Missing in action: UK leadership and the withdrawal from Afghanistan – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Foreign Affairs Committee

Related inquiry: Government policy on Afghanistan

Date Published: 24 May 2022

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The manner of our withdrawal from Afghanistan was a disaster and a betrayal of our allies that will damage the UK’s interests for years to come. This inquiry has identified systemic failures of intelligence, diplomacy, planning and preparation—many of which were due, at least in part, to the Foreign Office, and call into question the coordination that the National Security Council provided.

The UK Government failed adequately to shape or respond to Washington’s decision to withdraw, to predict the speed of the Taliban’s takeover, or to plan and prepare for the evacuation of our Afghan partners. It might be convenient to blame FCDO officials or military intelligence for these failures, but ministers should have been driving this policy. The fact that the Foreign Office’s senior leaders were on holiday when Kabul fell marks a fundamental lack of seriousness, grip or leadership at a time of national emergency. At several key stages in the evacuation there seemed to be no clear line of command within the political leadership of the Government, as decisions were made on the basis of untraceable and unaccountable political interventions.

Most damning for the Foreign Office is the total absence of a plan for evacuating Afghans who supported the UK mission, without being directly employed by the UK Government, despite knowing 18 months before the collapse of Afghanistan that an evacuation might be necessary. The hasty effort to select those eligible for evacuation was poorly devised, managed, and staffed; and the department failed to perform the most basic crisis-management functions. The lack of clarity led to confusion and false hope among our Afghan partners who were desperate for rescue. They, and the many civil servants and soldiers working hard on the evacuation, were utterly let down by deep failures of leadership in Government. We are full of praise—in particular—for the personnel on the ground in Afghanistan during Operation Pitting, who implemented a chaotic policy to the best of their ability.

The Foreign Office has not been open about these failings. In the course of the inquiry, it has given us answers that, in our judgement, are at best intentionally evasive, and often deliberately misleading. Those who lead the department should be ashamed that civil servants of great integrity felt compelled to risk their careers to bring to light the appalling mismanagement of the crisis, and the misleading statements to Parliament that followed. We call on the department to undertake a review of its processes for handling internal concerns about policies and, more broadly, to re-commit to transparency and positive engagement with Parliament. We call on the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy to use this report as the basis of a review to revisit how the National Security Council operates in times of crisis.

The crisis required clear decision-making, strong political leadership and tight coordination. We have seen little evidence of this. The decision to run the operation through three departments undermined coordination. This is particularly disturbing at a time when the UK faces significant foreign policy challenges, including in relation to Ukraine.

The failures of the withdrawal and evacuation make it even more important that the UK commits to a serious strategy for its future engagement with Afghanistan. It is valid to withhold recognition but attempts to isolate the new regime entirely may only worsen the situation for the Afghan people, reduce the UK’s influence, and leave a vacuum to be filled by powers such as China. The overriding goal of our policy towards Afghanistan should be to reduce the impact of the humanitarian disaster unleashed by the international withdrawal.