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"The Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul was mired in corruption while the Taliban was, and had been for around ten years, running a parallel administration in a number of southern provinces. Western authorities continually turned a blind eye to the extent of the corruption."

Yvonne Ridley - who has just returned from Afghanistan

Missing in action: UK leadership and the withdrawal from Afghanistan

The Afghan withdrawal was shambolic, it is hard to find any positives from a very bad situation in a very bad war. Despite those odds, the House of Commons has taken a stab at it. 

In a scathing report headed by The Foreign Affairs Committee, MPs have strongly criticised the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, labelling it as a ‘disaster’. The UK’s chaotic withdrawal showed “systemic failures of leadership, planning and preparation.” – A little harsh to suggest the planning was below par when it was non-existent. 

Some may say it’s just lip service and won’t change anything, others, who believe in the parliamentary system will say this is how we hold the government to account. However, the reality of any report is how the government is able to spin it. here come the smokes and mirrors.

After many delays, the report was published on Tuesday, buried under news of the latest Partygate scandal, Texas shooting massacre, Putin’s war and monumental cost of living crisis. I think we call that the smoke! 

The cross-party probe revealed a “fundamental lack of planning, grip or leadership at a time of national emergency”  before and during the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 2021.

Let’s not forget, that the UK had over 18 months to prepare for withdrawal. The government faced a torrent of criticism over its hurried evacuation – and lack of preparation for how quickly the Taliban would takeover. 

What did they actually achieve? Yvonne Ridley, WTX News Diplomatic editor, was in Afghanistan in May and she has quoted

“When the Taliban swept into power it was almost a bloodless coup that could not have been achieved without the popular will of the Afghan people. Many Western observers find that hard to swallow and difficult to understand because the majority either never left Kabul or travelled in military convoys from one base to another without interacting with ordinary Afghan people in the rural areas.”

The UK’s time in Afghanistan and withdrawal was simply a disaster. Hundreds of people who were eligible for relocation were left behind and left in a life-threatening situations. After documents containing their personal information were left at the abandoned British embassy in Kabul.  

At the time, PM Boris Johnson said the UK’s Afghan withdrawal mission was “unlike anything we have seen in our lifetimes” with the UK airlifting over 15,000 people in two weeks. 

The government said it had carried out a “thorough review to learn the lessons” from the withdrawal and it was still “working hard to assist the people [of] Afghanistan, having already helped over 4,600 individuals leave the country since the end of the military evacuation.

In this week’s IN REVIEW, we’re looking into the report and consequences of the failures of the British government. Click here to read the full report from the House of Commons Committee: “Missing in action: UK leadership and the withdrawal from Afghanistan.” 

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Lack of leadership in London

"When the Taliban took Kabul, the Prime Minister, the then-Foreign Secretary, the Minister responsible for Afghanistan, and the FCDO’s top civil servant, Sir Philip Barton, were all on leave."

"Military personnel and others worked extremely hard under conditions of intense pressure, some also facing significant personal risk. Unfortunately, their work was undermined by systemic failures."

What’s the report actually about?

Planning for withdrawal of UK troops 

It was known in February 2020 that the US planned to withdraw from Afghanistan, however, the government and civil servants suffered from an “optimism bias” that the US would change its mind about withdrawing, meaning the government was not prepared. 

“The UK government failed adequately to shape or respond to Washington’s decision to withdraw, to predict the speed of the Taliban’s takeover, or to plan and prepare for the evacuation of our Afghan partners,” the report said.

UK’ afghan withdrawal - taliban - the fall of kabul - lack of leadership uk’s withdrawal from afghanistan - Taliban takeover of Kabul - Boris Johnson

“Most damning for the Foreign Office is the total absence of a plan for evacuating Afghans who supported the UK mission, without being directly employed by the UK government, despite knowing 18 months before the collapse of Afghanistan that an evacuation might be necessary.”

The FCDO “failed to make the necessary preparations for withdrawal” by laying the groundwork for an evacuation with third countries.

On the evacuation 

The report said the “mismanagement” of the evacuation in a crucial period “likely cost hundreds of people their chance to leave the country, and as a result likely cost lives.” 

The report heavily criticised the FCDO’s top civil servant Sir Philip Barton who did not return from leave until the civilian evacuation was over. The report concluded he ‘should consider his position,’ saying his decision to not return whilst Kabul fell was “difficult to understand and impossible to excuse.”  

The probe said the absence of leadership – both ministerial and official, when Kabul fell was ‘inexcusable and a grace indictment on those supposedly in charge.’

UK’ afghan withdrawal - taliban - the fall of kabul - lack of leadership uk’s withdrawal from afghanistan - Taliban takeover of Kabul - Boris Johnson

Along with Sir Philip, the then-Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and PM Boris Johnson were also on leave when the Taliban took control of Kabul which “marks a fundamental lack of seriousness, grip or leadership at a time of national emergency”.

Cats and dogs – Did the PM lie over the animal evacuation? 

The report said there was a lack of a line of command within the government and highlighted “untraceable and unaccountable political interventions.” 

The controversy around Nowzad started when a British ex-soldier who was running an animal charity in Afghanistan – Nowzad, wanted to evacuate his charity’s cats and dogs. Accusations of prioritising animals over people swirled around. The ex-soldier Pen Farthing and around 150 of his charity’s animals were eventually evacuated via a privately chartered plane. The charity’s Afghan staff were turned away at the airport due to not having the right visas. 

At the time, the government denied any help in evacuating Pen Farthings animals. In the report, the committee says: “We make no criticism of the organisation, its staff, or those who campaigned on its behalf: they were open about their case and objectives, which were in keeping with their stated priorities. The same cannot be said for the Government.”

The report found Pen Farthing was the only passenger on the 230-seat private jet and that Boris Johnson probably intervened to demand the evacuation. 

The Foreign Office was further condemned for being “intentionally evasive, and often deliberately misleading” about what had happened.

“Senior officials believed that the prime minister played a greater role in some decisions than has been admitted,” the report said.

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The future UK-Afghanistan relationship

What does the future hold for the UK-Afghan relationship? The report says the UK’s primary policy goal in Afghanistan “should be to reduce the impact of the humanitarian disaster unleashed by the international withdrawal.” 

The report goes on to say the withdrawal has “serious implications for British security” and has “heightened the terror threat” from Afghanistan. 

The cross-party group of MPs concluded the “systemic failures” has lowered the UK’s global standing and lowered the country’s influence.

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“At a time when we face critical foreign policy challenges, and the risks to our lives and economy are so serious, including from the current energy and inflation pressures, our diplomacy and security cannot be so confused and unstructured.”

The committee called on the government to “commit to a serious strategy for future engagement with Afghanistan”, warning that “attempts to isolate the new regime entirely may only hurt the Afghan people and leave a vacuum to be filled by China.

“Failure to do so would abandon women and girls in the single biggest reversal of rights in a generation,” it said.

It called on the UK to re-establish a diplomatic presence “as soon as it is safe to do so, and to work with those on the ground who can support civil society”.

Dealing with the Taliban

"The Taliban regime cannot gain international acceptance without demonstrating progress in three areas: respect for human rights, action again terrorism, and safe passage for those who wish to leave the country"

UK Government

A military and political disaster

“The fall of Kabul to the Taliban should spark a more honest debate about the UK’s unconditional support for US plans,” says the Guardian

In an article written during the evacuation as Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban despite the 20-year “mission” the Guardian said the UK’s fourth Afghan war since 1839 “ended in failure” and blamed the “shameful retreat” on the “bungled withdrawal of US forces.” 

“Britain scuttled out at the same time, the prime minister telling MPs on the day of Mr Biden’s announcement that “there is no military path to victory for the Taliban”

The Taliban takeover represents a military and political catastrophe for the UK, the writer argues, and that the UK is driven by a desire to stay close to the United States – despite the US being able to shrug off defeats and move on whilst the loss of Kabul is “felt more deeply in a Britain shorn of substantial global influence.” 

“This has led the UK to take Washington’s lead in military affairs.” 

The evacuation disaster only highlights the mess that was the invasion of Afghanistan. In 20 years, according to Brown University’s Cost of War project, more than 170,000 Afghans have lost their lives and within weeks of the withdrawal, the Talbain quickly took control. 

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"Betrayal will haunt the UK's international reputation for years"

"The void left by NATO will be filled by China, Russia"

Shaharzad Akbar of the Afghan Human Rights Commission said

"If there is no international support, locally it will be impossible for the Taliban to listen to their messages.

A reminder of the horror and shame

BBC Diplomatic Correspondent Paul Adams says: 

“The report brings back the sense of horror and, for some, shame generated by last August’s traumatic evacuation from Kabul.

“It was always inevitable that ministers and senior officials were going to be lambasted. During the committee’s hearings, MPs expressed their dismay that the Foreign Office’s top civil servant hadn’t seen fit to return from holiday until the civilian evacuation was over.

“And it was clear that they found some of the answers they received evasive and unconvincing.

“Some will argue that the speed of the Taliban’s takeover of the country could not have been anticipated and made planning for such a complex evacuation impossible without causing widespread panic.

“It’s not an argument that cuts much ice with the MPs. They say there was plenty of time to make plans and that what happened was a betrayal that will haunt the UK’s international reputation for years.” 

Friends not evacuated were killed by Taliban

Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of the committee, who had spent four years in Afghanistan spoke powerfully about the human, and personal, cost of the decision. 

He told Sky News: “There have been 18,000 people who’ve been forced from their homes and sought asylum here in the United Kingdom and many thousands of others around the world.

“You know, there are friends who I served alongside, in battle, people who showed enormous courage in protecting and defending British troops in battle, who were rounded up in their homes and killed in the days following that attack. That’s only the human cost.

“The diplomatic cost is that people around the world for a while thought that we weren’t serious, thought that British values and British allies didn’t matter. And that what we fought for and what we stood for, wasn’t real.”

Lack of leadership inspired Putin

He told Sky News that the fact the committee the lack of leadership had ramifications beyond the fall of Kabul. He added: “It carried on because it inspired people like Vladimir Putin to think that we weren’t serious, and so it allowed him to believe that he could attack Ukraine without us reacting.”

UK’ afghan withdrawal - taliban - the fall of kabul - lack of leadership uk’s withdrawal from afghanistan - Taliban takeover of Kabul - Boris Johnson

He said that the UK reacted strongly to the Russian invasion and it was the “right thing” to do but the implications of the war are having an impact on the people in terms of food and fuel prices.

“That’s a direct result of decisions that were taken last August. We need to know what those decisions were and why they were taken,” he said.

UK’s continued failure of Afghan refugees – ‘We should be utterly ashamed’

Amy Richards, director of the charity Global Witness, said no one who was involved in the withdrawal would be surprised by the “chaos, confusion and a total lack of leadership” described in the report.

However, she said it failed to address a “continued failure” of the UK to meet its responsibilities, arguing government refugee schemes “have barely got off the ground”.

“As life gets harder for those in Afghanistan, Britain is further pulling up the drawbridge and letting down those who carried out brave acts of solidarity on our behalf over many years. We should be utterly ashamed by this,” Ms Richards said.

The UK evacuated around 15,000 Afghan and British nationals out of Kabul as the Taliban took control of the country. The Foreign Office still suggests the evacuation mission was successful.

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An FCDO spokesperson said: “This was the biggest UK mission of its kind in generations and followed months of intensive planning and collaboration between UK government departments.

“We are still working hard to assist the people of Afghanistan, having already helped over 4,600 individuals to leave the country since the end of the military evacuation.

“We carried out a thorough review to learn lessons from our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and have drawn on many of the findings in our response to the conflict in Ukraine – including introducing new systems for managing correspondence and increasing senior oversight of our operational and diplomatic response.”

Deep Dive

Deep Dive

Fact-checking & Additional resources:

How many has UK evacuated from Afghanistan?

About 18,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan by the UK government last summer, including more than 6,000 British nationals.

When did the UK evacuate Afghanistan?

The head of the armed forces, Gen Sir Nick Carter, said it was “heartbreaking” they had not been able to rescue everybody. More than 15,000 people have been evacuated by the UK since 14 August.


What did the UK do in Afghanistan?

UK forces were deployed to Afghanistan in support of the UN-authorised, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission and as part of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). Between 2003 and the end of 2014 UK operations in Afghanistan were conducted under the name Operation Herrick.

IS the UK at war with Afghanistan?

UK troops left Afghanistan at the end of August, bringing an end to the 20-year war.


Are the BBC still in Afghanistan?

BBC TV programming has been taken off air in Afghanistan, after the Taliban ordered local channels not to broadcast content from international partners


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