Dominic Raab today said Britain did not expect Kabul to fall to the Taliban this year as he insisted he never considered resigning over his handling of the UK’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Foreign Secretary told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that the Government’s central assessment had been it was ‘unlikely’ the group would secure the capital in 2021.
Britain had expected a ‘steady deterioration’ in the country when US and UK troops left in August, he said.
That planning scenario proved to be completely wide of the mark as the Taliban swept to power much more quickly than had been predicted.
The Foreign Secretary was savaged by committee members as they demanded answers on the UK’s withdrawal preparations and how many people have been left behind.
Mr Raab, who revealed he is flying to the region this evening, said the UK began planning its military withdrawal from the country in April while work on a contingency plan for an evacuation started in June.
He was pushed for clarity on how many British allies and British nationals have been left stranded following the end of the Kabul airlift.
He risked anger as he said ‘we are not confident with any precision at all’ on numbers but he believed the number of British nationals still in the country is in the ‘mid to low hundreds’.
Mr Raab was repeatedly quizzed on his decision to delay his return from a family holiday in Crete as the situation in Afghanistan grew worse.
He said a ‘modern foreign secretary’ needs to be able to work from anywhere including ‘from abroad’ and that he had ‘engaged in all of the COBRA meetings’.
He told MPs: ‘I have said that I wouldn’t have gone away with the benefit of hindsight.’
Mr Raab has been widely tipped for the sack at Boris Johnson’s next Cabinet reshuffle over his handling of the crisis but he told MPs he had never considered quitting and remained focused on ‘getting on with the job’.
The Foreign Secretary also defended his approach to diplomacy after anonymous briefings said he had been slow to contact his counterparts in the region.
Asked who he had spoken to in Afghanistan when cities were falling to the Taliban, he declined to get into specifics as he said Foreign Office briefings and information from ambassadors meant ‘I don’t need to pick up the phone to get an assessment from the ground’.
Mr Raab’s appearance in front of the committee came amid a worsening Whitehall blame game over the manner of the UK’s exit from the country.
Dominic Raab will be grilled by MPs this afternoon over his handling of the UK’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan amid a worsening Whitehall blame game
The Tory chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tom Tugendhat, set the tone for Mr Raab’s appearance as he said the UK and US exit from Kabul had left people ‘defenceless in front of armed gangs’
The UK completed its withdrawal from Kabul at the weekend with the US mission coming to a close earlier this week
Mr Raab told the committee that the UK’s central assessment was that Kabul was ‘unlikely’ to fall to the Taliban in 2021.
He told MPs: ‘The central assessment that we were operating to, and it was certainly backed up by the JIC (Joint Intelligence Committee) 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.’
Mr Raab said contingency planning and testing of such an assessment took place, adding: ‘That was something widely shared by Nato allies.’
The Foreign Secretary said the the ‘central assessment’ had remained in place ‘until late’.
He said: ‘The planning for military withdrawal began in April but the contingency plan was also there for a more rapid deterioration.’
Mr Raab said the UK started planning for a possible evacuation of Afghanistan in June.
He also rejected claims that he had been slow to speak to his counterparts in the region.
‘From the period mid-March to August 30 I had over 40 meetings or telephone calls where Afghanistan was on the agenda,’ he told the committee.
‘So that’s broadly one every four days.’
Mr Raab refused to offer further details when pressed about the timing of his Crete holiday, labelling the questions a ‘fishing expedition’.
Mr Bryant said: ‘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?’
Mr Raab refused to be drawn as he repeated that he ‘would not have gone away, with the benefit of hindsight’, before insisting: ‘I am not going to start adding to, frankly, the fishing expedition beyond the facts that I have articulated and the fulsome statement and having answered questions on this continuously.’
SNP MP Stewart Malcolm McDonald repeatedly asked Mr Raab what date he had gone on holiday but the Foreign Secretary refused to say.
Mr McDonald said the refusal to give an answer was ‘absurd’ while Mr Raab hit back at the ‘partisan’ questions.
Mr McDonald also asked the Foreign Secretary if at any point during the crisis he had considered or offered to resign.
Mr Raab 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.’
On the crunch issue of the number of Afghan citizens who worked for the UK forces and who are eligible to come to Britain but who have been left behind, Mr Raab said he could not give a ‘definitive answer’.
Asked to confirm the Prime Minister’s assertion that the ‘overwhelming majority of people who worked for us are out’, he said: ‘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.’
Mr Raab admitted that some Afghans who worked as security guards at the UK embassy in Kabul were unable to be evacuated because of problems relating to their travel to the airport.
He said: ‘We wanted to get some of those embassy guards through but the buses arranged to collect them, to take them to airport, were not given permission to enter.’
The Foreign Secretary was asked if a portrait of the Queen had been left in the UK embassy, replying: ‘My understanding was that it was destroyed. Are you saying that it wasn’t?’
Told that some Taliban fighters had been pictured with the portrait, he replied: ‘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. 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.’
Mr Tugendhat had set the tone yesterday for Mr Raab’s appearance as he said the UK and US exit from Kabul had left people ‘defenceless in front of armed gangs’.
Meanwhile, other members of the committee had described the UK’s withdrawal from the country as the ‘worst crisis since Suez’ while Labour said it is the ‘biggest foreign policy failing in a generation’.
Mr Raab yesterday defended his handling of the situation and took aim at his critics as he appeared to blame the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office for some of the Government’s failings.
The Foreign Secretary has been widely tipped to be sacked at Boris Johnson’s next Cabinet reshuffle and today’s appearance in front of MPs could be crucial to his hopes of clinging on.
Westminster was braced for the clash between Mr Raab and Mr Tugendhat, with the latter having been a vocal critic of the handling of the withdrawal and the overall decision to leave the country.
The UK completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan at the weekend, with the US due to complete its exit by August 31
The former soldier said last week that the exit from Afghanistan and the decision to leave many Afghan allies behind means Britain could face the ‘biggest hostage crisis the UK has ever seen’.
Mr Tugendhat said the UK and the US had been ‘defeated’ and ‘this is what defeat looks like’ after the Taliban completed its takeover of the country.
The Tory heavyweight warned yesterday that the manner of the departure from Afghanistan risked another war.
Responding to a US politician who tweeted ‘ending wars is good actually’, Mr Tugendhat said: ‘Ending wars is good. Leaving people defenceless in front of armed gangs is not how you end a war, it’s how you start a new one.
Mr Raab is expected to be quizzed about the Government’s preparations for the end of the deployment in Afghanistan, its handling of the evacuation operation and its plans for dealing with the Taliban in the future.
He is also likely to be challenged over how many British nationals and UK allies were left behind and over his decision to delay his return from a family holiday to Crete as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated.
Mr Raab said yesterday that the number of British nationals still in the country is in the ‘low hundreds’ but the Government has not given a concrete figure for how many Afghans who helped UK forces have been left behind.
Government sources have predicted that Mr Raab will be ‘toast’ at the next reshuffle.
The Foreign Secretary launched a fight back yesterday as he lashed out his critics and appeared to point the finger at other departments for failings.
Responding to a series of negative anonymous briefings against him, Mr Raab said those people making the remarks were ‘not credible’ and the timing of them during the airlift was ‘deeply irresponsible’.
The Foreign Office has been accused of leaving hundreds of emails from people stuck in Afghanistan unopened but Mr Raab said those email accounts were actually the responsibility of the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence.
He also risked MOD fury as he said the ‘military’ assessment of how quickly the Taliban would seize control of the country was ‘clearly wrong’.
Government sources last night accused Mr Raab of trying to ‘throw the MOD under a bus’.
The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said yesterday that Mr Johnson has ‘full confidence in his Foreign Secretary’ and there are ‘no plans’ for a reshuffle.
However, Mr Raab remains fighting for his political career with reports suggesting Michael Gove, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, is being lined up to replace him.
Lisa Nandy, Labour shadow foreign secretary, said Mr Raab has questions to answer on ‘much more than the chaos of the last two weeks’.
‘This has been the biggest foreign policy failing in a generation,’ Ms Nandy said.
‘The Foreign Secretary has serious questions to answer when he appears before the Foreign Affairs Committee.’
Ms Nandy added: ‘The Foreign Secretary had 18 months to prepare but was missing in action.
‘As a result, on his watch Britain has become weaker in the world and faces greater risks from terrorism.’
Mr Raab’s committee appearance comes after it emerged British officials had opened formal talks with the Taliban about getting UK citizens and allies out of Afghanistan.
Boris Johnson’s special representative for Afghan transition, Simon Gass (pictured), entered talks with senior Taliban leaders
Special envoy Sir Simon Gass, the chair or the Joint Intelligence Committee, met senior representatives of the group in Qatar to try to secure safe passage for those left behind following the chaotic military withdrawal.
Officers from MI6 also met the militia group, while the head of MI6 Richard Moore flew to Islamabad for talks with the head of the Pakistani army.
Downing Street confirmed ‘broad discussions’ with the Taliban had got under way.
A government source said: ‘The Prime Minister’s special representative for Afghan transition, Simon Gass, has travelled to Doha and is meeting with senior Taliban representatives 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.’
Sources declined to comment further on the talks. But ministers have made clear that future aid payments and the unfreezing of assets will depend on the Taliban’s willingness to facilitate safe passage and respect human rights.
Talks with the group are likely to be controversial however, given the radical group’s record and the threats to many Afghan translators who worked with British forces.
It came as the Home Office said around 10,000 refugees from Afghanistan who risked their lives to help British forces would be allowed to live and work indefinitely in the UK.