“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.
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.
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.”