In Brief

Afghanistan withdrawal: did the Foreign Office fail in its response?

Testimony of former desk officer said prioritising of applicants was ‘arbitrary and dysfunctional’

The rapid withdrawal of Nato forces from Afghanistan in August is widely considered to have been a “disastrous decision, incompetently executed”, said The Times. But it took the testimony of a 25-year-old former desk officer, Raphael Marshall, to expose in “excruciating detail” just how badly the UK Foreign Office failed in its response.

Marshall told the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee last week that between 75,000 and 150,000 Afghans applied to be evacuated on the grounds of a connection to the UK. Yet less than 5% received help, and some of those left behind have since been murdered.

At times Marshall was the only member of his team working on the desk as desperate emails flooded in. Thousands went unprocessed and unanswered. The prioritising of applicants, he said, was “arbitrary and dysfunctional”. It was a “damning indictment”, said Ross Clark in the Daily Mail – perhaps the most damning “ever produced” about the modern civil service.

The bureaucratic mess “would be comic if it were not so plainly tragic”, said Andrew Hill in the FT. Many emails were flagged as “read” but then simply ignored. Communications were hampered by so many staff working from home, and the organisation’s dogged insistence on an eight-hour day for “work-life balance”. Nor was there any urgency at the top: the then foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, and the Foreign Office’s top civil servant, Philip Barton, both stayed on holiday as “the crisis deepened”.

I was in Kabul at the time, said Kim Sengupta in The Independent. British soldiers and officials, working non-stop, told applicants not to panic because the UK had “a system in place” to get them out. But now we see how “flawed” that system was.

The Government disputed Marshall’s account, but not convincingly, said Rafael Behr in The Guardian. It did not deny, for instance, that some night-shifts went unmanned. Raab emerges as an “indecisive control freak” who was painfully slow to make urgent decisions. Marshall testified that when Boris Johnson did intervene, it was to help evacuate animals rescued by a charity run by Paul “Pen” Farthing, rather than Afghans. (This was also denied, although Johnson’s then parliamentary aide did authorise the flight.)

There are, of course, long-standing flaws in the civil service, but it seems increasingly that the Johnson Government takes “administrative dysfunction to a new level”, whether over Covid-19 or Afghanistan. The “terrible price” of its complacency is “still being paid by Afghans who called to Britain for sanctuary and got no answer”.

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