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Report calls UK withdrawal from Afghanistan a ‘disaster’

Members of Parliament from all parties issued a scathing report on the British Foreign Office’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan last August. The conclusions are bitter reading for a department accused of being unprepared, disinterested and downright absent as British-allied Afghans fled for their lives.

LONDON (CN) — The British Parliament has issued a strong rebuke over the government’s handling of the Afghanistan military withdrawal last year, describing the outcome of the pull-out as a “disaster and a betrayal.”

The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded this week that the United Kingdom was guilty of “systemic failures of leadership, intelligence, diplomacy, planning and preparation” when it came to the rapid operation seeking to extract British personnel and allies from the country as Kabul fell to Taliban forces.

The committee – a bipartisan group of parliamentarians – has been examining the circumstances of the withdrawal since September last year, and the 66-page report pulls few punches in its condemnation of the role of the government.

The committee has been particularly critical of failures that led to the abandonment of Afghans who had cooperated with British security services. It condemned the “total absence of a plan” for such evacuations “despite knowing 18 months before the collapse of Afghanistan that an evacuation might be necessary.” Instead, “life-and-death decisions” were made on an “arbitrary basis” and left countless British collaborators at risk of reprisals from the Taliban, according to the report.

“The hasty effort to select those eligible for evacuation was poorly devised, managed, and staffed,” the report concludes, “and the [Foreign Office] failed to perform the most basic crisis-management functions. The lack of clarity led to confusion and false hope among our Afghan partners who were desperate for rescue.”

The report further criticized apparent obstruction and evasion from the Foreign Office in the course of the committee's inquiries. The government department was accused of giving “answers that, in our judgement, are at best intentionally evasive, and often deliberately misleading.”

“Those who lead the department should be ashamed that civil servants of great integrity felt compelled to risk their careers to bring to light the appalling mismanagement of the crisis,” the report added.

Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative member of Parliament and chair of the committee, summarized the findings by simply stating “this was a disaster.”

Operation Pitting was the British military exercise that led to the airlift of more than 15,000 people from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul over a 15-day period in August 2021. Of these evacuees, 5,000 were British nationals, 8,000 were Afghans and a further 2,000 were vulnerable children. The operation was conducted in tandem with evacuations being carried out by American and Australian forces, among others.

The conduct of the Foreign Office was controversial at the time of the evacuations. Then-Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab remained on holiday in Greece as the Afghan government collapsed, and was allegedly uncontactable in the initial stages of the evacuations, with his role instead delegated to junior ministers. The head of the diplomatic service, Phillip Barton, also failed to return from holiday for the entire duration of the evacuations, only arriving back after a three-week break on Aug. 28, after the airlifts had concluded.

During the evacuations, controversy also arose over the case of the Nowzad animal shelter in Kabul. The owner of the shelter, British citizen Pen Farthing, gained significant traction on social media during the evacuations on the basis of his assertion that his 150 animals – mostly dogs – required urgent evacuation. In the end, Farthing chartered a plane to evacuate the animals, and the flight was assisted and given clearance by the British military.

It was widely reported that the animals were given the nod for an airlift ahead of vulnerable Afghans on the insistence of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, with leaked emails appearing to indicate as such. Johnson has denied the allegation.

The report, however, did conclude that the Foreign Office’s priorities “appear to have been guided more by domestic politics than by its duty to our Afghan partners, or by the U.K.’s wider interests. Decisions about which special cases to evacuate were apparently based in large part on managing criticism from MPs.”

The evacuations became particularly controversial four months later, when a junior civil servant in the department, Raphael Marshall, turned whistleblower to reveal the scale of Foreign Office disorganization.

Marshall, a 25-year-old with limited civil service experience, told the committee that on occasions he was “the only person monitoring and processing emails” as tens of thousands of requests for assistance poured into Foreign Office inboxes. He claimed that of an estimated 75,000 to 150,000 requests, “fewer than 5% of these people received any assistance,” and of those left behind “it is clear that some have since been murdered by the Taliban.”

Marshall further alleged that the Foreign Office prioritized a “work-life balance,” meaning many staff were on holiday. He claimed there was thus insufficient capacity to deal with situation, leaving underqualified and inexperienced civil servants to make life-or-death decisions without being in possession of any relevant criteria to base those choices on.

According to Marshall, one civil servant leading the evacuation effort from London “did not know that the correct term for people from Afghanistan was Afghans and referred repeatedly to Afghanis.”

In the report, another whistleblower claims that “no member of the Afghan Special Cases team had studied Afghanistan, worked on Afghanistan previously, or had a detailed knowledge of Afghanistan” and “members of the Afghan Special Cases team usually heard of an Afghan organization for the first time when they were asked to decide whether its staff should be evacuated.”

“There was no access to additional information about organizations or individuals beyond what could be found on Google. There was no ability to process applications in any language other than English,” the whistleblower said.

The committee’s report frequently highlighted how it was heavily reliant on the testimony of anonymous whistleblowers due to an apparent lack of cooperation from the government department itself. The report accuses minister of a “determination to avoid unearthing the facts” and actively “obscuring the facts in order to shield others from political accountability.”

Having shed light on an apparently dysfunctional and out of its depth Foreign Office, the report concludes that the management of the evacuations bodes poorly for future British foreign policy aims. It highlights how disengagement with Afghanistan is likely to increase the risk to Afghan civilians, heighten domestic terrorism concerns, and leave a power vacuum in the region to be filled by China.

However, it is unlikely that the government will respond favorably to the recommendations of such a stinging report. Responding to the inquiry this week, a government spokesperson simply stated that “we don’t agree with all of the conclusions that the committee has drawn on this.”

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