In a damning report from the foreign affairs committee, MPs say the Foreign Office, the National Security Advisor and Ministers must accept responsibility for the failure to prepare or respond, abandoning the UK’s allies and damaging the UK’s interests.
Missing in action: UK leadership and the withdrawal from Afghanistan is the result of the committee’s inquiry into government policy towards the country. The committee examined the role of the Foreign Office during the evacuation, as well as in leading engagement with the new regime over the next months. They heard from senior officials; met with Afghans who were evacuated; surveyed MPs’ offices on their efforts to help Afghans; and received written, often sensitive, evidence from a wide range of stakeholders including two Foreign Office whistleblowers.
The MPs’ inquiry found that important policy decisions were made through informal, unaccountable means. Senior officials believed the Prime Minister had a greater role than is currently admitted in some of the decisions. The committee did not offer an alternative explanation. The FCDO provided answers that were deliberately vague and misleading. It is not fair to expect government officials to hide the facts in order to avoid political accountability.
Today’s report refers to the ‘appalling mismanagement of the crisis’ and the misleading statements to Parliament which followed. According to the report, those in charge of the Foreign Office should be embarrassed that civil servants of high integrity felt the need for public disclosure. The system must function effectively. This report reveals that the Permanent Under-Secretary has been accused of failing to maintain their confidence and should be considered.
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The report calls on the UK government to develop a strategy for future engagement with Afghanistan. If this is not done, it would be a major reversal of rights for women and girls.
The committee urges the government to establish a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan once again, and to work with civil society supporters on the ground. The Afghan people will not benefit if the new regime is isolated completely. China will fill the vacuum. According to the report, humanitarian aid alone is not enough to prevent catastrophe. The UK should aim to resume development assistance when possible and place Afghan women at its core of its policy towards Afghanistan.
According to the UN World Food Program (UNWFP), up to 20,000,000 Afghans are in urgent need of food due to drought, the effects from the pandemic and the cutting of foreign aid since the Taliban takeover.
Foreign affairs committee chair, Tom Tugendhat MP, said: “The UK’s part in this tragedy exposes a lack of seriousness in achieving co-ordination, a lack of clear decision-making, a lack of leadership and a lack of accountability. We face serious foreign policy challenges at a time where the risks to our economy and lives are so grave, and our diplomacy cannot be so confused or unstructured. It takes serious intent, consistent political leadership, and unity of purpose, clarity, coordination, and clarity.
“The timeline of misery exposed by this report reveals serious systemic failures at the heart of the UK’s foreign policy. The absence of the FCDO’s top leadership – ministerial and official – when Kabul fell is a grave indictment on those supposedly in charge. This inquiry reveals that while junior officials showed courage and integrity they were unable to make informed decisions. Sadly, it may have cost many people the chance to leave Afghanistan, putting lives in danger. The integrity and security of the Civil Service rests on the courage of those who lead these organisations to tell the truth.
“There are many heroes in this story who worked under enormous pressures. We are grateful to the military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan and the FCDO for their assistance during the evacuation. Also, we must thank those who helped from far. Afghanistan is now facing a severe humanitarian crisis. 23 million people are at risk of starvation. Rights for women and girls have seen their greatest reversal since the beginning of the 20th century. The threat of extremism has increased all this while this is happening. We need a serious rethink in the heart of the UK government to combine diplomacy, aid and trade in a concerted and strategic approach to future policy towards Afghanistan.”
A government spokesman said following the report’s release: “Our staff worked tirelessly to evacuate over 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a fortnight. This was the largest UK operation of its kind in recent generations. It was the result of months of planning and collaboration among UK government departments. We are still working hard in Afghanistan to help the people. Over 4,600 Afghans have been evacuated since the end the military evacuation.
“We carried out a thorough review to learn lessons from our withdrawal from Afghanistan and have drawn on many of the findings in our response to the conflict in Ukraine including introducing new systems for managing correspondence and increasing senior oversight of our operational and diplomatic response.”