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LONDON — Britain’s embattled foreign secretary had lots to say about “nonsense” from his critics — but left MPs with plenty of questions on his handling of Afghanistan’s fall.
Dominic Raab largely kept his cool in a near-two hour grilling by the House of Commons foreign affairs committee. He gave some more clues about what was going on inside government in the lead-up to last month’s panicked evacuation from Kabul, but stonewalled on questions about his holiday smack-bang in the middle of it.
Here are POLITICO’s key takeaways from Raab’s session in the select committee hot seat.
It has been clear for a while that Western allies were not prepared for the speed of the Taliban’s advance, and Raab admitted he hadn’t expected Kabul to fall “before the end of the year.”
The “central assessment” of intelligence, backed up by both the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and the military, had been that the Taliban would consolidate their power in the months following the evacuation.
In one of the most dangerous moments for the under-pressure foreign secretary, Conservative committee chairman (and staunch critic of the withdrawal) Tom Tugendhat came armed with evidence of his own. He cited a separate foreign office assessment — a “principle risk report” — from July 22.
The report warned that peace talks had stalled, and that the looming U.S. and NATO withdrawal was causing rapid Taliban advances which could see them returned to power.
Raab was up for a fight — and appeared willing to punch back at some of his critics both inside and outside government. “The caricature of critique against me is that I’m either lazy and delegating too much, or a control freak,” he said.
He dismissed criticism of the withdrawal of the Foreign Office’s “rapid deployment team” to Dubai as “nonsense in the papers.” Military assessments had made clear that this team — supposed to help Brits overseas in a crisis — was unsafe, he said.
Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, a former Foreign Office official, pointed out that the unit was set up to help in a “vulnerable, collapsing crisis,” exactly like the one Afghanistan faced.
Raab was adamant Britain could have done little to change U.S. President Joe Biden’s mind about the Afghan withdrawal, and was dismissive of the idea an alternative coalition could have been formed without the U.S. The American election campaign had, he said, baked in a “broad” consensus about ending the war, Raab told MPs, pointedly adding later: “There needs to be some reality about that in the public discourse.”
After Biden signaled an end to “major military operations to remake other countries” in an address to the nation this week, Raab made it clear Britain’s own foreign policy will have to shift, with big questions about “effectively nation building in such inhospitable climates.”
He added: “I’m not saying we shouldn’t want to promote liberal democracy and values around the world — I think we should — but again it comes back to the point about reconciling aims with means.”
No new light on the holiday
Raab faced plenty of questioning over the timing of his family holiday to Crete last month, refusing multiple times to reveal when exactly he jetted off to the Greek island.
British newspapers reported Raab had been enjoying a five-star beach break as Kabul fell, with the foreign secretary accused of delegating crucial phone calls while away. Though he cut his holiday short on August 15, it’s been reported he had been urged to return to the U.K. two days earlier.
Asked by Labour MP Chris Bryant if he had left for his holiday before or after August 11 — the date the U.S. confirmed the Taliban were likely to seize the entirety of Afghanistan — Raab refused to engage.
“I’ve given a full statement on my holiday,” he said. “I’ve said that I wouldn’t have gone away with the benefit of hindsight, which is the luxury of commentators.”
“I’m not going to start adding to the fishing expedition beyond the facts that I have articulated,” Raab added, pointing out that a “modern foreign secretary” can work remotely from abroad.
Not to be deterred by the dodge, Scottish National Party MP Stewart McDonald asked Raab a further seven times: “When did you go on holiday?”
There was no new answer on what Raab described as a “partisan political attack.”
It wasn’t just the holiday travel MPs wanted to know about: they also pressed him on exactly how much work the Foreign Office has done to build vital alliances amid the new Afghan reality.
They didn’t get a huge amount of detail. Raab admitted he didn’t even know how many ministers were currently overseas.
In a moment worthy of satire, Raab told the committee he had indeed been to Pakistan — just, it turned out under further questioning, not in his role as foreign secretary. “The truth is, I was hoping to go, but COVID has inhibited travel for quite a while,” he added sheepishly.
Regarding his future travel plans, Raab was far more eager to share — confirming he’s off to the region imminently. That’s Asia, not the Mediterranean.
The numbers game
MPs were left frustrated by Raab’s lack of clarity on the numbers of people eligible to come to the U.K. who are still stuck in Afghanistan. They could be sure the foreign secretary’s boss was correct, though.
“I’m not confident, with precision, to be able to give you a set number, but I am confident that the prime minister is right, that we’ve got the overwhelming number [of British nationals] out,” Raab said.
Pressed for an estimate, he said the number of U.K. nationals remaining is likely “in the low hundreds.”
When it was put to him by Labour’s Bryant that “low hundreds sounds like it could be 400 or it could be 105, 110 or 115,” Raab was unable to narrow it down any further.
“If I could give you any more precision, Chris, then I would,” Raab said.