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

On Thursday last week, the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, had tried to sound composed as he announced a small number of British troops were heading out to Afghanistan. Six hundred were being sent to Kabul, he explained, to help Britons and their support staff return to the UK in an orderly manner.

His calmness belied a panic that was already sweeping Whitehall, as ministers and officials watched in horror at the Taliban’s capture of provincial capitals. Wallace, at least, gave the impression of wanting to take charge when other, more senior members of the cabinet were less visible – and in Dominic Raab’s case, invisible.

Boris Johnson was in and out of London, based mostly at his Chequers country retreat, while Raab was sunning himself at an exclusive hotel in Crete, where the cheapest rooms in August can cost £400 a night.

Defence sources tried to put a gloss on the situation, arguing the deployment was long planned, although the key cities of Herat and Kandahar were falling. But that was hard to believe at the time and, a week on, seems less believable still.

Now Whitehall insiders admit it was the turning point, an admission that the Afghan government could be at the point of a collapse that nobody appears to have foreseen.

The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan has precipitated a political one in the UK, with even Tory MPs turning on the government, questioning the competence of ministers who had been caught horribly flat-footed.

Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street on his way to parliament to debate the crisis in Afghanistan
Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street on his way to parliament to debate the crisis in Afghanistan. Photograph: Alberto Pezzali/AP

The scale of the intelligence disaster is already becoming clear. Five weeks earlier, Gen Sir Nick Carter, the head of the British armed forces, had said “it is unlikely that the Taliban would ever get to full authority” and talked up a range of scenarios, including the survival of the Afghan government, a return to warlordism and a deal between the government and the Taliban.

But the key point, then, was that no provincial capitals had fallen; by Thursday last week, the figure was about 10. The unthinkable was becoming a reality.

At the Foreign Office there were genuine fears that the British embassy and its 500 remaining staff could be a target as the Taliban advanced – one MP was briefed that there were worries about “a threat to life” from reprisals aimed at westerners.

Johnson had said last Friday that the “vast bulk” of the embassy staff were being evacuated, and would be leaving at speed over the next 48 hours as paratroopers flew in.

The crisis was deepening at dizzying speed, yet on Saturday Johnson headed to Somerset for a holiday and Raab remained in Crete, at one point declining to make a call to his Afghan counterpart, delegating it to a colleague. The call was never made.

Wallace, meanwhile, played the role of government point man, with sources saying he worked all weekend, coordinating the beginnings of the evacuation and military deployment. But by Sunday it was clear this was too little, too late.

In a day of unrelenting drama, the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, fled and the Taliban simply drove into Kabul, capturing a city of more than 4 million people with barely a shot fired. Johnson, meanwhile, was spotted at Taunton station, shirt untucked, as he headed back to London to chair his second emergency Cobra meeting of the crisis. Raab was still in Crete, only to return at 1.40am that night.

Back in London, Wallace had become increasingly annoyed. It was late on Sunday when he said to colleagues that there would be “a reckoning” for the Foreign Office after the crisis was over, complaining that diplomats “were on the first plane out” – leaving young soldiers to process evacuation and resettlement claims.

The cabinet minister had not intended the remarks to leak – and when they did he sought to paper over the cracks, with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) issuing a statement saying “the secretaries of state for defence, foreign and Home Office have worked side by side”.

Afghan people desperate to leave the country climb atop a plane at Kabul international airport
Afghan people desperate to leave the country climb atop a plane at Kabul international airport. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

By Monday there was chaos at Kabul’s international airport: desperate Afghans were running around the airfield in the hope of fleeing the country. Some people fell to their deaths, having tried unsuccessfully to cling to a US military transport plane as it took off.

More troops had to be committed, about 200 to 300 for the British, while the US force went from 3,000 to more than 5,000 in a frantic attempt to secure the vital airstrip.Once that had happened, a day later, other civil servants began to fly back in to process the evacuation effort, with an estimated 3,000 Britons and dual citizens plus a further 3,000 Afghans eligible for resettlement still in the country.

“Cross-Whitehall colleagues are now joining us,” confirmed V Adm Ben Key, the commander of joint operations, on Tuesday morning.

Parliament was to be recalled on Wednesday and MPs reported growing numbers of constituents emailing them, concerned about the chaos at the airport, while others desperately sought help for Afghan interpreters and others who might have a right to come to the UK as part of the resettlement scheme.

It was easy, too, to find frustration with Raab.

One senior Conservative MP simply went on a rant, accusing the foreign secretary of being out of touch with his diplomatic network and even describing him as a “traitor”; another Tory said of Wallace: “Everybody with a problem is ringing Ben because they know he will pick up the phone.”

Wallace had been due to sum up Wednesday’s parliamentary debate, according to Labour sources, but the task was handed to Raab, perhaps to boost his standing. During a tense Commons session, the first time the chamber had been full since the coronavirus pandemic, Johnson struggled to assert his authority as he insisted a full Taliban takeover was “part of our planning” – while Raab was clearly needled.

Tensions spilled over. As the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, criticised Raab for staying “on holiday while Kabul was falling”, the foreign secretary shouted “Captain Hindsight” back across the floor, in remarks not recorded by Hansard, while his Labour counterpart, Lisa Nandy, yelled back “you’re orange, you’re orange”, referring to Raab’s suntan.

Meanwhile, senior Whitehall officials were conceding in meetings that in the aftermath of the panicked retreat the UK had no intelligence capability beyond Kabul, and what there was in the capital was heavily reliant on the US. With the Taliban in full control outside the airport, those awaiting rescue were being told to hold tight until called to the British centre outside the airport.

Relations with the US appear strained. MoD sources say there is excellent operational coordination on the ground, but the situation is less clear at the strategic level. There remains a worry in Whitehall over whether US forces will remain in Kabul after a mooted 31 August deadline, even allowing for Joe Biden’s midweek reassurance that his country’s forces would stay until they get US citizens “all out”.

British citizens and dual nationals board a military plane for evacuation from Kabul airport
British citizens and dual nationals board a military plane for evacuation from Kabul airport. Photograph: UK MoD crown copyright 2021/Reuters

Everybody involved with working on the evacuation process knows time is short, using almost all the RAF’s spare airlift capacity, some of which will be cut as result of this spring’s defence review when the Hercules is scrapped.

British sources say the Taliban are largely cooperative, but it is still taking people 24 to 48 hours to cross the city, with many turning back home, too afraid to pass checkpoints. The agreement to allow people to leave unmolested is with the US, and not the UK, security sources say.

Progress has been good but uneven: 2,400 people have been airlifted since Sunday, including 600 British nationals, though that is below the 1,000 a day hoped for, with planes on average three-quarters full.

Even making the short journey from the British processing centre to the planes had been very difficult because so many people have been crowding around the airport. But on Friday night US and British forces restructured the entrance to make access possible.

Back in London, Wallace has publicly sought to prop up the beleaguered Raab, defending him on Thursday morning against accusations that he had failed to make a call to his then Afghan counterpart last Friday, saying in the latest of his broadcast rounds “it wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference” because by then Afghanistan’s government was “melting away quicker than ice”.

Meanwhile, the foreign secretary released pictures of himself the same day making calls at his desk, and participating in a virtual G7, to demonstrate how engaged he was in the crisis.

But there is increasing speculation at Westminster that Raab is vulnerable in the next reshuffle, when the reckoning that was incautiously sought by his cabinet counterpart could arrive.

• This article was amended on 21 August 2021. An earlier version said US and British forces had “built a bridge” to ease access to the airport; it has been clarified that the work was to restructure the entrance.

Contributor

Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor

The GuardianTramp

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