Whistleblower condemns Foreign Office over Kabul evacuation

<span>Photograph: Akhter Gulfam/EPA</span>
Photograph: Akhter Gulfam/EPA

Ex-diplomat claims string of failings within department led to ‘people being left to die at the hands of the Taliban’

Tens of thousands of Afghans were unable to access UK help following the fall of Kabul because of turmoil and confusion in the Foreign Office, according a devastating account by a whistleblower.

A former diplomat has claimed bureaucratic chaos, ministerial intervention, lack of planning and a short-hours culture in the department led to “people being left to die at the hands of the Taliban”.

The evidence of Raphael Marshall was deemed so serious that an internal inquiry was launched when he presented his account to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) permanent secretary, Sir Phillip Barton, at the end of August.

It is likely the whistleblower’s evidence and the launch of the still unpublished internal inquiry contributed to the decision to move the then foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, to a new cabinet role.

Marshall, an Oxford graduate with three years in the diplomatic service, had volunteered to work on the FCDO’s special cases team at the height of the crisis in August following the sudden fall of Kabul to the Taliban.

He has now quit the department and, in testimony to the foreign affairs select committee published on Tuesday, he reveals the extent of the chaos he witnessed.

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 haphazard process and desperate position at Kabul airport by delaying several emergency evacuation referrals.

Rather than acting immediately, Raab – he said – insisted on further, better formatted evidence. “It is hard to explain why he reserved the decision for himself but failed to make it immediately,” Marshall says.

Marshall claims some of those that needed Raab’s consent never reached the airport, and in another case the team went ahead without waiting any longer for a response by Raab.

Marshall has also questioned whether Downing Street had been correct to tell parliament that all emails from Afghans attempting to leave the country had been processed by 6 September.

The whistleblower also reveals the uproar inside the Ministry of Defence when Boris Johnson ordered an Afghan animal charity to be given priority for evacuation.

The number of unread emails was already in the high thousands … and increasing constantly

Raphael Marshall

In his testimony, Marshall claims: “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.”

The civil servant worked for a team responsible for helping people whose lives were at risk due to their connection with the UK.

The applicants did not qualify for the Arap (Afghan relocations and assistance policy) scheme – which was meant for those who had been directly employed by the UK government.

But they included Afghan soldiers, politicians, journalists, civil servants, feminists, aid workers and judges.

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.

Marshall says: “At the height of the crisis on the afternoon of Saturday 21 August, I was the only person monitoring and processing emails in the Afghan special cases inbox.

“No emails from after early Friday afternoon had been read at that point. The number of unread emails was already in the high thousands, I believe above 5,000, and increasing constantly.”

Marshall said that, given the excess demand for places, it was critical that credible selection criteria were applied, but he says this did not happen. Instead, he claims the criteria provided were entirely subjective.

“Staff were scared by making hundreds of life and death decisions about which they knew nothing,” he says.

Specific failings include a rigidly enforced eight-hour working day culture, the inability to match the computer systems of the FCDO and the Department for International Development (DfID) – which had merged with the Foreign Office in 2020, the lack of computers for soldiers in Kabul calling forward selected evacuees, a complete lack of expertise including language skills, and a lack of coordination with US allies.

He claims the parallel Arap scheme was equally dysfunctional, saying that on the evening of Thursday 26 August, there were 4,914 unread emails in the Arap specific inbox.

There was confusion between the two email inboxes meaning cases were left for days without anyone noticing, he alleges.

For five nights in succession, he claims no night shift staff were deployed. DfID staff recruited to help “were visibly appalled by the system”.

Yet despite the urgency of the situation, the default expectation remained that staff in the FCDO would only work eight hours a day, five days a week. FCDO employees were only asked to work shifts for which they volunteered.

He adds that despite repeated requests it was not possible to find how many names had already been called up for evacuation, meaning the department never knew how many slots were still available. In the end, soldiers at the airport selected individuals on the basis of the order of their names on a Home Office spreadsheet.

He says it is unclear why, in contrast to the Ministry of Defence, the civilian planning for the evacuation was seemingly not finalised until four or five days after the fall of Kabul.

His statement to MPs adds: “Many of these emails also documented numerous recent grave human rights abuses by the Taliban, including murders, rapes and the burning of homes.

“The contrast between HMG’s statements about a changed Taliban and the large number of highly credible allegations of very grave human rights abuses HMG has received by email is striking.”

Marshall reveals he urged the permanent secretary to consider whether the chaos was so systemic that a breach of the ministerial code had occurred, but he was told the code did not in effect cover acts of inefficiency.

A source close to Raab said: “We evacuated over 500 special cases, including journalists, women’s rights activists and extremely vulnerable individuals.

“The major practical challenge to evacuation was verifying identity and securing safe passage to the airport, not the speed of decision making. At all times, the team’s focus was on saving lives.”

A UK government spokesperson said staff, including 1,000 from the FCDO, “worked tirelessly to evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a fortnight … [in] the biggest mission of its kind in generations and the second largest evacuation carried out by any country”.

They added: “The scale of the evacuation and the challenging circumstances meant decisions on prioritisation had to be made quickly to ensure we could help as many people as possible.

“Regrettably we were not able to evacuate all those we wanted to, but ... since the end of the operation we have helped more than 3,000 individuals leave Afghanistan.”