ON July 8, 2021, the Prime Minister announced that there was ‘no military path to victory for the Taliban’ in Afghanistan. Six weeks later, by August 15, the Taliban had retaken practically all the country. Two weeks after that, the last British personnel left Kabul.
With the publication on Tuesday of the Foreign Affairs Committee report Missing in Action: UK Leadership and the Withdrawal from Afghanistan, British politics and prestige has reached a new nadir.It is not merely an account of a shambolic mess, nor even a scandal. It is a frank appraisal of the depth of the rot at the highest level of the State. It concludes: ‘There were systemic failures of intelligence, diplomacy, planning and preparation, which raise questions about machinery of Government, principally the National Security Council.’
This sorry episode is a tale of chaos, ministerial indifference, habitual lies and the casual misleading of Parliament. The buried lede is the fact that government business is now done in such a way that at the moment of maximum havoc no one can – or will – say who decided what, and nor will we ever know.
I cannot remember a report more damaging to the reputation not merely of a government, but to the way of governing itself. The Foreign Office misled Parliament, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab did the same, the Civil Service misled the Foreign Secretary. The permanent under-secretary of the FCDO repeatedly lied to conceal a decision-making process whose authority and methods of execution cannot be discovered because the evidence has been made to disappear. In all this, when clear leadership was needed, the Prime Minister was nowhere.
This is how the Government does business in a crisis. Ministers and senior officials were on holiday during the fall of Kabul, British staff withdrawn at a critical moment for several days, leaving life-or-death decisions in the hands of MoD staff and junior officials. Decisions on who was to be saved and who not from the 7,000 Afghan staff and their families who had worked for the British Government in their homeland were therefore taken on the strength of a quick Google.
The report says that ‘most damning for the Foreign Office is the total absence of a plan for evacuating Afghans who supported the UK mission’ – despite having 18 months’ notice of the US intention to withdraw from Afghanistan. The embassy in Kabul had to be cleared in nine hours, leaving sensitive documents in place. The report shows that 1,500 Afghans were ‘called forward but not evacuated’. These people who had served Britain were likely sentenced to death.
Emails from people at risk of being killed were opened ‘at random’ and in many cases ‘not at all’ because there was no procedure for responding to requests for help from people who had risked their lives for Britain. However, emails from MPswere all opened and answered: ‘This was purely in order to enable the Foreign Secretary to say that all emails from MPs had been read, and to issue a generic response. I do not believe that anything was actually done with any of the information in these emails at that time. The only urgent requirement was to manage the political fallout and to appear to MPs as if something was being done.’
In moments of extreme crisis there is no substance, no seriousness. Just a performance for the gallery, and a keen eye on the media. Look behind the curtain and there is nothing there.
Were it not for the courage of two whistleblowers willing to risk personal ruin, we would never have known that statements to Parliament and to ministers were deliberately misleading. They concealed a means of decision-making which typifies the ‘unserious and chaotic’ working practices of the Government which the committee found to be endemic.
The folly began well before the fall. In an attempt to believe things into being, HM Government appears to have pursued a policy of ‘optimism bias’ – simply pretending that the US withdrawal would not happen: ‘As a result, the UK made only limited attempts to shape Washington’s decision by convincing it to remain, or to leave enough troops to prevent collapse of the Afghan government.’
No one listened, anyway. This reveals two sobering facts: that the US required informing that its plans were disastrous and would not listen, and that the UK has no power remaining to be heard. We don’t matter. Remember this when the US pivots to its next obsession without warning.
The report repeatedly stresses admiration for the staff and troops who managed to prevail against the policy and planning failures made by ‘a Government asleep on watch’. This is a failure of leadership. The fish is rotting from the head, and it stinks.
The magnificent edifice of grand objectives, imperial might, of shock and awe and loya jirga, pallets of cash, Viagra for our brave allies and their boy harems, of the rote repetition of every vanity enacted by the Russians a generation before in hoping to remake Afghanistan in the image of the occupier, fell dramatically into a ruin that crushed the powerless whilst the mighty made free with riches beyond the dreams of avarice.
The United States has seized the foreign currency reserves of Afghanistan, and Britain’s aid – though increased from £155million to £286million in 2020-21 – is inadequate to avoid a humanitarian disaster which, the committee argues, is our responsibility for having handed the country to the Taliban. Some 23million people reportedly face starvation. It is incredible that this can be the case, given the dazzling treasure shovelled into the country over the 20-year bonanza of the war.
Such is the fate of the ordinary man, to be beggared and bombed by billionaires. It is a sorry tale now playing out in another theatre, where the script is the same. A great vanishing act of vast fortunes into a black hole of death for the little people. To remember Afghanistan and the humiliating pratfall that was the withdrawal is to beggar belief that another came so soon. As the Americans lose interest in Ukraine – and they are doing – it is to be hoped that the sheer incompetence of our government can be relied upon to prevent any further escalation.
If you don’t care for Afghanistan, and you don’t care much for government, perhaps you might care to remember that this is how we treat our friends. Even if you don’t, the friends we have now, and the friends we wish to make in future do care. They will remember. This is the kind of news that stays news for a long time.