Sat, 20 April 2024

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Government Faces Questions Over "Shameful" Handling Of Afghanistan Evacuation As Final Troops Return To UK

5 min read

Government ministers face questions over their handling of the Afghanistan crisis as the blame shifts around Whitehall over people they failed to evacuate from the country after it fell into the control of the Taliban.

In a video message posted to Twitter on Sunday morning, Boris Johnson paid tribute to armed forces personnel who "didn't flinch, kept calm" as they helped over 15,000 people evacuate Afghanistan and "worked around the clock to a remorseless deadline in harrowing conditions".

"They have expended all the patience and care and thought they possess to help people in fear for their lives," the Prime Minister said.

Laurie Bristow, the UK ambassador to Afghanistan, who has been personally processing visas in Kabul, vowed to continue trying to help those left behind as he arrived back to the UK on Sunday morning. 

"We will continue to stand by the people of Afghanistan" after the last British military flight left on Saturday," he said. The UK's Afghan embassy would work from Qatar, he said, where it would continue to help people find safe passage to the UK.

But while the work of soldiers and British officials like Bristow has been lauded, the government is under growing pressure to explain why so many people in Afghanistan who qualified for evacuation to the UK were left behind, and how they will be kept safe under the control of the Taliban, the militant Islamist group, and amid the continued thread of terrorist attacks.

Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, told LBC that "thousands and thousands of people" who helped the UK in its 20-year operation in Afghanistan had been left behind was a "moment of unparalleled shame" for ministers.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who has faced calls to resign after it emerged he was on holiday in Greece as the Taliban descended on Kabul, faces allegations that he failed to arrange safe passage to the UK for people in Afghanistan who manage to reach neighbouring countries.

Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan are all reluctant to faciliate safe passage to the UK for people who qualifiy for the government's resettlement scheme, The Times reports

A government minister quoted by the newspaper lays the blame at Raab's feet, saying he "failed to roll the pitch with these countries for months" and that Prime Minister Johnson "is exasperated that the Foreign Office has not done what he told them".

They said: "The PM wanted third countries involved and Raab did nothing."

An official in the Pakistan government reportedly accused Raab of showing no interest in the months leading up to the planned US-led withdrawal from Afghanistan, telling The Times that the Foreign Secretary did not make a single phone call to Pakistani or Afghan counterparts in the six months prior to the crisis. 

A report by The Observer revealing that the Foreign Office had not read thousands of emails from MPs and charities detailing urgent cases of Afghans trying to flee to the UK has piled more pressure on Raab, who is believed to be at risk of losing his job at the next reshuffle. 

An official email address used by the Foreign Office to collate cases of people who could qualify for evacuation regularly contained 5,000 unread emails, the report says, including emails from the offices of Home Secretary Priti Patel and Tobias Ellwood, the former soldier who chairs the defence select committee.

Labour MP Harriet Harman said 41 constituents had contacted her about 275 relatives stuck in Afghanistan, but only one had been evacuated. "Now reports MP emails not opened/read. Ministers need to know & tell us," she tweeted. "But we/you must know truth."

Dawn Butler, the Labour MP for Brent Central, said: My team have working until 3am in the morning dealing with cases, now we learn that some emails haven't been opened. It's obvious this government doesn't care, they promised to move heaven and earth, they didn't even adequately staff the dept (department)."

Labour leader Keir Starmer, who according to The Observer sent an email to the Foreign Office on Monday detailing an urgent case which was still unread on Thursday, said "the complacency and incompetence of this government has been exposed yet again and with tragic consequences".

Starmer said: "We’ve known for 18 months that this moment was coming.

"It is unconscionable that there was no strategy in place to get all the British nationals and Afghans we owed a debt to out. I pay tribute to all the FCDO staff and military personnel who have, as ever, stepped up when their leaders have failed them."

The Labour leader has called on the government to confirm how many people mentioned in the emails had been evacuated, how those who didn't make it out of Afghanistan would be kept safe.

There are thought to be up to 9,000 people including journalists, aid workers, and sportspeople left behind in Afghanistan who could have been granted asylum in the UK, according to The Times.

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: "We have been working tirelessly to evacuate over 15,000 people from Afghanistan in the last two weeks.

"We deployed a 24/7 cross-Whitehall team based in our crisis hub to triage incoming emails and calls from British Nationals, ARAP applicants, and other vulnerable Afghans.

"We always cautioned that the nature of the security situation in Afghanistan and our responsibility to keep our people safe meant that we would not be able to evacuate everyone we wanted to. Our efforts have now turned to doing everything we can to help any remaining British nationals and the Afghans who supported us leave Afghanistan safely."

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