Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has been accused of being “asleep at the wheel” over Afghanistan, after a leaked report revealed he was warned more than three weeks before the fall of Kabul of the danger that a swift Taliban advance would cause the collapse of the Afghan security forces and a major humanitarian crisis.
Mr Raab appeared wrong-footed when confronted with the internal Foreign Office (FCDO) report during an appearance before a parliamentary committee, where he had assured MPs that the central assessment produced by the government’s Joint Intelligence Committee was that the Taliban takeover would be slow and the Afghan capital would not fall into the militant group’s hands until next year.
The beleaguered foreign secretary, who left for the region following Wednesday’s hearing for talks with neighbouring countries on efforts to bring out an estimated 1,100 people eligible to seek sanctuary in the UK, admitted that events had shown the official intelligence assessment to be incorrect and promised an fsinternal probe to find out why.
The Principal Risk Report paper - seen by The Independent - was presented to the FCDO’s management board on 22 July - 24 days before the Taliban entered Kabul and at least a couple of weeks before Mr Raab set off for a family holiday in Crete.
It warned: “Peace talks are stalled and US/Nato withdrawal is resulting in rapid Taliban advances. This could lead to the fall of cities, collapse of security forces, Taliban return to power, mass displacement and significant humanitarian need. The embassy may need to close if security deteriorates.”
Confronted with the assessment by Commons Foreign Affairs Committee chair Tom Tugendhat, Mr Raab seemed initially puzzled, asking: “Sorry, the source of that?”
Told it was his own risk report, he replied: “Yeah, well, as I said, of course we are very mindful of that.”
But he made no response to Mr Tugendhat’s demand to know how policy had changed in response to the warning.
“The central assessment remained until late the the deterioration would be incremental,” Mr Raab told MPs.
Accepting that the UK had been “caught unawares”, he said: “Clearly, the assessment that they wouldn’t be able to advance at that speed was not correct, and we’ll need to look and assess why that is the case.”
Speaking after the 90-minute hearing, the Conservative MP - a former soldier who served in Afghanistan and said one of his interpreters had been left behind when the UK evacuation operation ended at the weekend - made clear he did not believe Mr Raab was aware of the report.
“There are two kinds of intelligence failures,” said Mr Tugendhat. “There are those failures where the intelligence agency fails to provide the intelligence… and there’s a second kind of intelligence failure where whoever is the principal didn’t read it.
“I’m afraid you can’t blame the spies if the officers don’t read the report.”
The report stated that UK operations “have not moved into crisis” in Afghanistan “but there is potential to do so”.
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said: “Despite his own department’s clear warnings weeks before Kabul fell, the foreign secretary was asleep at the wheel. He could have stepped up the evacuation, issued warnings to British nationals and increased resources in his department. Instead he chose to go on holiday.”
And the Conservative chair of the Commons Defence Committee Tobias Ellwood said that Mr Raab’s appearance had bolstered his demand for a public inquiry into the UK’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Mr Ellwood said that intelligence assessments relied on by Mr Raab, suggesting that Afghan forces could hold on until the New Year or longer, were “worryingly naive” in the light of the fact that US withdrawal left them without access even to ammunition for their guns.
“From the limited information now in the public domain, it is clear that there was a litany of poor decision-making which left us in the precarious situation of having to evacuate from the airport, leaving thousands of Western troops vulnerable,” he told The Independent. “On 22 July, there was still time for us to speak to the US and offer alternative solutions to mitigate the mistakes that had been made.”
During tetchy exchanges at the emergency hearing, Mr Raab repeatedly refused to say when exactly he began his holiday, which was eventually cut short after Taliban insurgents entered Kabul.
With “the benefit of hindsight” he said he would have come back earlier, but told the commitee that he had at no point considered offering his resignation.
Labour MP Claudia Webbe accused Mr Raab of being “missing in action”, asking him: “Are you the person to take us forward and will you now again consider your position?”
But Mr Raab accused her of playing politics, telling MPs: “I considered getting on with the job of what has been the Herculean task of getting 17,000 people out.”
He admitted he was “not confident with any precision at all” on how many people eligible to come to the UK remain in Afghanistan. British nationals still in the country were “probably in the mid to low hundreds”, he said.
And he appeared to blame the slowness of the UK’s evacuation operation, compared to that of France, on the reluctance of those eligible for assistance to come forward until the last minute.
He told MPs that 1,500 had been removed between April and August, but that the majority of people only came forward for evacuation “relatively late on” when there was a “surge for the door” as it became clear that the Taliban would soon seize control.
Work to develop evacuation, medical and security capacity at the airport was ongoing before August and he personally was involved in more than 40 meetings or calls between mid-March and 30 August where Afghanistan was on the agenda, he said.
Mr Raab acknowledged that Afghans who worked as guards at the UK embassy had not been evacuated, telling MPs: “We wanted to get some of those embassy guards through but the buses arranged to collect them, to take them to airport, were not given permission to enter.”
But he said that all those named in papers found by The Times newspaper in the UK’s former embassy after the Taliban takeover had safely arrived in Britain.
He appeared surprised to be told that Taliban fighters had been pictured with a picture of the Queen taken from the embassy.
“My understanding was that it was destroyed,” he told Labour MP Neil Coyle. “Are you saying that it wasn’t?
“We had a very clear … policy for destroying not just documents but anything relating to HMG (government).
“Clearly we were conscious of the attempted propaganda coup around the Taliban taking over embassies.”
Asked if he owed an apology to Afghans and soldiers put at risk, Mr Raab told MPs: “I think we owe them every effort to get those out that we did – the 17,000 since April – and now to focus on the new reality in Afghanistan.”
Mr Tugendhat told him that Afghanistan was now set to be the UK’s most significant foreign policy challenge of the coming years, describing the fall of Kabul as “the single biggest foreign policy disaster the UK has faced since Suez, in the sense that is has exposed a weakness in our alliances and in our stance.”
An FCDO spokesperson later said: “The Principal Risk Register is a standard monthly report for the management board which does not contain intelligence assessments.
“It is an internal document which sets out potential risks to the organisation for planning purposes including around duty of care to staff.
“It is simply wrong and misleading to suggest this document is in any way at odds with our detailed assessments of the situation in Afghanistan or our public position throughout the crisis.
“The July document makes clear that our central planning assumption at the time was that the peace process in Afghanistan would run for up to a further six months.”