Dominic Raab has rebuffed a number of charges from a whistleblower who claimed there was an incompetent and chaotic response after the fall of Kabul, saying he would make no apology for requesting officials redo urgent appeals for help from Afghans in a different spreadsheet format.
The chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Tom Tugendhat, said the testimony from former Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office staff member Raphael Marshall was shocking and meant there were serious questions for the FCDO to answer.
“This is an individual, 25 years old, who states that at various points he was completely on his own dealing with a huge casework of incoming emails and phone calls, in a Foreign Office that was effectively a Mary Celeste at the time of national emergency,” he told Radio 4’s Today programme. “Now if that’s true, that’s really concerning.”
Raab, now deputy prime minister and justice secretary but then foreign secretary, was on holiday as the Taliban took Kabul, as was the permanent secretary, Sir Philip Barton.
Marshall, who had three years’ experience, has quit the department and submitted testimony to the select committee. At one point at the height of the crisis, he says he was the only person working on the evacuation desk, and was having to make life and death decisions on individuals to be evacuated on the basis of entirely haphazard criteria.
He has claimed Raab showed a misunderstanding of the process and the desperate position at Kabul airport by delaying several emergency evacuation referrals.
Raab said it was inaccurate to describe the system as dysfunctional. He said: “Well over 1,000 Foreign Office staff were working often night and day on rota system … as well as the troops on the ground in Afghanistan under incredible operational pressures. I would point to the fact that in just two weeks, 15,000 people were evacuated.
“I don’t think in living memory we’ve seen an operation on that scale and certainly in relation to this one, no other country bar the United States evacuated more.”
He said that the testimony was “inaccurate” and that desk officials were not making decisions. “There’s difference in processing and deciding. So I’m afraid I don’t accept that characterisation,” he said.
“All of the pressures were on the ground in Afghanistan, and they were twofold. We had a large number of undocumented people coming forward. The verification for undocumented applicants was one of the big challenges. The second one was getting people to the airport.”
Raab said it was a “reasonably swift turnaround” for it to take several hours to make decisions. Marshall said Raab had requested better formatted evidence. “It is hard to explain why he reserved the decision for himself but failed to make it immediately,” Marshall says.
“I make no apology for saying I needed the clear facts for each case presented precisely so that we can make swift decisions,” Raab told Today.
“You can’t just have emails coming through and examining them one by one, they need to be plated, the key facts drawn out and, of course, they need to be verified, which is why what London was doing was inextricably linked with the challenges of gleaning information on the ground with the Taliban takeover.”
In his testimony, Marshall estimates between 75,000 and 150,000 people (including dependants) applied for evacuation under the special case scheme.
The vast majority of these applicants feared their lives were at risk as a result of their connection to the UK and the west and were therefore eligible for evacuation.
In a 39-page statement to MPs on the foreign affairs select committee, Marshall estimates fewer than 5% received help.