Politics

Afghanistan: Dominic Raab repeatedly refuses to say when he went on holiday

The foreign secretary faced questions on the UK response to the Afghanistan crisis and how it plans to help those left behind in the region.

Dominic Raab dismissed questions from MPs over his holiday during the Afghanistan crisis as a “partisan attack”.

The Foreign Affairs Committee met on Wednesday to grill the foreign secretary about the UK withdrawal from Kabul.

The government has come under fire from campaigners, opposition MPs and Tory backbenchers over the handling of the situation, with Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy saying Raab had been “missing in action” during the “chaos of the last two weeks”.

The minister faced questions regarding the number of vulnerable people left behind in Afghanistan and plans to create safe routes for them to flee to third countries. Alleged intelligence failures reported as armed forces worked to fly people to safety were also put to Raab.

But the foreign secretary refused to answer detailed questions about his holiday to Crete, which drew intense criticism after he chose to go despite the worsening situation in Afghanistan. 

He called the line of questioning a “fishing expedition” and accused the SNP’s Stewart Malcolm McDonald of a “partisan attack” when he asked Raab for the exact dates of his holiday.

“When British nationals were at risk and thousands of people who stood by us in a difficult time in Afghanistan were in peril of their lives, there was still not a proper crisis centre in place,” Labour MP Chris Bryant said. “Do you see why it’s important for British people to understand why you thought it was right to go on holiday?”

Raab insisted it was important for him to be able to conduct business from abroad as foreign secretary. 

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When committee members asked why the UK was not more prepared ahead of the crisis, Raab said there had been an “optimism bias” that US President Joe Biden would change his mind about total withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It was common belief that the Taliban did not have the capacity to advance at the speed it did, Raab claimed, while the expectation was that Kabul would not fall to the insurgents “before the end of this year”.

UK forces evacuated around 15,000 people from Afghanistan in two weeks after most of the country fell to the Taliban, including many Afghans at risk due to having worked with British operations in the region. 

But the committee said the evacuation process had “treated people like numbers instead of humans”. Raab could not say exactly how many people eligible to come to the UK were left behind but estimated it was in the “low hundreds”.

The foreign secretary confirmed Afghan nationals who worked as guards for the US embassy had been left behind in Kabul because buses to transport them to the airport could not get through Taliban checkpoints.

Bryant said “every MP” had “desperate” people contacting them about family members unable to flee Afghanistan and asked the foreign secretary what advice he would give to those people.

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Raab said the UK had spoken with ministers in countries neighbouring Afghanistan about people being able to cross the border to safety. Defence secretary Ben Wallace said last week that more than 1,000 people eligible to come to the UK were likely left behind when troops made their final flight out of Afghanistan.

The foreigns secretary has also been heavily criticised after reports that up to 5,000 desperate emails to the government about people trying to flee Kabul allegedly went unread.

When the committee asked Raab about the “email address that wasn’t even being opened in life or death cases”, the foreign secretary said he did not believe any country had “fared better” in efforts to evacuate people.

But Labour MP Neil Coyle said: “You can’t even tell us today how many people are left behind, abandoned by the UK government after 20 years of service.”

“You can browbeat me all you like,” Raab responded.

Speaking ahead of the committee meeting, Labour leader Keir Starmer said: “The British government must take its fair share of the responsibility and has serious questions to answer about how, despite having 18 months to prepare, their failure to plan and inability to influence others has contributed to this tragic political failure.”

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