Dominic Raab has rejected US claims that Britain was indirectly responsible for the suicide attacks at Kabul airport last week because it insisted that the Abbey gate entry point to the site be kept open to allow British nationals to enter the airport.
He said the “story was simply untrue”, adding nothing the UK did required Abbey gate to be kept open.
In a difficult round of media interviews defending the Foreign Office’s role in the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the UK foreign secretary was also unable to say if call logs would show he made a single phone call to the foreign ministers of Afghanistan or Pakistan in the six months prior to the crisis. He added that he had delegated the issue to a junior minister, Lord Ahmad.
Raab also rounded on his critics describing them as “backbiting finger-pointing peripheral people involved in buck-passing”, adding that no department had done better than the Foreign Office. Among his targets were retired military figures including Lord Dannatt. Raab said they needed to reflect on whether the resources required for nation-building in such an inhospitable climate as Afghanistan had ever been sufficient.
Defending Britain’s actions before the ISKP (Isis-K) suicide bombings at Kabul airport, he said: “We coordinated very closely with the US, in particular around the Isis-K threat, which we anticipated although tragically were not able to prevent, but it is certainly right to say we got our civilians out of the processing centre by Abbey gate, but it is just not true to suggest that other than securing our civilians inside the airport that we were pushing to leave the gate open.
“In fact, and let me just be clear about this, we were issuing changes to travel advice before the bomb attack took place and saying to people in the crowd, about which I was particularly concerned, that certainly UK nationals and anyone else should leave because of the risk.”
Raab accepted there had been a surge in the number of claims by Afghans fearful of Taliban reprisals who were stranded in Afghanistan and had contacted the Foreign Office or MPs seeking a chance to come to the UK.
He vowed MPs would be given a proper response in days, but refused to accept claims reported by the Guardian that as many as 7,000 claims or emails had yet to be processed.
The surge occurred when a government resettlement scheme was set out, he said, but many of these had been diverted to the Home Office hotline, and they would be checked for eligibility by the Home Office. He claimed arrangements were being made similar to those reached by Germany for the claimants to be processed in neighbouring countries.
The number of British nationals still in Afghanistan, he said, was in the low hundreds. Overall, the UK had secured safe passage since April for 17,000 people, including 5,000 British nationals. “Most of the remaining cases are difficult complex cases where individuals are not documented, they may be dual nationals or part of a larger family unit where some are not eligible,” he added.
Raab denied that the UK had been slow to foresee the crisis, saying the central military Nato intelligence was that there would be a slow incremental progress by Taliban after August.
Work is still under way with the Taliban to allow either Qatar or Turkey access to the Kabul airport to help with a civilian airlift. Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, told the Financial Times: “What we are trying to explain to the Taliban is that airport safety and security requires a lot more than securing the perimeters of the airport.” He said the Taliban did not want to see a foreign security presence at the airport.
Raab also rounded on his critics ahead of an appearance before the all-party foreign affairs select committee on Wednesday, saying: “Anyone that is toddling off to the Sunday Times or any other newspaper at a time of crisis, including the evacuation which has been two weeks running, giving buck-passing briefings either at me or the FCDO is frankly not credible and it is deeply irresponsible.”
He also gave his first hint that he had not supported the military campaign, saying: “Afghanistan was originally about counter-terrorism but did morph into something closer more akin to nation-building.
“We need to be realistic in an inhospitable climate like Afghanistan about the extent to which over 20 years those objectives were reconciled with the means to achieve them.” He said he was sure Dannatt, a former head of the British army, might like to reflect on this. Dannatt had accused ministers of being “asleep on the watch”.
He defended the head of the Foreign Office, Sir Philip Barton, for remaining on holiday during the crisis, saying it was critical that people did not suffer burnout. Barton’s deputy, Tom Drew, and the Afghanistan director, Nigel Casey, had both been working. He has already said that with hindsight he wished he had returned from his own holiday in Crete earlier.
“It is right that you have a division of labour if you are going to operate effectively as a team. Anyone who tells you otherwise has not done a job like this,” he said.