Afghanistan: Allies left behind as home working added to 'dysfunctional' chaos, whistleblower says

A former Government desk officer says he was the only person monitoring a special cases inbox one afternoon.

Just 5% of Afghan nationals who applied for help to flee the country under one UK scheme, after the Taliban swept to power, received help – with some left behind having been murdered since the collapse of Kabul, a whistleblower has claimed.

In evidence published by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday, Raphael Marshall – who worked for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) during the evacuation effort – told how at one point he was the only person monitoring an inbox where pleas for help were directed.

Mr Marshall said "staffing shortages were exacerbated by some staff working from home" and there were days when "the majority of team members were working from home", which "hampered communication" and was significant because "policy was poorly defined and the situation unclear".

He said although the Government made public statements over hopes the Taliban had changed in attitude and approach, this did not tally with the information he was receiving.

An FCDO Special Cases team responsible for the cases of those in danger due to links with Britain, despite not working directly for the UK Government, saw "between 75,000 and 150,000" applications for evacuation, Mr Marshall said.

However, the whistleblower estimated "fewer than 5% of these people have received any assistance", adding, "it is clear that some of those left behind have since been murdered by the Taliban".

    Watch: "They will shoot me and my family" – desperate wait for interpreters still in Afghanistan.

    Whistleblower's main claims

    • Special cases left behind: Poor communication between the FCDO and the MOD meant "fewer than 5%" of tens of thousands applying to leave Afghanistan under Taliban rule received any help from his team – some went on to die.
    • Human resource: Junior staff lacking background knowledge on Afghanistan tasked with making "life or death" decisions, while soldiers drafted in to help had to share computer screens and were inexperienced with the spreadsheet and email software being used. Understaffed efforts meant Mr Marshall manned the Special Cases inbox alone for an afternoon.
    • Political failings: Former Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was slow responding to case approval emails. Both Mr Raab and Prime Minister Boris Johnson told MPs emails had been read, although in reality they'd been marked with no case details processed. Cases lobbied for by MPs were prioritised.
    • Pressure: Despite automatic responses suggesting otherwise, time constraints meant many unread emails were never processed, eliminating many from consideration for a place on a plane. Senior defence officials "planned to ask for the cancellation" of the leave scheme protecting Afghans not employed by the UK.
    • Staffing: Shortages of staff were exacerbated by some working from home, which hampered communication. This was significant in a context where policy was poorly defined and the situation unclear. ON two dates in the middle of the evacuation process, the majority of team members were working from home, including the responsible Bronze/Team Leader.

    The evidence, which will form part of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee's inquiry into the Afghanistan withdrawal, describes how junior officials with no knowledge of Afghanistan were "scared by being asked to make hundreds of life and death decisions".

    In the middle of the operation, Mr Marshall claimed he was "the only person monitoring and processing emails in the Afghan Special Cases inbox" for an entire afternoon.

      Watch: Foreign Affairs Committee question the handling of the evacuation chaos.

      The whistleblower describes poor communication between the FCDO and the Ministry of Defence that "threatened to undermine Operation Pitting" and saw former Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab take "several hours" to respond to case approval requests.

      At one stage, soldiers called in to assist the FCDO shared one computer "between roughly eight people", he added, stating that some were "likely using Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Outlook" for the first time professionally.

      Mr Marshall estimated that "fewer than 5% of these people have received any assistance" and says "it is clear that some of those left behind have since been murdered by the Taliban".

      He said that no member of the team working on these cases had "studied Afghanistan, worked on Afghanistan previously or had a detailed knowledge of Afghanistan".

      And he added that junior officials were "scared by being asked to make hundreds of life and death decisions about which they knew nothing".

      It comes as FCDO officials and the ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Laurie Bristow, are due to give evidence to the committee on Tuesday.

      Mr Marshall alleged that then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab "did not fully understand the situation".

      Emails were opened but not actioned, and he felt "the purpose of this system was to allow the Prime Minister and the then Foreign Secretary to inform MPs that there were no unread emails".

      "The contrast between Her Majesty's Government's statements about a changed Taliban and the large number of highly credible allegations of very grave human rights abuses HMG has received by email is striking," he added.

      Watch: PM thanks Armed Forces personnel deployed on Op Pitting.

      Foreign Affairs Select Committee chair Tom Tugendhat said: "These allegations are serious and go to the heart of the failures of leadership around the Afghan disaster, which we have seen throughout this inquiry.

      "These failures betrayed our friends and allies and squandered decades of British and NATO effort. The evidence we've heard alleges dysfunction within the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and substantial failings throughout the Afghanistan evacuation effort.

      "The evacuation has been described as a success by some, but these allegations point to a very different story – one of lack of interest, and bureaucracy over humanity."

      He went on: "It proved to be a true test of the leadership and effectiveness of the Foreign Office, with the lives of many of our friends and allies in the balance.

      Watch: How many interpreters are left behind in Afghanistan?

      "This evidence raises serious questions about the leadership of the Foreign Office, and I look forward to putting these to officials, including former Afghanistan Ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow."

      A Government spokesperson said: "UK Government staff worked tirelessly to evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a fortnight.

      "This was the biggest mission of its kind in generations and the second-largest evacuation carried out by any country. We are still working to help others leave.

      "More than 1,000 FCDO staff worked to help British nationals and eligible Afghans leave during Op Pitting."

      The spokesperson continued: "The scale of the evacuation and the challenging circumstances meant decisions on prioritisation had to be made quickly to ensure we could help as many people as possible.

      "Regrettably, we were not able to evacuate all those we wanted to, but our commitment to them is enduring, and since the end of the operation we have helped more than 3,000 individuals leave Afghanistan," the spokesperson added.