Afghanistan crisis: Johnson took holiday as Kabul was about to fall

Former senior military and security figures say PM’s decision to depart was ‘dereliction of duty’

Boris Johnson’s departure on holiday on Saturday, despite public warnings the Taliban would be in Kabul within hours, has been criticised as a “dereliction of duty” by former senior military and security figures.

It emerged on Monday that the prime minister and the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, took their summer holidays at the same time before both taking the decision to return.

Johnson had gone to Somerset, and Raab was in Crete until Sunday, hours before the fall of Kabul, after being absent from public debate for more than a week.

Major Gen Charlie Herbert, who undertook three tours of duty in Afghanistan between 2007-18, said: “It is almost impossible to believe that the prime minister departed on holiday on Saturday; he should hang his head in shame. It is dereliction of duty on an extraordinary scale.

“He is overseeing one of the greatest military humiliations in the recent history of this country. Three weeks ago Gen Lord Dannatt and 44 other senior retired military officers wrote openly to the government to express their grave concern about the handling of the interpreter issue and urged the government to accelerate the relocations.

“That they failed to heed the warning is symptomatic of the disastrous complacency that has led to this national humiliation. Interpreters will die as a result of their apathy.”

Lord Ricketts, the former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), told the Guardian that Johnson’s holiday decision was “one more piece of evidence that Whitehall as a whole failed to anticipate either the scale or the speed of the collapse of the Afghan regime and the implications for British interest”.

Adm Lord West, the former first sea lord and chief of the naval staff, said: “I would be extremely surprised and indeed appalled if the JIC and assessments staffs were not predicting a very rapid collapse of the Afghan regime in the face of Taliban pressure by Saturday.

“In view of that I find the prime minister’s decision to go on holiday surprising. I also find the foreign secretary’s absence baffling. Holidays are important but not crucial. World events have a remarkable habit of happening in August and the government needs to be capable of responding quickly.”

Johnson returned from Somerset and chaired his second Cobra meeting on Afghanistan in three days on Sunday afternoon, as well as speaking to Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, and the UN secretary general, António Guterres, about the Taliban takeover.

No 10 said he would remain working in Downing Street until at least Wednesday, when parliament will be recalled.

“The prime minister has returned to Downing Street today,” his spokesperson said. “He has been monitoring the situation in Afghanistan throughout.” No 10 also said Raab had attended meetings while away and spoken to ambassadors and senior staff.

Johnson’s spokesperson said the Taliban “have moved swiftly across the country, but we’ve monitored the situation throughout and have been focused on getting out those Afghan nationals who’ve been working with the British and obviously the British nationals themselves”.

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said there had been a “catastrophic miscalculation” over the strength of the Taliban and the resilience of Afghan forces. Starmer said Raab should have returned sooner from his holiday, and described the speed of the government’s response to the situation in Afghanistan as slow.

Asked whether he should have returned from holiday sooner to deal with the crisis, Raab said: “As we’ve just described, everyone was caught by surprise by the pace and the scale of the Taliban takeover.

“I think the important thing to understand is right the way through last week … I’ve been directly in touch with my team, directing them, which has paid the dividends. You can see what we’ve delivered with 150 British nationals who are going to be arriving back in the UK tomorrow [Tuesday] morning.”

• This article was amended on 17 August 2021 to correct where Dominic Raab was on holiday.


Jessica Elgot Chief political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Tories rebuke Boris Johnson over ‘catastrophic’ Afghanistan failure
Former PM Theresa May says country ‘may once again become a breeding ground for terrorism’

Rowena Mason and Peter Walker

18, Aug, 2021 @2:22 PM

Article image
Too little, too late: why it was panic stations in Whitehall as Kabul fell
How the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan precipitated a political one at the heart of UK government

Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor

20, Aug, 2021 @3:14 PM

Article image
Afghanistan: key questions about the government’s handling of the crisis
Dominic Raab is under pressure after the foreign secretary remained on holiday while the Taliban advanced on Kabul

Peter Walker Political correspondent

19, Aug, 2021 @6:43 PM

Article image
Johnson to urge Biden to keep US troops at Kabul airport after 31 August
PM’s request to be made at G7 summit as Taliban increases grip on access to flights

Dan Sabbagh, Peter Beaumont and Peter Walker

23, Aug, 2021 @3:58 AM

Article image
Dominic Raab seems to contradict PM by saying Taliban takeover was surprise
Foreign secretary says Afghanistan’s fall came ‘faster than anyone anticipated’ during Islamabad visit

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor and Haroon Janjua

03, Sep, 2021 @12:23 PM

Article image
UK nationals of Afghan origin being overlooked in Kabul airlift, claim lawyers
Most single-nationality Britons now evacuated but some with dual citizenship say they are being given lower priority

Amelia Gentleman

25, Aug, 2021 @6:49 PM

Article image
Boris Johnson: UK will continue with final stages of Kabul airlift
Prime minister says ‘we’re going to keep going until the last moment’, despite deadly attack on airport

Peter Walker and Andrew Sparrow

26, Aug, 2021 @6:11 PM

Article image
Yesterday’s war: why Raab did not foresee Afghanistan catastrophe
Analysis: minister’s call log shows he had little interest in Afghanistan, prioritising India and south-east Asia

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

03, Sep, 2021 @2:38 PM

Article image
UK and US took ‘joint decision’ to keep Kabul airport gate open
British sources dispute claim US forces kept gate ‘open longer than they wanted to’ before deadly attack last week

Dan Sabbagh, Heather Stewart and Patrick Wintour

31, Aug, 2021 @6:33 PM

Article image
Boris Johnson announces end of UK military mission in Afghanistan
Labour says ‘washing hands’ of conflict now will lead to bloodier war and wider Taliban control

Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor

08, Jul, 2021 @2:53 PM