'Thousands of emails went unread': FCDO handling of Kabul crisis 'chaotic', whistleblower claims

"Avoidable problems... significantly undermined the efficacy of our evacuation effort”, ex-civil servant says
Photo: US Army photo/1st Lt. Rock Stevens

Efforts to evacuate vulnerable Afghans during the fall of Kabul this summer were undermined by understaffing, unclear guidance and poor processes, a whistleblower has said.

Raphael Marshall, who was an HEO-grade desk officer at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office during the Afghanistan crisis, said “avoidable problems” led to delays in handling and prioritising cases.

In evidence provided to parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Marshall estimated that between 75,000 and 150,000 people applied for evacuation under one resettlement scheme, most of whom “feared their lives were at risk” because of connections to the UK and the west.

He estimated that fewer than 5% of these people received any assistance, and said it was “clear” that some had since been murdered by the Taliban.

Marshall said it was “inevitable” that so many people would be left behind because of the unfolding situation in Kabul, but argued that “avoidable problems” at the Foreign Office “significantly undermined the efficacy of our evacuation effort”.

He said the department’s process for selecting which applicants to evacuate was “not credible”, with prioritisation decisions “not made in a rational way”.

Emails unread

Marshall said thousands of emails sent to an inbox set up specifically to deal with the crisis went unread at the height of the emergency. He said between Saturday 21 August and Wednesday 25 August, there were “usually over 5,000 unread emails in the inbox at any given moment, including many unread emails dating from early in August”.

He said automatic responses saying email requests for evacuation had been “logged” were “usually false” as many such emails went unread.

He said in “hundreds if not thousands” of cases, emails from MPs advocating for people needing help did not get read until after the evacuation ended.

Processes for handling cases were also inefficient and unclear, according to the submission. Emails often encountered long delays when they were forwarded between inboxes, it said, while the spreadsheet used to log cases often did not include applicants’ passport details, causing problems later on.

In his evidence, Marshall alleged that many of the flaws in the FCDO’s crisis response were apparent in its handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

In particular, officials struggled to manage the volume of emails they received in spring 2020, including from MPs.

Unclear guidance

Marshall said officials tasked with prioritising claims for assistance were given inadequate and unhelpful advice on how to do so. Some of the criteria they were assessing claims for – such as “significance/sensitivity” – were “unclear” and ill defined, he said.

And he said there was no guidance on how to prioritise claimants who met the two other main criteria – vulnerability and support for UK objectives in Afghanistan.

There was also “no instruction” to distinguish between claims that provided evidence such as endorsements from British soldiers and diplomats or supporting documents, and those without. 

“Due to our team’s lack of expertise, I believe we will not have distinguished between claims in emails which were and were not credible,” he said.

Working culture

The evidence painted a picture of an understaffed operation with “extremely high” turnover and insufficient resources, which Marshall said was exacerbated by an over-emphasis on the work-life balance of staff.

He said his impression on the morning of Sunday 22 August was that most people working on the Afghan special cases team were new, leading to “several hours of chaos while people attempted to work out what was going on”. 

He said staffing capacity was undermined by a “default expectation” that Foreign Office staff would only work eight hours a day, five days a week.

“I believe this reflects a deliberate drive by the FCDO to prioritise ‘work-life balance’. FCDO employees, including senior leaders, are often told that working more than eight hours a day suggests that they are inefficient. Working more than eight hours a day has also sometimes been portrayed as selfish, as it potentially pressures other employees to do so as well,” he said.

“Senior leaders are sometimes encouraged to set a good example by not sending emails outside working hours. Whilst a healthy ‘work-life balance’ is important in moderation, in my opinion the FCDO’s approach has undermined organisational effectiveness,” the submission added.

Marshall said staff were asked to volunteer for shifts and that this “likely” resulted in a lack of night shifts and limited cover over the weekend because these shifts were less popular. Officials were not asked to swap out shifts when they had indicated they were unavailable, he said.

Marshall also suggested staff shortages were exacerbated by some staff working from home, saying this hampered communication.

Poor interdepartmental collaboration

The submission also outlined problems with other departments’ role in handling cases, and with coordination between departments.

For example, a list of high-priority cases sent to the Home Office in a bid to speed up evacuations appeared to “have been lost somewhere within the Home Office”, Marshall said.

He also alleged that coordination between the FCDO and Ministry of Defence was poor.

The evidence also highlighted problems caused by incompatible IT systems resulting from the merger of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development last year.

Marshall said that a group of six former DfID staff had volunteered to help with the evacuation effort, but that it was "hard to integrate them effectively" because they did not have access to FCO systems. This meant they could not access documents or the inbox where evacuation claims had been sent.

"They were visibly appalled by our chaotic system," Marshall said.

Civil service code breach investigation

Marshall said he had decided to provide evidence to the committee after concluding that he did not expect internal FCDO reviews would lead to “meaningful reform” of the department’s crisis response structure or on UK policy on resetting Afghan evacuees.

The ex-official said he had written to Foreign Office permanent secretary Sir Philip Barton at the end of August, saying problems with the handling of the Kabul crisis constituted breaches of the civil service code.

He said Barton had met with him the same day, before appointing a “credible senior official” to investigate. The investigation concluded “no breaches of the civil service code had occurred but identified a number of lessons for the FCDO to learn”.

He said while he respected the investigator’s integrity, he was “unconvinced” that the evacuation process was compatible with the code, which requires civil servants to act with integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.

Marshall stressed that many of his colleagues on the Afghan special cases team “acted with great integrity”, and that problems were not the fault of the senior responsible owner, whom he described as an “honourable, professional, and compassionate public servant in an impossible position”.

“I certainly do not believe that any individual person acted improperly or maliciously but I do believe that the FCDO’s institutional approach amounted to a failure to abide by the values set out in the civil service code,” Marshall said.

'Staff worked tirelessly'

A government spokesperson said: “UK government staff worked tirelessly to evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a fortnight.

“This was the biggest mission of its kind in a generations and the second-largest evacuation carried out by any country. We are still working to help others leave.

“More than 1,000 FCDO staff worked to help British nationals and eligible Afghans leave during Op Pitting. The scale of the evacuation and the challenging circumstances meant decisions on prioritisation had to be made quickly to ensure we could help as many people as possible.

“Regrettably we were not able to evacuate all those we wanted to, but our commitment to them is enduring, and since the end of the operation we have helped more than 3,000 individuals leave Afghanistan.”

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