By Kylie MacLellan
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s handling of the evacuation of vulnerable Afghans from Kabul after the Taliban seized power in August was dysfunctional and chaotic, a Foreign Office whistleblower said in evidence disputed by former foreign secretary Dominic Raab.
The government has repeatedly defended its airlift operation against criticism that Britain potentially left thousands of eligible Afghans behind after being caught out by how quickly the Afghan government fell.
In written evidence to parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee, Raphael Marshall, a former Foreign Office desk officer, said the process for prioritising who to evacuate as “arbitrary and dysfunctional”.
Marshall said there was limited staffing, with one afternoon where he was the only person processing emails. He estimated between 75,000 and 150,000 people applied to be evacuated but fewer than 5% received assistance.
“It is clear that some of those left behind have since been murdered by the Taliban,” he wrote.
Staff shortages were exacerbated by people working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and initially soldiers brought in to help had to share one computer between eight, he said.
“Emails received an automatic response that the request for assistance had been ‘logged’. This was usually false. In thousands of cases emails were not even read,” he said.
Raab, who was moved to justice secretary from foreign secretary following criticism that he went on holiday as the Taliban advanced on Kabul, told Sky News: “We did everything we could … 15,000 people evacuated in two weeks.”
Raab, who is also deputy prime minister, denied an accusation from Marshall that he had been slow to respond to approval requests.
Asked about the whistleblower’s testimony, Philip Barton, the most senior official in the Foreign Office, told the committee some of Marshall’s allegations would be looked at in a “lessons learned” process, but other things were unfair.
Barton said he regretted staying on holiday until Aug. 26, days after Kabul fell.
“If I had my time again, I would have come back,” he said.
Marshall also said capacity which could have be used to process people was used to evacuate animals from a shelter. Both Raab and Prime Minister Boris Johnson disputed this, saying the welfare of animals had not been put above individuals.
(Additional reporting by Paul Sandle and Alistair Smout; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Angus MacSwan)