The UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was a “disaster” and “betrayal” of its partners in the country caused by systemic failures of intelligence, diplomacy, planning and preparation, according to a parliamentary report into last year’s pullout of British troops.
The cross-party House of Commons foreign affairs select committee said that the chaotic departure from the country would “damage the UK’s interests for years to come.”
The report published on Tuesday added that the UK government failed “to shape or respond to Washington’s decision to withdraw” or predict the speed of the Taliban’s takeover within Afghanistan.
The committee was heavily critical of the senior leadership at the Foreign Office. Both the then foreign secretary Dominic Raab and the department’s top civil servant, Sir Philip Barton, faced heavy criticism after it emerged they both remained on holiday as it became clear that Afghanistan’s capital was about to fall to the Taliban last August.
“The fact that the Foreign Office’s senior leaders were on holiday when Kabul fell marks a fundamental lack of seriousness, grip or leadership at a time of national emergency,” the report said.
Raab was moved weeks later in a reshuffle to become justice secretary and deputy prime minister and replaced by Liz Truss. Barton remains in post and the report said the committee had “lost confidence” in the permanent under secretary, adding that he should “consider his position”.
MPs also voiced concern over the UK’s evacuation efforts, arguing that in particular there was a “total absence of a plan for evacuating Afghans who over the years had supported the UK mission.”
It added: “The hasty effort to select those eligible for evacuation was poorly devised, managed, and staffed; and the department failed to perform the most basic crisis-management functions.”
The report praised the “hardworking officials and military personnel” who oversaw the evacuation itself, which flew 15,000 people out of Kabul over a 13 day period in August. But it added: “In broader terms the evacuation — once it began — suffered from serious and avoidable failings, many of them the responsibility of the [Foreign Office].”
The committee also criticised the government’s response in the aftermath in trying to help other Afghan nationals to flee the country. “Many have received only occasional generic emails, not personalised to their case, with conflicting advice about whether to attempt the dangerous border crossing,” the report said.
“Multiple” senior officials told the committee that they believed prime minister Boris Johnson “played a role” in the controversial decision to allow a charity’s staff and animals to be evacuated from Kabul at the height of Britain’s rescue operation. Johnson has previously described any suggestion that he intervened during the process as “total rhubarb”.
Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of the committee, said the report highlighted “serious systemic failures at the heart of the UK’s foreign policy”. He added: “The absence of the [Foreign Office’s] top leadership — ministerial and official — when Kabul fell is a grave indictment on those supposedly in charge. While junior officials demonstrated courage and integrity, chaotic and arbitrary decision-making runs through this inquiry”.
The report also called on the government to establish a “serious strategy” for its long term future relationship with Afghanistan. It warned that attempts to isolate the new Taliban regime entirely may reduce the UK’s influence in the region leaving a power vacuum to be filled by countries such as China.
The government said it had carried out a “thorough review to learn the lessons” from the withdrawal. It said it was still “working hard to assist the people [of] Afghanistan, having already helped over 4,600 individuals to leave the country since the end of the military evacuation.”