When judging a government’s performance in a crisis, there is a distinction to be drawn between control and responsibility. No British minister could have stopped the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. But there was time for contingency planning between that unilateral US policy being declared in February 2020 and its completion last month. Dominic Raab could not control the Taliban’s advance on Kabul, but that does not excuse him from responsibility for a chaotic and incomplete evacuation.
In an appearance before a parliamentary select committee on Wednesday, the foreign secretary sought cover behind intelligence assessments predicting a slower decay of the situation in Afghanistan, with the capital not falling this year.
Mr Raab also cited “optimism bias” in the run-up to US withdrawal as a factor, which is a delicate way of admitting that Whitehall was in denial. Even so, the foreign secretary insists that plans for a dramatic deterioration of the security environment did exist, which raises an awkward question: to what extent do events of recent weeks reflect the implementation of those plans? They cannot have been very good if the result is the abandonment of so many people: hundreds of British nationals and their dependants; many thousands of Afghans who had supported allied forces; female politicians and journalists; human rights activists and anyone who worked for causes that are despised by the Taliban. The foreign secretary could not say how many; all are now in danger of brutal reprisal.
When it was put to him that other European countries have been more effective in evacuating their citizens, the foreign secretary cited the comparatively bigger scale of British involvement in Afghanistan. But that compounds the offence. A bigger presence demanded a bigger plan.
The foreign secretary would be on firmer ground if he had not been on holiday as the Taliban closed in on Kabul. To the charge of negligence Mr Raab pleads delegation. Managing vital diplomatic business is a team effort. Calls to fellow foreign ministers and liaison with UK ambassadors in the region can be handled by capable deputies.
At best, that is an explanation of how the system is supposed to work in normal times, which is a tacit admission that Mr Raab failed to recognise the scale of the emergency as it struck. Hindsight, he says, gives him cause to regret that holiday. But where was the foresight? The Foreign Office had been calling on UK nationals to leave Afghanistan from the first week of August. Given the danger of their escape being thwarted, a dutiful secretary of state might have considered staying at his desk.
It is unfair to funnel all of the blame for the government’s mishandling of the Afghan crisis on to one minister. One problem with the caseload of evacuees is an absence of coordination between the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence. A chatter of recrimination around Whitehall confirms that interdepartmental communication over Afghanistan is dysfunctional, which in turn reflects poorly on Downing Street. If Mr Raab has insufficient grip of a major international crisis, it is Boris Johnson’s duty to replace him with someone who does, or take charge himself. Sadly, the prime minister does not have much of an appetite when it comes to making tough choices or owning the consequences. For the time being, it suits him to have a weak foreign secretary in place to absorb criticism that might otherwise be directed at No 10.
But there are many thousands of vulnerable people in Afghanistan who urgently need a British government staffed with people who are capable of taking control in a crisis and of taking responsibility for their actions.