Dominic Raab Will Visit “Afghanistan Region” After Grilling By MPs On Evacuation Crisis
Dominic Raab faces a grilling for MPs on the crisis in Afghanistan at a special foreign affairs committee hearing (Parliamentlive.TV)
The foreign secretary has confirmed he is flying to the Middle East tonight amid growing criticism of his handling of the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan.
Opening a tense two-hour session before the foreign affairs select committee, Raab told MPs he was leaving “to go to the region” after he finished giving evidence this afternoon.
"We're always very careful about signalling travel movements because of the security implications," he said at the start of this afternoon's hearing.
"But I can tell you I'm leaving after this committee to go to the region."
It will be his first trip to Pakistan since becoming foreign secretary in 2019, blaming the coronavirus pandemic for curtailing his ability to visit previously.
Parliament is still in summer recess but the foreign secretary was called to appear at a special session of the foreign affairs committee after accusations the UK was not prepared for the speed at which the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, and a chaotic evacuation of civilians before the deadline for Western troops to leave on 31 August.
Raab appeared to admit that intelligence received by government on the immediate likelihood of a Taliban’s takeover was incorrect when asked when he became aware Kabul’s fall was imminent, and why the situation caught the government by surprise.
He said the central assessment of the government, backed up by the Joint Intelligence Committee and the military, was that the Afghan capital was "unlikely" to fall in 2021.
"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," Raab explained.
He stated that this belief was "widely shared by Nato allies".
"The planning for military withdrawal began in April but the contingency plan was also there for a more rapid deterioration," he added.
He faced tough questions about how much contact he has had with neighbouring countries since April, after criticism he ignored the impending refugee problem after it was confirmed the remaining American soldiers would leave by August 31.
Raab was unable to answer a series of queries from committee chair Tom Tugendhat about how many foreign officers ministers had already visited the region in recent weeks.
But he rejected criticism that he had not had sufficent contact with Afghan counterparts in recent months. "From the period mid-March to August 30 I had over 40 meetings or telephone calls where Afghanistan was on the agenda. So that's broadly one every four days," he said.
Once again Raab said he is unsure how many people in Afghanistan eligible for resettlement in the UK have been "left behind”, telling the committee: ”I can't give you a definitive answer."
Boris Johnson's has claimed that the "overwhelming majority of people who worked for us are out", but Raab gave no detail on how many people it was therefore estimated were left.
"I'm not confident with precision to be able to give you a set number, but I am confident that the Prime Minister is right, that we've got the overwhelming number out," he said.
Asked by Tugendhat if he was “content” with the effort put in by the UK, both in Afghanistan and in Whitehall, on the evacuation operation, Raab seemed satisfied by resource that had been allocated in the circumstances.
"I was constantly thinking, 'Is there more we can do?' But the real challenge in a narrow window was the safety and security of Kabul airport," he replied.
Raab has faced personal criticism for not returning to the UK earlier from a holiday in Crete as insurgents closed in on the capital Kabul.
He repeatedly refused to offer further details about the trip, despite being questioned on the matter by several members of the committee, labelling the questions a "fishing expedition".
Committee member Chris Bryant, a Labour former minister, asked: "On August 11, the US said the Taliban were likely to seize the whole country, it was just a question of how long it was going to take. Were you already on holiday?"
Raab simply repeated his comments that the central assessment was the "consolidation of power" by the Taliban would take place in the "months following the evacuation", adding he "would not have gone away, with the benefit of hindsight".
Asked numerous times to confirm when he went away on holiday by the SNP's Stewart McDonald the foreign secretary declined to say, calling it a "pretty partisan political" line of questioning.
McDonald noted that involved military leave was cancelled on 23 July and asked if this rule also applied to Foreign Office staff.
"No, what I did was make sure that we had cover, a decent rota, specifically because we didn't know for how long this would endure," Raab replied.
Bryant also criticised the fact there are three separate schemes for the three categories of people in Afghanistan eligible to settle in Britain: those who are British nationals, those who have shown loyalty to the UK, and an "asylum-related" group "based on international law".
He asked why there was no triage system and cases are dealt with separately by the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office.
"I think we're doing everything we can, and the proof is in the 17,000 that since April we have secured safe passage for back to the UK,” Raab replied.
The foreign secretary confirmed that Afghans who worked as guards at the UK embassy in Kabul had not been evacuated, after the government changed its policy to say they were eligible for resettlement having initially said they weren’t.
A "full review" of the embassy’s closure has not been ordered after The Times reported that documents were left behind that identified Afghans who had worked with UK, and could have fallen into the hands of the Taliban had they not been recovered by a British journalist.
Raab confirmed all of those named in the papers shared with the government have now been brought to Britain.
He also appeared to be unaware a portrait of the Queen had been left behind in the UK embassy rather than being destroyed, after Coyle told him Taliban fighters had been pictured with the painting.
"We had a very clear, in fact I talked through with the team the policy for destroying not just documents but anything relating to HMG [Her Majesty’s government],” he replied.
“It's not clear to me whether that came from outside or inside the embassy.
"Clearly we were conscious of the attempted propaganda coup around the Taliban taking over embassies and what have you."
His committee appearance comes as the government revealed UK officials and the Taliban are in talks over evacuating the remaining British nationals in the country and others eligible for resettlement.
Sir Simon Gass, the PM's special representative for Afghan transition, has travelled to Qatar for meetings “to underline the importance of safe passage out of Afghanistan for British nationals, and those Afghans who have worked with us over the past 20 years”.
But Raab said it was "important not to confer any legitimacy" on the group.
"At the same time we do need to be able to send clear and direct signals,” he added, saying the UK wants, when the situation allows, to have a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan.
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