16 December 2021
The Committee on Afghanistan.
By Robert Kilconner
Sometimes you just know. It is the smell that gives it away and the smell which comes out of the Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the evacuation from Kabul is not a good one. By any standards the challenge facing the Foreign Office team was huge. Large numbers of people to be airlifted out as the Taliban tightened its grip on Kabul; one can understand that things would inevitably go wrong, but that the Permanent Secretary did not come scuttling back to take control as soon as it became apparent what was happening – that indeed is surprising.
Now I don’t wish to comment on the effect of his absence. No doubt it was all perfectly proper and no doubt he felt he had left an adequate team in place. Whether he had or nor is a matter for the Committee and despite his expressions of regret that he did not come back sooner I have no knowledge of whether his presence would have made a difference. The odd thing is that, at what must have been a career-defining moment, he did not want to be in the thick of it whether it would have helped or not.
Many years ago I was involved with a large corporate acquisition. The bids went in just before a series of public holidays and the winning bidder was offered a short exclusivity which involved its team working very unsocial hours at times when people normally expect to be at home with their families. It was a race against time and the law firm involved brought in its most senior partners and specialists to ensure that time was not wasted unnecessarily. In the end the deal stood on a knife edge with a couple of very difficult and sensitive issues to be resolved and at that point the lawyer leading the deal told his assistant that he could go home. He was entirely right. It was late at night. The remaining points required difficult judgements which the client would make after discussions with the very experienced lawyers surrounding him. A relatively junior lawyer could bring nothing further to the party.
What I will always remember is that young man’s reply. “Go home?” he exclaimed. “What, now? It is to be a part of decisions like these that I work in the City of London!” He went on to be a very distinguished lawyer but I will bet that he still remembers that evening as a highlight of his early career.
Now look at the position of the senior team on Afghanistan. Something huge was happening and the diplomatic and organisational skills of the department were being tested to the utmost. This was something which if brought off well would justify an entire career, a chance to answer the question “What did you achieve in your career, Daddy?” How could one not want to be there if only to take coffee round the team? Surely this is what they joined the Civil Service for?
It all says something about attitudes in the Afghanistan team of the FCO and I am afraid that something is not very good.