Embattled foreign secretary Dominic Raab has told MPs he never considered quitting over the Afghanistan crisis, even as his role in the UK withdrawal came under intense scrutiny.
Raab cut a defiant figure in front of the foreign affairs select committee, which took the unusual step of bringing the Cabinet Office minister into parliament during recess to account for his actions.
On several occasions Raab stated that he had not and would not consider resigning over his handling of the crisis, the criticism of which has centred on his decision to go on holiday during the period preceding the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.
The foreign secretary defended the UK’s and his approach to the crisis – which has been criticised for being distant – partially on the grounds that the “central assessment” made by Britain and and its Nato allies was that Kabul was “unlikely” to fall in 2021.
“The central assessment that we were operating to, and it was certainly backed up by the JIC [Joint Intelligence Committee] and the military, is that the most likely, the central proposition, was that given the troop withdrawal by the end of August, you’d see a steady deterioration from that point and it was unlikely Kabul would fall this year,” he explained.
Nevertheless, his decision to go on holiday during August came under heavy fire from committee members.
A heated exchange came when SNP MP Stewart McDonald asked Raab whether he ever considered offering his resignation, to which the foreign secretary flatly replied: “No, I considered getting on with the job”.
He later accused McDonald and independent MP Claudia Webbe of seeking to use the committee appearance as a platform to score political points.
While the committee members conceded that ministers were entitled to take a holiday, they questioned the timing of Raab’s decision and whether he should have come back from Crete earlier – something the foreign secretary has admitted he should have done “with hindsight”.
But their questions were met with a hostile response from Raab, who accused Labour MP Chris Bryant of conducting a “fishing expedition” with his questions about Raab’s whereabouts on August 11, the day the US had said the Taliban was likely to seize the whole country and three days before the capture of Kabul.
“I am not going to start adding to, frankly, the fishing expedition beyond the facts that I have articulated and the fulsome statement and having answered questions on this continuously,” Raab said.
The questions about Raab’s holiday spoke to a wider theme probed by MPs that the foreign secretary had been “missing in action” while events in Afghanistan reached crisis point – including not answering emails from desperate Afgans and not making phone calls to ambassadors in the region.
Raab defended the decision not to answer emails, saying that resources were instead being diverted to getting people out of Kabul.
Over the weekend the Observer reported that thousands of emails detailing cases of desperate Afghans remained unopened by the Foreign Office.
“The reality is, by the way, the reason the backlog built up is we made a conscious decision – and I want to be honest about this – to say, we can answer every email we get or we can focus resource on getting as many eligible people through Kabul on to air flights, filling capacity back home, and I think that was still the right choice and I think the numbers bear that out,” he said.
He also dodged questions about his contact with ambassadors in the region, arguing that he did not need to “pick up the phone to get an assessment from the ground”.
During the hearing it was revealed that Afghans who guarded the British embassy did not make it out of the country, because of a transport failure.
“We wanted to get some of those embassy guards through but the buses arranged to collect them, to take them to airport, were not given permission to enter,” he said.
“And that is, I’m afraid, a reflection of the conditions on the ground,” he said.
Asked by Coyle whether those people were owed an apology, Raab replied: “I think we owe them every effort to get those out that we did – the 17,000 since April – and now to focus on the new reality in Afghanistan.”
So far the UK has said it has managed to evacuate around 15,000 people out of Afghanistan, including 8,000 Afghans who worked with the British and who are entitled to come to the UK under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap).
But Raab said he was unable to say with any “precision” how many British nationals and their family members, as well as Afghans who might qualify for resettlement in Britain, remained in Afghanistan.
He said his “best estimate” was that such people were in the “low hundreds”, adding that “any number that we haven’t got out… is too many”.
Raab indicated he would head to Pakistan to lead diplomatic efforts to rescue those left behind after foreign forces left Kabul.
Following the exchange, shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy blasted Raab for what she called a “staggering poor showing”.
“Despite his own department’s clear warnings weeks before Kabul fell, the foreign secretary was asleep at the wheel. He could have stepped up the evacuation, issued warnings to British nationals and increased resources in his department,” she said.
“Instead he chose to go on holiday. Today’s committee session was a moment for humility and accountability, a chance to take responsibility for the chaotic failures that brought us to this point. Instead, he refused to apologise to troops who had to fly into danger to do a dangerous and difficult job because he hadn’t done his.”
Layla Moran, Lib Dem spokesperson for foreign affairs, said Raab should “get on a plane or hand in his notice”.
“He needs to fly out to countries neighbouring Afghanistan and ensure British nationals and refugees can escape the Taliban,” she said.
“He has wasted months and refused to stand up for Britain in Afghanistan. In any other job he’d have been sacked three times over, the least he can do is clean up his mess.”