The top civil servant at the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has admitted he stayed on holiday 11 days after Kabul fell to the Taliban, after a whistleblower claimed Britain’s evacuation effort from Afghanistan was “chaotic” and “dysfunctional”.
Sir Philip Barton, FCDO permanent under secretary, said he regretted his 17-day holiday at the height of the crisis. “I have reflected a lot,” he told MPs on Tuesday. “If I had my time again I would have come back from leave earlier.”
His admission came as Raphael Marshall, who worked for the FCDO as a desk officer in London, accused prime minister Boris Johnson of intervening during the UK evacuation from Afghanistan to airlift animals from a charity in Kabul run by a former British servicemen.
Marshall claimed that during Britain’s evacuation effort in August, led by the Foreign Office, pleas for help from thousands of desperate Afghans seeking to flee the Taliban were ignored. He also alleged in written evidence to the House of Commons foreign affairs committee that the then foreign secretary Dominic Raab “did not fully understand the situation”.
Marshall said the FCDO received between 75,000 and 150,000 evacuation applications by Afghans who were in danger because of their connections to the UK, but estimated that fewer than “5 per cent” of these people obtained any assistance. “It is clear that some of those left behind have since been murdered by the Taliban,” he added.
Marshall, who left the Foreign Office in September, revealed that for one afternoon in the middle of the evacuation he was “the only person monitoring and processing emails” from Afghans classified by the UK as special cases, including politicians, civil servants and soldiers.
He claimed there were “usually 5,000 unread emails in the [Afghan special cases] inbox at any given moment” and “in thousands of cases emails were not even read”. The process of prioritising applicants was “arbitrary and dysfunctional”, he added.
Marshall claimed junior Foreign Office officials were asked to make hundreds of life and death decisions about which they knew nothing.
Despite the urgency on the ground, Marshall said the default expectation was that FCDO staff would only work eight hours a day, five days a week, and the department prioritised a “work-life balance” as the Taliban seized Kabul.
Barton told the committee that the eight-hour shift patterns were designed to ensure staff did not “burn out”.
He was unable to confirm that all communications sent to the FCDO email address set up to process evacuation requests had been opened and read.
A decision was taken to prioritise people for evacuation rather than reply to “a monumental amount of correspondence”, he told MPs.
Meanwhile, Marshall claimed Johnson had issued an “instruction” to airlift animals from the Kabul charity called Nowzad that was run by Pen Farthing, a former British serviceman.
He said in his written evidence: “There was a direct trade-off between transporting Nowzad’s animals and evacuating UK nationals and Afghan evacuees, including Afghans who had served with British soldiers.”
Downing Street said the allegation that the prime minister had intervened in relation to Nowzad’s animals was “entirely untrue”.
Hours later a letter was leaked which showed Johnson’s parliamentary private secretary telling Farthing that his staff and animals could be evacuated via Kabul airport.
In the letter sent on August 25, Trudy Harrison said the charity’s animals would leave Afghanistan on a “chartered flight” that the Ministry of Defence was supervising.
Downing Street responded to the letter by saying: “This was an operational decision. Neither the PM nor Mrs Johnson were involved. This letter was nothing to do with Ms Harrison’s role as the PM’s PPS, she was acting in her capacity as a constituency MP.”
Harrison did not respond to a request for comment.
Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy said: “While thousands of British nationals and Afghans we promised to help were left in desperate conditions outside Kabul airport, it appears the PM found time to personally intervene on the behalf of this one charity.” He added Johnson “must come clean” about his role.
MPs have said thousands of Afghans eligible to come to the UK were left stranded in Afghanistan amid accusations the government failed to plan adequately before the long-proposed withdrawal of international troops at the end of August.
Marshall claimed it would take “several hours” for Raab to engage on notes detailing specific evacuation cases and that the minister had requested “all the cases [be] set out in a well-presented table to make decisions”.
Given the urgency of the evacuation, “for the foreign secretary to make this request suggests he did not fully understand the situation”, said Marshall.
Pointing to IT failures, Marshall said the decision to merge the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office meant previous DfID staff working in a London crisis centre could not access FCDO computers because “the DfID and FCO IT systems are not yet integrated”.
“They were visibly appalled by our chaotic system,” he added.
Tom Tugendhat, Conservative chair of the committee, said: “These failures betrayed our friends and allies and squandered decades of British and Nato effort.”
Raab, who was foreign secretary until September, rejected Marshall’s allegations. He told the BBC: “It is frankly a mischaracterisation of the pressures. Some of the criticism seems dislocated from the facts on the ground.”
He added: “I don’t doubt there will be lessons to be learned, but if you look at the facts, I think we did a good job by recent standards of evacuations and by international comparisons.”