Politics

Foreign Office whistleblower details ‘dysfunction’ of Afghanistan evacuation response


Today, the Foreign Affairs Committee publishes written evidence submitted to the Committee by a whistleblower who worked on the Afghanistan Crisis Response within the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO).

The evidence will form part of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s inquiry into the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The whistleblower, Raphael Marshall, worked for the FCDO as a Desk Officer. In the middle of the evacuation effort, for one afternoon, Mr Marshall was “the only person monitoring and processing emails in the Afghan Special Cases inbox”.

The Special Cases team handled the cases of Afghans who were at risk because of their links with the UK, but who did not work directly for the UK Government. These included Afghan soldiers, politicians, journalists, civil servants, activists, aid workers, and judges, as well as guards and others who worked for the UK Government through subcontractors.

The whistleblower estimates that “between 75,000 and 150,000 people (including dependants) applied for evacuation” to the Afghan Special Cases team under the Leave Outside the Rules (LOTR) category. Mr Marshall estimates that “fewer than 5% of these people have received any assistance” and states that “it is clear that some of those left behind have since been murdered by the Taliban”.

The evidence describes a lack of coordination between the FCDO and Ministry of Defence (MOD) that “threatened to undermine Operation Pitting” and states that “as a result senior MOD officials planned to ask for the cancellation of the whole LOTR scheme”.

The evidence states that no member of the team working on these cases had “studied Afghanistan, worked on Afghanistan previously, or had a detailed knowledge of Afghanistan.” Junior officials were “scared by being asked to make hundreds of life and death decisions about which they knew nothing”, according to the evidence.

The written evidence states that the then-Foreign Secretary was sent case notes of exceptional cases for evacuation for his approval. Mr Marshall alleges that “it took several hours for the Foreign Secretary to engage on any of these notes” and that he then responded that he needed “all the cases set out in a well-presented table to make decisions”. The whistleblower states his opinion that, given the urgency of the evacuation effort, “for the Foreign Secretary to make this request suggests he did not fully understand the situation.”

The evidence states that many of the emails they received “were not read” despite a “usually false” “automatic response that the request for assistance had been ‘logged’”. The evidence states that a large number of emails were read but their details not recorded: “We never returned to these emails due to lack of time. They were therefore de facto eliminated from the evacuation process”.

For one week “emails were processed by marking them with a flag once read but were not entered into a spreadsheet.” The whistleblower states his opinion that “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 outlines the criteria for “special cases” evacuations: vulnerability, support for UK objectives in Afghanistan and “significance or sensitivity”. Significance/sensitivity “was not clearly defined. It was usually described as how prominent the individual was” and “whether an MP had lobbied on their behalf.” During one period in August, “primarily or exclusively cases put forward by MPs appear to have been entered into this spreadsheet at the expense of other cases”.

Marshall also claims that the Prime Minister instructed the evacuation of the pets belonging to Pen Farthing’s Nowzad charity, despite the FCDO saying that they were ineligible. He said that this deicison endangered British troops and used capacity that could have been used by Afghan evacuees nominated by cabinet ministers.

The whistleblower details that soldiers were drafted into the FCDO to help with the evacuation effort. For a period of time, “the soldiers worked with one computer shared between roughly eight people”. The whistleblower states that “some of them were likely using Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Outlook for the first time in a professional context.”

Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat MP, said: “These allegations are serious and go to the heart of the failures of leadership around the Afghan disaster, which we have seen throughout this inquiry. These failures betrayed our friends and allies and squandered decades of British and NATO effort. The evidence we’ve heard alleges dysfunction within the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and substantial failings throughout the Afghanistan evacuation effort.

“The evacuation has been described as a success by some, but these allegations point to a very different story – one of lack of interest, and bureaucracy over humanity. It proved to be a true test of the leadership and effectiveness of the Foreign Office, with the lives of many of our friends and allies in the balance. This evidence raises serious questions about the leadership of the Foreign Office, and I look forward to putting these to officials, including former Afghanistan Ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow.”

A UK government spokesperson said that staff  “worked tirelessly to evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a fortnight … [in] the biggest mission of its kind in generations and the second largest evacuation carried out by any country”.

“The scale of the evacuation and the challenging circumstances meant decisions on prioritisation had to be made quickly to ensure we could help as many people as possible… Regrettably we were not able to evacuate all those we wanted to.”

They said that since the end of the operation they had helped over 3,000 individuals leave Afghanistan.



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