had been an estimate of the number of people the government was likely to be able to evacuate by the end of September.

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