Row erupts in cabinet over evacuation of UK diplomats from Kabul

Exclusive: defence secretary accuses Foreign Office of leaving MoD staff to handle visa fallout, say sources

Cabinet splits have emerged over Afghanistan, with the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, accusing the Foreign Office of evacuating diplomats while leaving soldiers and Ministry of Defence staff to handle the fallout of the Taliban takeover.

The frustrated minister told colleagues he believed there would be “a reckoning” for the Foreign Office after the crisis, sources told the Guardian.

He complained that diplomats had been “on the first plane out”, with MoD officials having to replace them and bear the brunt of processing resettlement claims for people trying to flee the Afghan capital.

MoD officials, some soldiers and other civil servants were on Monday helping frantic efforts to process claims from up to 4,000 Afghans thought to be eligible for resettlement in the UK amid chaotic scenes at Kabul’s international airport.

Wallace told senior colleagues he was frustrated at “18-year-old squaddies having to process visa applications of incredible complexity at speed” in an effort to get Afghans who helped the British during the 20-year conflict out of the country.

Wallace’s criticism came as the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, was under fire for being on holiday as the crisis unfolded in the past week. Raab and Boris Johnson curtailed breaks in Crete and Somerset respectively this weekend after holidaying at the same time.

In his first public appearance since the crisis began, Raab said on Monday afternoon that “everyone was caught by surprise by the pace and the scale of the Taliban takeover”, in which Kabul fell to the Islamist group over the weekend.

The foreign secretary said about 150 British nationals were due to arrive in the UK in the early hours of Tuesday morning and there would be 350 further arrivals of British and Afghan nationals in coming days.

The UK ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Laurie Bristow, had been due to be airlifted out of the country on Sunday night. But on Monday it emerged he would stay in Kabul airport, signing visa applications.

Foreign Office officials are advising all British nationals still in Afghanistan “to shelter in place unless further flight options become available”, with some being hidden in safe houses in Kabul secured by the SAS. It is unclear how many more people the RAF will be able to evacuate.

On Monday night, the UK said it was sending in another 300 armed forces personnel to help safeguard the airport and process visa claims, taking its total to 900. The US has about 3,000 troops in the airport area, with another 3,000 due to arrive later in the week.

Johnson also announced that he hoped to convene a “virtual meeting” of G7 leaders to discuss the unfolding crisis “in the coming days” after a Monday afternoon phone call with the French president, Emmanuel Macron.

Downing Street said the prime minister urged “the international community to come together and take a unified approach” on Afghanistan “in terms of recognising any future government and in working to prevent a humanitarian and refugee crisis”.

A No 10 spokesperson said Johnson “has been monitoring the situation in Afghanistan throughout” and that Raab had attended meetings while away and spoken to ambassadors and senior staff.

The MoD initially declined to comment, but late on Monday the department insisted it worked closely across government. A MoD spokesperson added: At all times, the secretaries of state for defence, foreign and Home Office have worked side by side in dealing with this crisis.”

  • This article was amended on 19 August 2021 to correct where Dominic Raab was on holiday.


Dan Sabbagh, Rowena Mason and Jessica Elgot

The GuardianTramp

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