Damning new light has been shed on the hour-by-hour decisions taken and frustrations encountered by a civil servant trying to help desperate Afghans flee the country in the days after the Taliban takeover.
These are some of the key criticisms made by Raphael Marshall, a former desk officer at the Foreign Office.
Thousands of emails went unread
The government falsely claimed each request for evacuation was logged, when in fact thousands of emails – including many sent by MPs – went unread, Marshall said.
When Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs committee, complained to the then foreign secretary Dominic Raab’s private office that 10 cases he had raised in an email had not been read, a message was sent back to Tugendhat saying: “We were processing them.”
But Marshall said that was wrong: “In fact, none of these cases had so far been processed at all.”
Marshall estimated that up to 150,000 people applied for evacuation, but that fewer than 5% of those got any assistance. He added: “It is clear that some of those left behind have since been murdered by the Taliban.”
When a new system was introduced following fury at the masses of unread emails, Marshall said all emails were then read, but nothing was done with their contents and that he thought this was “to allow the prime minister and the then foreign secretary to inform MPs that there were no unread emails”.
The inbox was also at one point temporarily locked, which Marshall believes was evidence that the initial process was merely “a public relations purpose”.
Evacuees prioritised without consistency
Even for those whose pleas for help were read, the criteria for deciding who should be eligible for evacuation was “unhelpful”, Marshall said, because they did not lay out which, if all, should be met, leaving the decision to individuals’ discretion.
He claimed Raab approved a list of professions that should be prioritised – such as judges and intelligence officers – but that this was not provided to people processing the emails.
This meant guards who had protected the British Embassy were not prioritised for evacuation, Marshall said. A lack of evidence required to back up people’s claims about how much danger they were in also meant it was possible that “some evacuation spots were misallocated to people”.
Those picked were then added to a spreadsheet; however, Marshall said, the summaries of people’s cases were “inconsistent and likely often misleading”.
A second spreadsheet was then created on which a single senior civil servant narrowed down further the people to prioritise. “There was therefore no effective review of these decisions,” Marshall said.
Lack of staff, experience and equipment
No members of the Afghan special cases team had studied the country or worked on it previously, Marshall said. He said the “team leader” on two morning shifts “did not know that the correct term for people from Afghanistan was Afghans and referred repeatedly to ‘Afghanis’”.
Lack of experience was also a problem. Until 24 August, Marshall said calls were made “only in English”, adding that the Dari text of emails inviting Afghans for evacuation was inaccurate, because it said a printed version of the email was necessary to enter Kabul airport, when in fact a digital copy was enough.
Soldiers drafted in to help with the evacuation requests were also given laptops that did not work because the FCDO’s IT department had not issued the passwords to unlock them. Marshall believed this could “directly result in the deaths of people unnecessarily left behind”.
FCDO ‘working culture’
Despite the gravity of the situation, Marshall said, the default expectation remained that FCDO staff would continue to work normal hours, and only be asked to do extra shifts.
This resulted in frequent personnel changes and “serious shortages of capacity”, Marshall said, blaming a “deliberate drive by the FCDO to prioritise ‘work-life balance’”. He concluded: “The FCDO’s approach has undermined organisational effectiveness.”
Poor integration between departments
Once the FCDO finalised the evacuation list, the details were sent to the Home Office for security checks. However, anyone who had not provided all relevant details in their initial request – such as passport number and date of birth – was eliminated from the process.
It took six hours for the Home Office to start confirming who had passed security clearance, and most took longer. This was a “predictable consequence” of sending one group of around 1,000 names in a single batch, Marshall said.
The night before the mass list was sent, a shorter list of “very high priority cases” was sent over. But Marshall said that when he checked on its progress 24 hours later, he discovered it had been “lost somewhere”.
When soldiers were drafted in to fill shifts civil servants could only be requested to fill, Marshall said their MoD clearance was not recognised by the FCDO, so they “had to be escorted” to “guard against potential espionage”.
Even within the Foreign Office, civil servants who worked at the former Department for International Development who had volunteered to help were “appalled by our chaotic system” and could not have live documents or access to the shared inbox because the IT systems had not been integrated, Marshall said.
PM’s push to evacuate animals at ‘direct expense’ of those at risk of murder
Despite the huge numbers of people trying to escape, Marshall said the FCDO “received an instruction from the prime minister” to use “considerable capacity” to help animals leave Afghanistan that were in the care of Nowzad, the charity run by Paul “Pen” Farthing.
The fact that Nowzad said it could charter a plane itself was irrelevant, because British soldiers would have to spend time escorting the animals instead of human beings and there was limited capacity at the airport, he concluded.
Marshall believed the government “transported animals which were not at risk of harm at the direct expense of evacuating British nationals and people at risk of imminent murder, including interpreters who had served with the British Army”.