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Senior Foreign Office Official Says He Regrets Staying On Holiday As The Afghan Crisis Unfolded

3 min read

The permanent under-secretary to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has said he feels “regret” for not returning from holiday sooner as Afghanistan was on course to fall to the Taliban.

Sir Philip Barton told a hearing of the Foreign Affairs Committee today that “if I had my time, I would’ve come back from my leave earlier than I did”.

On 9 August this year, as the crisis in Afghanistan unfolded, Barton took time off work to holiday “partly in the UK and partly not”.

While it was clear by 11 August that the Taliban was “upping the level of violence” and that the British embassy would need to move out of Kabul, the permanent under-secretary did not return to Whitehall until 26 August.

Barton told the committee that he does not “believe that being present in London as opposed to on leave and keeping in touch… would’ve changed the outcome of the number of people who were evacuated”.

He also claimed that when he first took leave “there was no inevitability at that point that Kabul was going to fall in the period that it fell in”.

“There was no certainty over the time scale,” Baron said.

Dominic Raab, who was foreign secretary during Afghanistan's fall, also took leave during the crisis, but returned to the UK from Crete on 16 August. Opposition MPs called for his resignation at the time.

Barton’s expression of regret comes following revelations of allegations from a foreign office whistleblower that just 5% of Afghan nationals who asked the UK for help to flee the Taliban were assisted in leaving the country.

In evidence to Parliament published today, Raphael Marshall said he believes some of those left behind have been murdered since the western-backed government in Kabul collapsed.

He said at one point he was the only person monitoring an inbox where pleas for help were directed, and claimed no member of the team working on evacuation cases had "studied Afghanistan, worked on Afghanistan previously, or had a detailed knowledge of Afghanistan”.

Marshall, who worked for FCDO during the evacuation effort, told the foreign affairs committee that junior officials were "scared by being asked to make hundreds of life and death decisions about which they knew nothing".

Raab has said he does not recognise Marshall’s account of the Afghanistan crisis. This morning he told Sky News he believed it was "right" that Britain had a process in place to check for those at "genuine risk of persecution" and protect the UK from potential threats.

The whistleblower also said that efforts to evacuate former marine Pen Farthing, alongside staff and animals from his cat and dog shelter in Kabul, amounted to a “direct trade-off” between saving the lives of humans and those of animals.

During today’s committee hearing Barton denied Marshall’s claim, stating that “there was no prioritisation of animals over people”.

Sir Laurie Bristow, Britain’s ambassador to Afghanistan at the time who was also present during today’s committee hearing, reiterated Barton’s assessment.

“I can’t say with certainty that soldiers were actually physically moving animals through the gate,” Bristow said.

“It’s not my understanding that anyone could have got out but wasn’t as a result of the animals being brought onto the airfield by their owner.”

Discussing the evacuation of Farthing and his animals, committee member Alicia Kearns said: “We have lots of planes, so those soldiers actually instead could’ve been sifting through applications for tens of thousands (of people).

“We could’ve had a British plane, those soldiers could’ve been sifting those people who were outside waiting for permission to go, and getting them on a plane.”

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