Five things we learnt from Dominic Raab’s grilling by MPs on Afghanistan

The foreign secretary’s answers to very direct questions were vague, obfuscatory and sought to shift blame elsewhere than accept responsibility.

As Dominic Raab appeared before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee yesterday, there was no doubt that the foreign secretary was in for some tough questioning following his handling of the crisis in Afghanistan. Charges of negligence and incompetence have been levelled at him in recent days and not just from opposition MPs but even among the ranks of his own party.

If the select committee was hoping to gain a better understanding of why Raab and his department failed to foresee how quickly the Afghan security forces would collapse before the Taliban advance and why there wasn’t a better evacuation strategy from the moment the US declared its policy in February 2020, then it’s difficult to see how they were any clearer after Raab’s performance.

The foreign secretary’s answers to very direct questions were vague, obfuscatory and sought to shift blame elsewhere than accept responsibility. Here are some of the five takeaways from his appearance:

Raab admits he doesn’t know how many people the UK left behind in Afghanistan

Asked how many people the government failed to evacuate out of Afghanistan after the country fell to the Taliban, the foreign secretary admitted to MPs that he was ‘not confident’ how many people who were eligible to come to the UK remained stuck in the country.  

Labour’s Chris Bryant repeatedly asked Raab to give an exact number of people left behind, to which Raab replied the numbers were in the low hundreds but refused to be more specific. Pushed to give an exact answer, the foreign secretary replied: “If I could give you any more precision, I would.”

The foreign secretary went on to insist that prime minister Boris Johnson was correct last week when he claimed the “overwhelming majority” of people eligible for evacuation had got out.

‘With hindsight I wouldn’t have gone on holiday’

As the Taliban took over large swathes of the country, Dominic Raab had been accused of a dereliction of duty with repeated calls for him to resign after it emerged that he was on holiday in Crete while the Afghan government collapsed.

He was asked repeatedly by SNP MP Stewart McDonald when exactly he left the UK to go on holiday. Raab stayed abroad after Kabul fell, returning on 16th of August. The foreign secretary refused to answer the question on 11 separate occasions during his appearance before MPs, however he said once again that ‘with the benefit of hindsight I wouldn’t have gone away at all.’

The foreign secretary was also asked if he ever considered resigning or offered to resign over the Afghanistan crisis, to which he replied: “No, I considered getting on with the job of what has been a herculean task of getting 17,000 people out and now focusing on getting out the remaining people that we want to see out via third countries.”

Raab unable to answer how many foreign office ministers had visited the region in recent weeks

The foreign secretary’s lack of grip and detail on the crisis was once more revealed when he was unable to answer how many foreign office ministers had visited the region in recent weeks during an exchange with fellow Tory MP Tom Tugendhat.

Tugendhat asked how many of the UK government’s ministers were overseas at the moment and just how many of them were in Afghanistan or in the region around Afghanistan.

Raab replied: “We’re always very careful about signalling travel movements because of security implications but I can tell you I’m leaving after this committee to go to the region and other ministers will of course be engaged in similar diplomatic endeavours whether it’s by phone or indeed by travel.”

The foreign secretary also said he’d had 40 phone calls on Afghanistan from March to August.

Shifting the blame

Raab sought to defend his department over claims that it should’ve foreseen the collapse of Afghanistan weeks before it happened, as he sought to shift the blame for Britain’s lack of preparation on to the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC).

He insisted that the evidence provided to him suggested the Afghan government would hold out until the end of the year. The foreign secretary told MPs yesterday: “The central assessment that we were operating to, and it was certainly backed up by the JIC and the military, is that the most likely, the central proposition, was that given the troop withdrawal by the end of August, you’d see a steady deterioration from that point and it was unlikely Kabul would fall this year.”

However, committee chairman Tom Tugendhat revealed evidence from the foreign secretary’s own officials that suggested the contrary. He read out a foreign office memo from July 22, which said: “On Afghanistan peace talks are stalled and US-Nato withdrawal is resulting in rapid Taliban advances. This could lead to the fall of cities, collapse of security forces, Taliban returned to power, mass displacement and significant humanitarian need. The embassy may need to close.”

Tensions with the Defence Secretary

Raab’s appearance once more revealed tensions between the foreign secretary and the defence secretary Ben Wallace, both of whom have been in a dispute over the origins of the crisis in Afghanistan.

The defence secretary has hit back at claims that a failure of intelligence was to blame for the UK being caught out by the speed of the Taliban takeover. In an interview published in the Spectator today, Mr Wallace said he warned cabinet colleagues in July that “the game is up” in Afghanistan and that British efforts should be accelerated.

He said: “I’ve already seen some lines about the failure of intelligence.

“History shows us that it’s not about failure of intelligence, it’s about the limits of intelligence.

“When the Soviet Union crumbled, when Libya collapsed, when the actual moment came in Afghanistan intelligence hadn’t failed. It was just limited, as it always is at the very end.”

Basit Mahmood is co-editor of Left Foot Forward

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