British foreign secretary Dominic Raab has blamed the intelligence services for his government's failure to prepare adequately for the evacuation of its citizens and others from Afghanistan.
He told MPs on Westminster's cross-party foreign affairs committee that the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) which represents all Britain's intelligence agencies did not expect Kabul to fall until next year.
“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,” he said.
But the committee's Conservative chairman Tom Tugendhat, a former military intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan, undermined Mr Raab's claim by quoting from the foreign office's "principal risk report" dated July 22nd, three weeks before the fall of Kabul.
"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," the report said.
During a sometimes testy hearing that lasted almost two hours, Mr Raab refused nine times to say when he went on holiday to Crete, where he remained on the beach after Kabul fell to the Taliban.
He was unable to say when foreign office ministers had last visited neighbouring Uzbekistan or Tajikistan to discuss the evacuation of people from Afghanistan through those countries.
He did not deny that he had not called the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan in the six months before the United States and its allies left Kabul at the end of August. And he could not say how many Afghan citizens who had worked for British forces and were eligible to move to Britain had been left behind.
“We are not confident with any precision at all because, for two reasons. We think that in terms of nationals we are into the hundreds, possibly the mid to low hundreds. But again it depends on eligibility which of course is one of the things that has been a challenge,” Mr Raab said.
Labour's shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy described Mr Raab's performance before the committee as "staggeringly poor", accusing him of being out of his depth. She said he had been unable to answer basic questions and was unwilling to admit mistakes.
“Despite his own department’s clear warnings weeks before Kabul fell, the foreign secretary was asleep at the wheel. He could have stepped up the evacuation, issued warnings to British nationals and increased resources in his department. Instead he chose to go on holiday.
“Today’s committee session was a moment for humility and accountability, a chance to take responsibility for the chaotic failures that brought us to this point. Instead, he refused to apologise to troops who had to fly into danger to do a dangerous and difficult job because he hadn’t done his,” she said.