Dominic Raab has launched a defence of his handling of the evacuation of Afghanistan after a whistleblower alleged he led a “dysfunctional” and “chaotic” operation while foreign secretary.
Raphael Marshall, who worked for the Foreign Office during the effort, claimed that just 5% of Afghan nationals who applied to flee under one UK scheme received help.
Some were murdered after being left behind in Kabul after the Taliban swept to power in August, he alleged in devastating written evidence to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.
He alleged that Mr Raab “did not fully understand the situation”, was slow to rule on cases and requested they were reformatted “in a well-presented table” before making a decision.
Mr Raab, who was moved to become Justice Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister after his handling of the crisis, sought to defend his record, having already been heavily criticised for holidaying in Crete as the Taliban were storming back to power in Afghanistan.
“It’s inaccurate in certain respects, the suggestion that junior desk officers were making decisions is just not correct,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“There’s a difference between processing and deciding, so I’m afraid I don’t accept that characterisation.
“On the charge it took several hours to make decisions, we’re not talking about days, it’s not been suggested weeks, but several hours to make sure we had the facts, and that, as between myself, the Home Secretary and the Defence Secretary, decisions were made and actually I would suggest that’s a reasonably swift turnaround.”
One of Mr Marshall’s allegations was that at one point the Cabinet minister “declined to make a decision” on whether to admit a group of women’s rights activists “without a properly formatted submission with a table setting out multiple cases”.
It would have been reasonable for Mr Raab to defer to the crisis centre’s judgment but “in the circumstances it is hard to explain why he reserved the decision for himself but failed
to make it immediately”, the former official said.
— Tom Tugendhat (@TomTugendhat) December 7, 2021
Mr Raab responded: “And in terms of presentation, of course with the volume of claims coming in I make no apology for saying I needed the clear facts that each case presented precisely so we can make swift decisions.
“Some of the criticism seems rather dislocated from the facts on the ground, the operational pressures that with the takeover of the Taliban, unexpected around the world… I do think that not enough recognition has been given to quite how difficult it was.”
Among the flaws alleged by Mr Marshall was that the process of selecting who could be airlifted out was “arbitrary and dysfunctional” and that thousands of emails were going unread.
He said that Foreign Office colleagues were “visibly appalled by our chaotic system” which was put in place as foreign forces withdrew after a 20-year occupation of Afghanistan.
Tom Tugendhat, the senior Tory MP who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the “serious” allegations “go to the heart of the failures of leadership around the Afghan disaster”.
He added that the “failures betrayed our friends and allies and squandered decades of British and Nato effort” while he described the evacuation effort as “one of lack of interest, and bureaucracy over humanity”.
Shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry said Mr Raab should consider his position in the Cabinet in light of the testimony, which she said she was “disgusted” and “truly shocked” to hear.
“There is plenty of evidence that Dominic Raab is not capable of making the sort of decisions that our country deserves in any way,” the Labour MP told Sky News.
Mr Marshall, who worked in the Afghan Special Cases team handling the cases of Afghans who were at risk because of their links with the UK, estimated “between 75,000 and 150,000 people” including dependents applied for evacuation under the “leave outside the rules” category.
But he calculated that “fewer than 5% of these people have received any assistance” and stated that “it is clear that some of those left behind have since been murdered by the Taliban”.
Asked if he recognised the whistleblower’s figures, Mr Raab told Sky News: “I don’t. But what is certainly true is that we had a lot of people rushing to get out of Afghanistan for all sorts of reasons.”
Mr Marshall also alleged that colleagues lacked knowledge of Afghanistan and that junior officials were “scared by being asked to make hundreds of life-and-death decisions about which they knew nothing”.
“Desperate and urgent” emails, including those with titles such as “Please save my children”, were also being opened but not actioned, he said.
“I believe the purpose of this system was to allow the Prime Minister and the then foreign secretary to inform MPs that there were no unread emails,” Mr Marshall wrote.
He also claimed that at one point he was the only person monitoring an inbox where pleas for help were directed.
Foreign Office officials and Britain’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Laurie Bristow, are due to give evidence to the select committee on Tuesday afternoon.