The Foreign Secretary’s performance before a parliamentary select committee typifies twenty years of blundering UK policy in Afghanistan, writes Sean Ledwith
A few years ago Dominic Raab expressed surprise that Dover is so important to UK trade with the rest of Europe. Therefore we should not be too surprised at his shaky grasp of the facts on the ground regarding the British withdrawal from Kabul over the past few weeks. Scenes of carnage and chaos at the local airport have been mixed with reports of shambolic management of the crisis back at the Foreign Office which Raab is supposed to oversee. When Taliban forces took over the Afghan capital two weeks ago, the Foreign Secretary was on holiday at a luxury 5-star holiday in Crete.
Raab has rejected suggestions that he was lounging on the beach or paddle boarding as events in Afghanistan were accelerating towards a climax but, whatever the truth, he might as well have been doing that considering the effectiveness of the British evacuation on the ground. His claim that "the sea was actually closed" near his hotel will haunt him for a long time. Even fellow Tories have been seething at the naked incompetence of the Foreign Secretary and his team in failing to foresee the speed of the Taliban advance and forced him to appear before a special session of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee this week.
Chair of the committee, Tom Tugenhadt, referred in the meeting to the fall of Kabul as Britain’s "biggest single disaster of foreign policy since Suez". The Tory MP is a former member of army intelligence who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan and has been a prominent voice of the Tory backbenchers who are squirming at the reputational damage inflicted on the establishment by the debacle. Tugenhadt and others on the committee blitzed Raab with unanswered questions and exposed the pitiful inadequacies of the government’s management of the debacle. The Foreign Secretary was unable to provide credible responses to a mounting pile of queries about his chronic mismanagement, notably about his chronically mistimed jaunt to Crete. His exchanges with Labour MP Chris Bryant reads like a comedy sketch, albeit one in very poor taste:
Bryant: Why can't you just answer this question? This is absurd.
Raab: I'm not going to start, Chris, adding to the fishing expedition beyond the facts I have articulated.
Bryant: No, no, no. I'm sorry, Mr Raab. The problem here is that of course it's perfectly legitimate for ministers to go on holiday. Everybody has that right and I would argue it's an important part of people being fresh enough to be able to do their job properly. Don’t you not see it's important for British people to understand why you thought it was right to go on holiday?
Raab refused to specify the dates of his holiday to the committee eleven times! He resorted to Whitehall gobbledegook to try to explain the hopeless failure of the British state and its intelligence arm to foresee the speed of events in Afghanistan, with vague waffle about "optimism bias, the new reality and inhospitable climates".
Raab floundered horribly when Tugenhadt confronted him with a leaked intelligence briefing from the Foreign Office itself written in July, known as the Principal Risk Report, that predicted "rapid Taliban advances…. their return to power, mass displacement and significant humanitarian need". Raab seemed totally unaware of the existence of a report from his own department! The Foreign Secretary also sought to blame other departments for the fiasco, particularly the Ministry of Defence, which has prompted a spiky riposte from Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.
It is increasingly apparent that under this particularly venal and incompetent brand of Tory government, the upper echelons of the British state are being hollowed out and rendered unfit for the 21st century. The chaos in Kabul is the foreign policy equivalent of the catastrophic bungling of the Covid pandemic. Boris Johnson has predictably given his backing to Raab in the wake of the Select Committee mauling but such reassurance is meaningless from a PM who has condoned the bullying, corruption and ineptitude of Priti Patel, Robert Jenrick and Gavin Williamson in other departments of state. The only thing that may give Raab a temporary stay of execution is the even greater culpability of his boss in Number 10.
Despite their forensic evisceration of Raab, however, the Select Committee inevitably steered away from confronting the fundamental facts facing the British ruling class following their humiliation in Afghanistan. This is the fourth time the British army has been defeated in that country. The warnings of Jeremy Corbyn and the Stop the War coalition in 2001 that the whole concept of the War on Terror was misconceived have been vindicated. The so-called special relationship with the US is threadbare considering Biden’s refusal to listen to the British request to extend evacuations beyond the August deadline. The shambles has exposed the hollowness of the government’s claim to pursue a vision of Global Britain.
The select committee neatly exposed Raab as an utterly hopeless Foreign Secretary. However, the likes of Tugenhadt only represent a different splinter of the ruling class that would like to re-assert British military power in a less chaotic manner. The only sure way of avoiding a repeat of the chaos in Kabul is for the UK to turns its back decisively on all forms of imperial delusion; or optimism bias as Dominic Raab might call it.
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