Britain’s handling of the evacuation of Kabul last August is under fresh scrutiny after the country’s most senior diplomat told MPs that he remained on holiday for 11 days after the Afghan capital fell.
Sir Philip Barton told the House of Commons foreign affairs committee that he regretted his failure to return to London earlier but said his presence in Whitehall would have made no difference to the fate of Afghans who were not evacuated.
“I have reflected a lot. If I had my time again I would have come back from leave earlier,” he said.
Sir Philip was speaking hours after the publication of a 40-page memorandum from a former foreign office official describing chaos at the heart of the operation to evacuate British citizens, Afghans who had helped the British presence in Afghanistan and others deemed to be vulnerable after the return to power of the Taliban.
Raphael Marshall, a 25-year-old junior official with no expertise in Afghan affairs, said that at one stage during the evacuation he was the only person in the crisis centre who was processing thousands of emails asking for help. He said fewer than 5 per cent of those eligible for relocation to Britain received help from a dysfunctional system that made decisions almost arbitrarily.
There were often more than 5,000 unread emails in the system, some dating back weeks and marked “desperate and urgent”.
Mr Marshall said the process was more inefficient because most staff were working from home and few volunteered to work overnight shifts.
And he claimed former foreign secretary Dominic Raab refused to consider any applications for evacuation until they were reformatted into “a well-presented table”.
Mr Marshall claimed that Boris Johnson intervened to ensure domestic animals in a shelter run by Nowzad, a charity headed by former royal marine Paul Farthing, were evacuated from Kabul. He claimed that this action was “at the direct expense of evacuating British nationals and people at risk of imminent murder, including interpreters who had served with the British army”.
Downing Street denied that the prime minister or his wife Carrie played any role in the animals’ evacuation, and Mr Johnson dismissed the claim as nonsense.
However, a leaked letter to Mr Farthing dated August 25th from Trudy Harrison, then the prime minister’s parliamentary private secretary, appeared to contradict Downing Street’s denial.
“I’m writing to inform you that I have received confirmation from the FCDO, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence that you, your staff and their dependents are permitted to travel to Hamad Karzai international airport,” the letter said.
“The secretary of state [for defence] has made it clear that all 68 persons will be provided a flight by the Royal Air Force as part of the evacuation programme. The secretary of state has also confirmed that animals under the care of Nowzad can be evacuated on a separate chartered flight. The minister of defence will ensure that a flight is available.”
Sir Philip said he was unaware of the letter, leading Labour MP Chris Bryant to observe that “it feels like nobody’s ever aware of anything, anything could happen at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the senior management, really, are a bit absent”.