Diplomats and soldiers were left grappling with appallingly inadequate IT and secure communications support as thousands of Afghans struggled to get help from the UK during the fall of the capital Kabul in August.
A massive shortfall in PC availability, lack of login for secure IT systems, disjointed IT systems and a desperate attempt to fall back onto printed paper methods all contributed to chaotic scenes at the newly merged Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO), according to written testimony put before Parliament today.
“On the evening of Saturday 21 August, the soldiers were issued one FCDO computer for every two soldiers. These did not work because FCDO IT had not issued the passwords to unlock them. These computers were finally unlocked on the afternoon of Sunday 22 August. Until this, the soldiers worked with one computer shared between roughly eight people,” said former desk officer Raphael Marshall in his evidence [PDF] to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee’s Inquiry on Government Policy on Afghanistan.
“This obviously considerably reduced their efficiency and speed. I printed out A3 spreadsheets for the soldiers but this was no substitute for a computer. The soldiers clearly needed computers to email travel documents to Afghans selected for evacuation,” he said.
As opposed to a simple loss of efficiency or increase in costs, these computer problems potentially may have led to a loss of life. Between 75,000 and 150,000 people applied for evacuation under the UK government scheme.
“The vast majority of these applicants feared their lives were at risk as a result of their connection to the UK and the West and were therefore eligible for evacuation,” Marshall said.
“I estimate fewer than 5 per cent of these people have received any assistance. It is clear that some of those left behind have since been murdered by the Taliban,” he said.
The failure to issue soldiers with sufficient computers for more than 12 hours delayed dispatching travel documents and would therefore have reduced the chance of selected Afghans being evacuated, and consequently may have directly resulted in the deaths of people unnecessarily left behind, his testimony read.
Chaotic technology support also extended to the phone system, Marshall said. Soldiers calling up Afghan nationals for evacuation were issued a paper list of logins for the department’s non-secure phone system. But the phone system was not suitable for classified information and did not work without logins.
“On the night of Monday 23 August, the soldiers lost this paper list in the handover between shifts. This would have prevented them from calling any Afghan nationals to the airport. My colleagues and I obtained phone logins for them from my Fast Stream WhatsApp group, the British Embassies in Beijing and Tokyo (who were online), and other sources,” Marshall said.
While the former desk officer said he tried to get around the phone log-in problem by contacting the British Embassy in Washington, it found the situation in the UK so implausible that it assumed an email to FCDO Security was a Russian phishing attempt.
Marshall was told to apologise for breaking security rules and that the correct course of action was to request new logins from the relevant IT team the next morning. “This would have wasted around 12 hours at a crucial moment to protect the integrity of an unsecure phone system,” he said.
Meanwhile a lack of integration between the IT system of the newly merged departments also contributed to difficulties, Marshall said.
“A group of around six FCDO staff formerly in DFID volunteered to assist. It was hard to integrate them effectively because we could not share live documents or give them access to the inbox because the DFID and FCO IT systems are not yet integrated. They were visibly appalled by our chaotic system,” he said.
The merger of the Department for International Development and Foreign Office was announced in June 2020, a full year before the Afghan crisis. In July 2020, Deloitte picked a £3m contract to define the “operating model, organisation design and toolset strategy” for the merged departments.
Users also lacked basic computer training for the task in hand which contributed to the failures as well, Marshall said.
He testified: “I was impressed by the soldiers’ professionalism. However, I believe that some of them were likely using Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Outlook for the first time in a professional context. I understand that some administrative mistakes reflected this lack of experience, including sending 91 travel documents from the wrong email accounts which meant that we did not have a full record of them. Again, this was not the soldiers’ fault,” he said.
The FCDO told us: “UK government staff worked tirelessly to evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a fortnight. This was the biggest mission of its kind in generations and the second largest evacuation carried out by any country. We are still working to help others leave.
“More than 1000 FCDO staff worked to help British nationals and eligible Afghans leave during Op Pitting. The scale of the evacuation and the challenging circumstances meant decisions on prioritisation had to be made quickly to ensure we could help as many people as possible. “Regrettably we were not able to evacuate all those we wanted to, but our commitment to them is enduring, and since the end of the operation we have helped more than 3000 individuals leave Afghanistan.” ®