Top civil servant regrets holiday while Afghanistan fell to Taliban

The head of the diplomatic service has admitted failing to show leadership after he began a three-week holiday two days before the Foreign Office internally accepted Kabul was about to fall to the Taliban.

Sir Philip Barton stayed on holiday until 28 August and during bruising evidence to the foreign affairs select committee, he admitted this was a mistake.

“I have reflected on this very carefully and if I had my time again I would not have done this,” he told MPs.

He said he regretted his decision and claimed that on 9 August, the day his holiday began, there was no certainty that Kabul would fall.

Faced by claims that his departure represented a dereliction of duty, he repeated that he regretted his decision, saying his staff needed his visibility, but he insisted his absence did not have any impact on the numbers that Britain evacuated from Afghanistan.

He said: “We are not saying we did a good job but we did get out 15,000 people.”

Barton was speaking the day after the committee had published damning testimony from a Foreign Office whistleblower who claimed chaos and dysfunction marked the Foreign Office evacuation effort.

Raphael Marshall said this included a short-hours culture, lack of coordination and overwhelmed staff who were simply unable to process a category of special claims from Afghans under threat from the Taliban.

Marshall also claimed the former foreign secretary Dominic Raab showed no understanding of the nature of the crisis by delaying the processing of evacuation applications by demanding they appear in “the right format”.

Barton repeatedly refused to say precisely when Raab had been on holiday in August.

The Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, herself a former Foreign Office official, said she was deeply disturbed by the whole tenor of Barton’s evidence. She said: “If this is not failure, then what does failure look like?”

Barton said “there isn’t a clocking off culture at all” in the department.

He added: “This wasn’t about work/life balance, this is about rostering shifts in a crisis to make sure people don’t burn out in a crisis and work too long in one period of time.”

Nigel Casey, head of the Afghan directorate, told MPs night shifts at the crisis centre were rostered from 12 August, but then admitted he did not have any record of how many staff actually turned up.

He claimed more than 1,000 staff were working on the evacuation.

The Isle of Wight Conservative MP Bob Seely told the hearing it appeared that many emails sent to the Foreign Office about those potentially eligible for help seemed to “have gone completely unanswered and for all we know they simply have been binned”.

Barton said the department received 14,000 items of correspondence in one day at the peak of the crisis – and more than 180,000 in total.

Labour MP Chris Bryant said the root of the problem was the government’s false promise that thousands might be evacuated by opening up a new category of special cases for those that had not worked directly for the UK, but might be vulnerable to attack by the Taliban.

Bryant said: “We offered the prospect … that they might be able to come to the United Kingdom, cruelly in all honesty.”

The Kabul ambassador, Sir Laurie Bristow, said he was mortified that names of Afghan families that had helped the British in Afghanistan were found inside the deserted UK embassy.

The list was shown to a Times journalist by the Taliban, prompting desperate efforts to ensure they were allowed to leave. Bristow admitted “it was a mistake”.

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