Eyes frozen and cranium pulsating, he was hoist by his own petard: HENRY DEEDES watches Dominic Raab getting grilled over Afghan shambles
There comes a moment in every legal drama when the defending attorney produces a crucial piece of evidence, which flips the entire case right on its head – an unearthed tape recording, say, or a long-lost microfilm.
As the trump card is played, the witness’s eyes pop and the jury gasps. Cut to the stunned prosecution lawyer, whose ruddy cheeks are suddenly drained of all their blood.
Cue pounding kettle drums. Dum-dom-dum! The case rests, m’lud!
A not altogether dissimilar scenario played out at yesterday’s foreign affairs committee, where Dominic Raab was grilled over the shambles in Afghanistan.
For the past fortnight, Mr Raab has insisted the Taliban’s capture of Kabul caught everyone unaware. Palpable nonsense, of course, though it helps justify his decision to decamp to Crete and slurp pina coladas just as all hell broke loose.
We were barely minutes into the hearing and committee chairman Tom Tugendhat was quoting from a report warning the Taliban were making ‘rapid advances’ in Afghanistan.
The Foreign Secretary had arrived in the Committee Room bang on 2pm. His face was tanned from that infamous holiday. On his wrist glistened a James Bond-style watch, the sort which boasts of still being water resistant several miles deep
It claimed this could ‘lead to the fall of cities, collapse of security forces, mass displacement and significant humanitarian need’.
‘Sorry, what source was that?’ Raab asked breezily.
‘Your “principal risk report”,’ replied Tugendhat drily. Issued by the Foreign Office. From as far back as July.
Raab’s chilly eyes froze. His velociraptor cranium pulsated with veiny aggression. Dum-dom-dum. Hoist by his own petard! The Foreign Secretary had arrived in the Committee Room bang on 2pm. His face was tanned from that infamous holiday.
On his wrist glistened a James Bond-style watch, the sort which boasts of still being water resistant several miles deep.
Handy for all those long afternoon swims in the Med. Behind him sat two twitchy looking spads who shuffled uneasily and thumbed their phones. It wasn’t long before he and Tugendhat were locking antlers.
We were barely minutes into the hearing and committee chairman Tom Tugendhat was quoting from a report warning the Taliban were making ‘rapid advances’ in Afghanistan. ‘Sorry, what source was that?’ Raab asked breezily. ‘Your “principal risk report”,’ replied Tugendhat drily. Issued by the Foreign Office. From as far back as July
Raab’s chilly eyes froze. His velociraptor cranium pulsated with veiny aggression. Dum-dom-dum. Hoist by his own petard!
Lt Col Tugendhat has made quite a name for himself this past fortnight. As a veteran of the Afghan conflict he deeply feels our humiliation there. But he may need to tone down the whole worldly statesman act. He’s in danger of becoming a show-off.
He asked Raab how many potential evacuees had been left behind. He didn’t know but estimated it in the ‘low hundreds’ rather than thousands.
Tugendhat had received intel that Germany had achieved success evacuating staff through Uzbekistan.
‘The border there is now closed,’ Raab pointed out.
‘Well, they got their people out before,’ muttered Tugendhat.
Raab rolled his eyes as if to say ‘Yes, yes, well done, smart alec’. Tugendhat began reeling off names of various Afghan dignitaries, pronouncing their names with a rococo roll of the tongue. A reminder to everyone he speaks-da-lingo.
There followed a question about NEOs.
‘Eh?’ asked Raab.
‘Non-combatant Evacuation Order,’ replied Tugendhat, matter-of-factly. His little heart was possibly doing cartwheels at Raab’s gentle humiliation.
Up stepped Chris Bryant (Lab, Rhondda). Mr Bryant likes to treat Raab the way an exasperated teacher might treat an idle pupil of whom he expects so much more.
He gave him a rough old time yesterday, particularly over that ill-judged vacation. Raab, meanwhile, dismissed talk about his holiday as a ‘fishing expedition’ and ‘partisan.’ Weak.
As proceedings rolled on, we learned Raab was due to catch a flight to Pakistan for talks straight after the hearing. Well, that certainly explained those spads’ jitteriness. ‘Have you been to Pakistan?’ Tugendhat asked nonchalantly.
‘Not as Foreign Secretary,’ Raab replied.
Tugendhat’s lip curled ever so slightly. He and Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan are probably on first name terms.
Showboater of the afternoon was Neil Coyle (Lab, Bermondsey), shouting and pointing at Raab like a drink-soaked brawler.
As proceedings rolled on, we learned Raab was due to catch a flight to Pakistan for talks straight after the hearing. Well, that certainly explained those spads’ jitteriness
His rantings did at least unearth info that the Afghans guarding the British embassy had been unable to make it out of the country. Coyle wondered whether these people were owed an apology. As if that’s of any use to them now.
By now, Raab was increasingly prickly. His voice was peevish. He rocked back in his chair defensively. Eye contact became a rarity. His mood hardly improved when a whiskery chap from the SNP began asking how many ambassadors he’d spoken to in the past week.
‘I don’t need to get on the phone to get an assessment on the ground,’ Raab snapped. Would he resign? No.
He was busy getting on with the ‘Herculean task’ at hand. Enter that towering femme d’affaires, Claudia Webbe (Ind, Leicester E) Uh oh!
Ms Webbe’s last encounter with Raab was not a success, when she kept badgering him about Belarus without the first idea what she was talking about. She continued in a similar vein yesterday while Dom’s patience slowly ebbed. ‘Claudia this is nonsense,’ he sighed wearily.
At 3.50pm, it was finally time for him to go. He had a plane to Pakistan to catch.
Summing up, Tugendhat reiterated Afghanistan was our worst foreign policy disaster since Suez. Raab huffily asserted he ‘struggled’ with that analogy. And with a brusque shuffle of papers, he was off and away from the Westminster swim.
He may find the mean streets of Islamabad mildly more agreeable.
Dominic Raab jetted off to Crete TWO WEEKS after memo warned about Afghanistan’s collapse, leaked note reveals
ByJason Groves Political Editorand Harriet Line For The Daily Mail
Dominic Raab went on holiday after his own department warned that Afghanistan was on the brink of being overrun by the Taliban.
As the Foreign Secretary was grilled by MPs yesterday, it emerged that an internal document had told of ‘rapid advances’ by extremists which could lead to ‘the fall of cities, collapse of security forces [and] the Taliban returned to power’.
The Foreign Office assessment was produced on July 22 – more than three weeks before Kabul fell. In addition, the Defence Secretary revealed in an interview that by July he had been arguing that ‘the game is up and we have to do what we can to accelerate whatever we’re doing’.
Despite the looming crisis, Mr Raab left for a family holiday in Crete – meaning he was abroad when the Taliban duly seized control.
Dominic Raab went on holiday after his own department warned that Afghanistan was on the brink of being overrun by the Taliban. Pictured: The UK completed its withdrawal from Kabul at the weekend with the US mission coming to a close earlier this week
The Foreign Secretary is thought to have set off on August 6. During testy exchanges with Labour MPs yesterday he refused 11 times to say exactly when he had left the UK, claiming the questions were ‘partisan’.
Astonishingly, a source close to Mr Raab last night said he had not seen his department’s assessment of the situation in Afghanistan before jetting off.
The memo’s warnings were revealed in the Commons by Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, who said he had been passed it by a whistleblower.
Mr Raab initially asked where the memo came from. When told it was drawn up by his own department, he said he had been ‘very mindful’ of it – but claimed it did not reflect the ‘central assessment’ that Kabul would not fall this year.
During a two-hour session, he defended his conduct and rejected claims he had been ‘asleep on watch’ as the crisis unfolded.
The Mail revealed last month that Mr Raab had refused to break into his holiday to make a critical call to his Afghan counterpart on August 13 about the fate of translators. He eventually bowed to pressure and cut his holiday short.
Mr Raab yesterday repeated his claim that ‘with the luxury of hindsight’ he would not have gone abroad – but defended Foreign Office permanent secretary Sir Philip Barton, who also went on holiday amid the crisis. He told MPs he had ensured there was ‘a decent rota system’ in place while he was away.
In contrast to the Foreign Secretary’s claims that Kabul was not expected to fall for months, his Cabinet colleague Ben Wallace told the Spectator that it was clear by July that the Afghan forces trained by the West would melt away once US troops withdrew.
‘It was a bit of a shock when Herat fell,’ the Defence Secretary said. ‘Some of these big places had historically been resistant to the Taliban. When they fell, literally without a fight… I remember back in July arguing that whatever we think, the game is up and we have to do what we can to accelerate whatever we’re doing.’
Asked whether Mr Raab’s position was untenable, Mr Tugendhat declined to back the Foreign Secretary yesterday. The former Army officer and Afghanistan veteran – who revealed that one of his own translators remains trapped in the country, despite having been offered sanctuary in Britain – told Sky News: ‘I have given up advising anyone on who is tenable in government. That is a matter for the Prime Minister.’
Last night Mr Raab left Britain for meetings with his counterparts in countries near Afghanistan to discuss the safe extraction of remaining UK nationals and their allies.
He told MPs that the number of British citizens still there was in the ‘low hundreds’, while the number of Afghan allies to be rescued remains unknown. However, he stressed that the vast majority of those who had helped British forces had now escaped to safety.
A Foreign Office spokesman last night played down the importance of the July memo.
‘The Principal Risk Register is a standard monthly report for the management board which does not contain intelligence assessments,’ they said.
‘It is an internal document which sets out potential risks to the organisation for planning purposes… it is simply wrong and misleading to suggest this document is in any way at odds with our detailed assessments of the situation in Afghanistan or our public position throughout the crisis.
‘The document makes clear that our central planning assumption at the time was that the peace process in Afghanistan would run for up to a further six months.’
Crisis ‘caught us unawares’
Dominic Raab insisted that ministers had been told it was ‘unlikely’ Kabul would fall this year. In reality, Taliban gunmen entered the Afghan capital in the middle of last month. Mr Raab conceded that the pace of their advance ‘caught us unawares’.
He told MPs: ‘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… 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.’
Mr Raab said the Taliban’s ‘consolidation of power’ was expected to take place in the ‘months following the evacuation’. He insisted there were contingency plans but stressed of the Government’s central assessment: ‘That was something widely shared by Nato allies.’
Embassy staff left behind
Afghan guards who protected the British embassy were left behind because the buses they were on were not allowed to enter Kabul airport, Mr Raab admitted.
He denied a claim by Labour MP Neil Coyle that attempts to rescue the staff were ‘held up due to paperwork issues’.
Insisting this was ‘not true’, he told MPs: ‘We wanted to get some of those embassy guards through but the buses arranged to collect them, to take them to the airport, were not given permission to enter. And that is, I’m afraid, a reflection of the conditions on the ground.’
Battle for The Queen’s picture
The Taliban may have seized the British embassy’s portrait of the Queen – despite Mr Raab’s order that staff should remove anything that could be used for propaganda before evacuating the building.
Regarding a photo of Taliban fighters posing with the portrait, Mr Raab said: ‘I talked through with the team the policy for destroying not just documents but anything relating to [Her Majesty’s Government]. It’s not clear to me whether [that picture] came from outside or inside the embassy.
‘Clearly we were conscious of the attempted propaganda coup around the Taliban taking over embassies and what have you.’
‘No need to make calls’
Asked about reports that he failed to talk to British diplomats in seven of Afghanistan’s nearby countries as the Taliban swept through, Mr Raab said: ‘The advice of ambassadors is often distilled down so we have a single complete holistic view… we get telegrams in, we assess them very carefully. I don’t need to pick up the phone to get an assessment from the ground.
‘What I do need to do is get a holistic picture from the team who are getting all the different advice, get the options and assess what we do next.’
He told MPs that from mid-March to the end of August he had more than 40 meetings or telephone calls ‘where Afghanistan was on the agenda’, adding: ‘That’s broadly one every four days.’
Of reports about his attention to detail – or lack thereof – he said: ‘The caricature of critique against me is I’m either lazy and delegating too much, or I’m a control freak. The truth is you need to exercise grip, but you also need to be willing to delegate.’
Should Britain build nations?
Echoing recent comments by Joe Biden, Mr Raab suggested the West should give up on ‘nation-building’. He told MPs: ‘Clearly there are lessons to be learned about the ability and the way in which a campaign… primarily focused on counter-terrorism morphed into something more akin to nation-building.
‘We don’t want to give up our ideals, our ambition, our attachment to liberal democracy and open societies, but we do need… to reconcile our ends with our means to deliver them – particularly of course in a wider global context where power has become more widely dispersed with a rising East.’
Generals in the crosshairs
The ‘assessment of military risk’ in Kabul saw Foreign Office workers withdrawn from Afghanistan for four days at the height of the crisis, Mr Raab said.
He told MPs that staff – excluding the ambassador – left the country on August 13. A ‘rapid deployment team’ returned on August 17, with Mr Raab saying that UK and US forces had not arrived to secure the airport until then. ‘We were all operating to the same assessment of military risk on the ground,’ he explained.
He said the number of Foreign Office staff on the ground ‘peaked at 20’ with a further 13 Border Force officials. ‘The principal issue… has been the issue of stability and security around the airport,’ he added.
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