Dominic Raab defends lack of Afghan interpreter callon August 20, 2021 at 12:37 pm

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The UK foreign secretary is facing calls to quit over his handling of evacuations.

Dominic Raab

image sourceReuters

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has defended his decision not to call his Afghan counterpart over evacuating translators who had helped UK forces.

Mr Raab said he prioritised “security” at Kabul airport and “delegated” the call to a junior minister.

But that call did not happen due to the “rapidly deteriorating situation” in Afghanistan, he added.

The foreign secretary has rejected demands from the opposition to resign.

Earlier this week it emerged, in a report by The Daily Mail, that he had been on holiday in Crete and last Friday and unavailable to make the phone call to the Afghan foreign minister last Friday, as the Taliban advanced towards Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital.

Labour has asked whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson had spoken to Mr Raab while he was away – and whether he had given permission for him to leave the UK.

And Colonel Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, told the BBC the foreign secretary’s decision not to call his Afghan counterpart “typifies” a “ministerial lack of urgency” over the 20-year conflict in the country.

In a statement, Mr Raab said the government had “been working tirelessly” to evacuate people and praised “the excellent team we have in place”.

As a result, he said 204 UK nationals and their families, Afghan staff and other countries citizens had been evacuated on the morning of Monday 16 August, and since then the number had risen to 1,635.

He added that the government’s overriding priority has been to secure Kabul airport so that flights can leave.

The prime minister is due to chair a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency planning committee on Friday afternoon to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.

People outside Kabul airport

image sourceEPA

Several thousand Afghan interpreters and other staff have worked for UK forces since the Nato invasion of the country in 2021.

Many are in fear of their lives, as the Taliban increase their hold on Afghanistan, with the United Nations warning that those deemed to have been “collaborators” by the group are being sought out in door-to-door searches.

Afghans who worked for the UK government can come to the UK as part of the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy.

The Home Office says it has resettled 2,000 former staff and their families in the UK since 22 June. The target is 5,000 by the end of this year.

But Kabul airport is reportedly in chaos, with Taliban militants controlling access, making access to planes difficult.

On Thursday, it was reported that Mr Raab had been advised by senior Foreign Office officials last week that he should make contact with Afghan Foreign Minister Hanif Atmar to request urgent assistance in rescuing interpreters.

Officials said it was important the call was made by Mr Raab rather than a junior minister, but they were told he was unavailable.

Giving his version of events for the first time, the foreign secretary said: “On Friday afternoon, 13 August, advice was put to my private office (around 6pm Afghan time) recommending a call to the Afghan Foreign Minister.

“This was quickly overtaken by events. The call was delegated to a minister of state because I was prioritising security and capacity at the airport on the direct advice of the director and the director general overseeing the crisis response.

“In any event, the Afghan foreign minister agreed to take the call, but was unable to because of the rapidly deteriorating situation.”

Mr Raab has faced calls from opposition parties to resign or be sacked over his handling of the situation.

For Labour, shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said: “For the prime minister and foreign secretary to be on holiday during the biggest foreign policy crisis in a generation is an unforgivable failure of leadership.

“The government’s negligence will cost lives.”

Meanwhile, The Times reports that the permanent secretaries – senior civil servants – at the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence, are on leave.

A government spokesman said that “departments across Whitehall have been working intensively” on the situation in Afghanistan.

The BBC has been told that the civil servants in question are continuing to work while on holiday, and that their other permanent secretaries are in place to cover their absence.

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