UK's handling of Afghanistan evacuations was ‘dysfunctional’, ‘chaotic’: Whistleblower

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
People are seen aboard an evacuation flight out of Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 21, 2021. (Photo by AP)

The UK government’s handling of evacuations from Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover in August was “dysfunctional” and “chaotic”, according to a devastating account by a whistleblower.

In a testimony to the foreign affairs select committee published on Tuesday, Raphael Marshall, a former member of the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), revealed the extent of the chaos he witnessed in the office while handling the evacuation process earlier in August.

Marshall said that bureaucratic chaos, ministerial intervention, lack of planning, and then Foreign Minister’s absence and hesitation in making decisions, led to “people being left to die at the hands of the Taliban.”

According to Marshall, there was “inadequate staffing” in the department at the height of the crisis, and he was the only person working on the evacuation desk, choosing individuals to be evacuated on the basis of entirely “arbitrary” criteria.

The development comes after a revelation by the Observer newspaper earlier in August that thousands of emails sent to the UK Foreign Office mailbox by government ministers, MPs and charities, detailing emergency cases of Afghans trying to flee Kabul, had not been read throughout the week.

Confirming the revelation, Marshall reiterated that tens of thousands of Afghans were unable to access the UK help due to the turmoil and confusion in the Foreign Office.

Marshall’s evidence was deemed so serious that an internal inquiry was launched when he presented his account to the permanent secretary of the FCDO’s, Phillip Barton, at the end of August.

According to the Guardian newspaper, the whistleblower’s evidence, along with the internal inquiry, contributed to the decision to move the then foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, from his position in the cabinet.

Raab was heavily criticized by the government officials and faced grilling from the parliament over his absence as the Foreign Secretary during the turmoil in Afghanistan.

Marshal revealed in his testimony that it took hours for Raab to answer his emails as he “did not fully understand the situation.”

"Most people in the FCDO crisis center had a poor understanding of the actual situation at Kabul airport and the consequent urgency of calling people up as soon as possible,” Marshall added.

According to Marshal’s testimony, up to 150,000 UK-linked Afghans applied to be evacuated, but fewer than 5 percent received any assistance.

He said that some of those who needed Raab’s consent never reached the airport.

Uproar was reported at the Ministry of Defense, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered an Afghan animal charity to be given priority for evacuation, Marshall said.

“There was a direct trade-off between transporting Nowzad’s animals and evacuating British nationals and Afghan evacuees, including Afghans who had served with British soldiers,” he claimed.

Furthermore, according to Marshal’s 39-page statement to MPs, specific failures include the department's rigorously enforced eight-hour working day culture, the inability to match the computer systems of the FCDO and the Department for International Development (DfID), the lack of computers for UK forces in Kabul to who were handling evacuation adjustments, a complete lack of expertise including language skills, and a lack of coordination with US allies.

The former member of the FCDO said nobody in the team dealing with evacuation requests had studied or had any detailed knowledge of Afghanistan, or had ever worked there. Even nobody could speak in any Afghan languages, and calls to people asking for help were completely conducted in English, which caused serious challenges.

The UK’s Afghanistan evacuation concluded at the end of August, bringing a sudden end to the 20-year deployment. Johnson repeatedly came under fire over his handling of the crisis, including from his ruling Conservative party, amid mounting criticism that Britain has been far too ineffectual during the mayhem.

Several officials in his government termed the shameful handling as “weak, incomprehensible, and very stupid.”

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