The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

British whistleblower details ‘chaotic’ and ‘dysfunctional’ Afghanistan evacuation that ignored pleas of thousands

Evacuees from Afghanistan disembark from a British Royal Air Force plane at Brize Norton station in southern England on Aug. 24. (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)
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LONDON — Britain’s handling of the evacuation from Afghanistan in August was “arbitrary and dysfunctional,” according to a whistleblower who claimed that thousands of emails from Afghans potentially eligible for flights out went unread by the British Foreign Office and that animals were prioritized over people in an airlift.

Testimony provided Tuesday by whistleblower Raphael Marshall, who worked in the Foreign Office during the Taliban takeover, and other officials to a parliamentary committee suggests that the British evacuation effort was marked by disorganization similar to the United States’ chaotic departure from Afghanistan. The U.S. effort was criticized by some in Britain, a key U.S. ally in the war.

Marshall, a desk officer until September, was on the Afghan Special Cases team, which fielded requests from people such as Afghan soldiers, journalists, aid workers and judges, many of whom he said faced risks because of their ties to Britain or other Western countries.

In written testimony to Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee — which convened Tuesday as part of an inquiry into Britain’s withdrawal from Afghanistan — Marshall estimated that 75,000 to 150,000 people, including dependents, applied to the team for evacuation but that “fewer than 5% of these people have received any assistance.”

Thousands of “desperate and urgent” emails were not read, he said, describing decisions about whom to rescue as “arbitrary” in a “chaotic system” that put those left behind in danger. He wrote that on one afternoon in August, “I was the only person monitoring and processing emails,” and that “there were usually over 5000 unread emails in the inbox at any given moment.”

Emails sent to the Foreign Office received a response saying they had been logged, but Marshall said “this was usually false,” with thousands of emails unread, including hundreds from lawmakers.

His 39-page statement made several damning allegations, including “inadequate staffing” and “lack of expertise,” with staff members “asked to make hundreds of life and death decisions about which they knew nothing.”

None of the team’s members had “studied Afghanistan, worked on Afghanistan previously, or had a detailed knowledge of Afghanistan,” he wrote.

In a video sent to The Post on Aug. 27, Sharif Karimi, an interpreter for the British military approved for evacuation, said he fears he's been left behind. (Video: The Washington Post)

Marshall also claimed that the limited resources at Kabul’s airport were used to airlift the animals of Paul Farthing, a former British soldier known as “Pen” who ran the Nowzad animal charity in Afghanistan. During the evacuation, Farthing’s campaign to save his Afghan staffers and animals culminated in nearly 200 cats and dogs landing in London on a plane funded through donations.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had sent a request “to use considerable capacity to transport Nowzad’s animals,” Marshall said, and although the charity supplied its own plane, there was a “limited number of soldiers available to bring eligible people into the airport and limited capacity within the airport.” The rescue may have come at the expense of “evacuating British nationals and [Afghan] evacuees, including Afghans who had served with British soldiers,” he wrote.

Johnson denied that he had intervened to prioritize pets over people, telling reporters on Tuesday that the allegation was “complete nonsense.”

When the Taliban swept into power in Afghanistan this past summer, U.S. troops, British forces and their allies airlifted more than 100,000 people in an evacuation marked by violence and harrowing images. They have acknowledged that many Afghans were left scrambling as the operation ended with the withdrawal of U.S. forces after 20 years of war.

U.K.’s top diplomat defends chaotic Afghan evacuation, citing intelligence failures

Marshall also accused then-Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who has since been reassigned as justice secretary, of being slow to make decisions on tough cases and taking “several hours” to respond to the crisis center.

Raab, who faced rebuke in August for vacationing on a Greek island when the Taliban marched into Kabul on Aug. 15, rejected the criticism Tuesday.

“Some of the criticism seems rather dislocated from the facts on the ground, the operational pressures,” he told the BBC. “That with the takeover of the Taliban, unexpected around the world, I do think that not enough recognition has been given to quite how difficult it was.”

More than 1,000 Foreign Office staffers worked “night and day” to get 15,000 people evacuated in just two weeks, Raab added. “I don’t think we have seen an operation on that scale in living memory,” he said.

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He was not the only one whose summer holiday plans have come under scrutiny. Philip Barton, the head of the Foreign Office, told the parliamentary committee Tuesday that he regretted staying on vacation until Aug. 26, almost two weeks after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. “If I had my time again, I would have come back from my leave earlier,” he said.

The British government said it has helped more than 3,000 people leave Afghanistan since the evacuation effort ended and continues working to help others get out.

The latest allegations, however, painted a picture of a “lack of interest and bureaucracy over humanity,” said Tom Tugendhat, a senior Conservative lawmaker and chair of the committee conducting the inquiry.

“These failures betrayed our friends and allies,” he added.