How civil servants’ obsession with work-life balance left Afghans at mercy of the Taliban
- Whistleblower says he was left to deal with thousands of emails pleading for help
- Raphael Marshall says foreign office officials stuck to a eight-hour shift culture
- Colleagues also refused to work weekends ‘despite the urgency’ of the situation
- The former junior diplomat also criticised then foreign secretary Dominic Raab
Across 39 devastating pages of evidence, Raphael Marshall today lays bare the extraordinary shambles at the heart of the Foreign Office after Kabul fell to the Taliban.
With the militants in control of the country, thousands of desperate Afghan workers and their families appealed to Britain to be airlifted to safety.
Yet the junior diplomat was, at times, the only person left dealing with hundreds upon hundreds of emails, almost all of them pleading for help.
In a detailed written statement to the Commons foreign affairs committee, published today, Mr Marshall – described by the committee as a ‘whistleblower’ – outlines how chronic staffing shortages at the department were compounded by colleagues working from home, refusing to work weekends and sticking to the culture of eight-hour shifts ‘despite the urgency’ of the situation.
The junior diplomat, who has now left the Foreign Office, also suggests the evacuation effort was hampered by delays in decision making by the then foreign secretary, Dominic Raab.
Raphael Marshall (pictured), a junior civil servant, has claimed he was at times the only person dealing with thousands of emails from those desperate to flee the Taliban
Britain’s former foreign secretary Dominic Raab answers questions on Government policy on Afghanistan during a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee in September
Here, John Stevens details Mr Marshall’s damning claims about the performance of his former department during one of the worst crises in its recent history.
SO MANY LEFT BEHIND TO BE MURDERED BY THE TALIBAN
Mr Marshall, a 25-year-old graduate working at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in Whitehall, was assigned to the Special Cases team.
This was separate from the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy scheme that handled the cases of Afghans who worked directly for the UK Government, such as translators.
Instead, the Special Cases dealt with the claims of those at risk because of their links with the UK – including Afghan soldiers, politicians, journalists, civil servants, activists, aid workers and judges, as well as guards and others who worked through sub-contractors.
In his statement, he estimates that ‘between 75,000 and 150,000 people (including dependants) applied for evacuation’ via the Special Cases team but concludes, damningly, that fewer than five per cent ‘have received any assistance’.
He writes: ‘It is clear that some of those left behind have since been murdered by the Taliban.’
5,000 UNREAD MESSAGES
The whistleblower says that many of the emails to the Special Cases inbox were unread, with around 5,000 unread at any one time at the peak of the crisis.
He says many of those pleading for help detailed ‘grave human rights abuses’ by the Taliban, including ‘murders, rapes and burning of homes’.
He says that while the emails received an automated response that they had been ‘logged’, this was ‘usually false’.
Taliban fighters pose for a photograph in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 19 earlier this year
A SINGLE CIVIL SERVANT TO READ THOUSANDS OF EMAILS
On the afternoon of Saturday August 21 –halfway through the two-week effort to rescue Afghans from Kabul – Mr Marshall reveals he ‘was the only person monitoring and processing emails in the Afghan Special Cases inbox’.
He adds: ‘No emails from after early Friday afternoon had been read at that point. The number of unread emails was already in the high thousands, I believe above 5,000, and increasing constantly.
Around four other people had been rostered to work on the Special Cases team but had not come on shift… I had not originally been rostered but had decided that I was morally obliged to put myself down because I saw the team was not fully staffed.
If I had not, it is possible there would have been no one to process the emails at all.’
He continues: ‘These emails were desperate and urgent. I was struck by many titles including phrases such as “please save my children”.’
At the point where he was the only person answering emails, British Paratroopers were desperately trying to hold the line at Kabul airport and it was feared the rescue operation could collapse.
The airport was besieged by thousands trying to escape that weekend.
Afghan people sit inside a US military aircraft preparing to leave Afghanistan via the military airport in Kabul in August
WORKING FROM HOME AND AN 8-HOUR CULTURE
‘In my opinion, staffing shortages were exacerbated by some staff working from home, which hampered communication,’ writes Mr Marshall.
‘This was on occasion significant in a context where policy was poorly defined and the situation unclear.’
He believes that on two days in the final week of the evacuation, no one was allocated to work the night shift on his team dealing with the requests for help.
He writes: ‘Despite the urgency of the situation, the default expectation remained that FCDO staff would only work eight hours a day, five days a week.
Staff were only asked to work shifts for which they volunteered. This likely resulted in a lack of night shifts and limited cover over the weekend because these shifts were less popular… I believe this reflects a deliberate drive by the FCDO to prioritise “work-life balance”.’
He says staff who worked more than their designated hours ‘were often encouraged to leave by colleagues’ and senior leaders suggested working more than eight hours was ‘inefficient’.
ONE COMPUTER SHARED BY EIGHT SOLDIERS
Soldiers were drafted in to work in the Foreign Office in London processing appeals for help as the department struggled, despite employing more than 17,000 diplomats worldwide.
They were not given passwords so for almost a day ‘the soldiers worked with one computer shared between roughly eight people’.
‘This obviously considerably reduced their efficiency and speed,’ says Mr Marshall.
Taliban forces patrol a runway a day after US troops withdrew from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul in August
MISLEADING CLAIMS OVER EMAIL RESPONSES
For one week ‘emails were processed by marking them with a flag once read but were not entered’ into the Foreign Office’s database of people requesting to be evacuated.
The whistleblower states his opinion that ‘the purpose of this was to allow the Prime Minister and the then foreign secretary to inform MPs that there were no unread emails’.
All incoming messages ‘received an automatic response that the request for assistance had been “logged”,’ adds Mr Marshall.
‘This was usually false. In thousands of cases emails were not even read.’
BBC CHEFS HAD PRIORITY OVER INTERPRETERS
The Foreign Office’s ‘process for selecting which Afghan applicants to evacuate was not credible’, according to Mr Marshall.
‘Usually little distinction was observed between applicants who explained a specific risk, for example that they had received specific death threats… and between applicants who merely referred to the general risk posed by the Taliban coming to power.’
He adds: ‘Some decisions made are likely impossible to justify. For example, I understand that we evacuated the BBC’s Afghan cooking and cleaning staff.
Although I wish these people the best, it is impossible to justify why they were prioritised above interpreters or others at much greater risk and had performed much greater services to the UK.’
At least 13 people including children were killed in a blast outside the airport on August 26
LACK OF CO-ORDINATION WITH MoD OR THE USA
Mr Marshall writes that there was little or no effective consultation between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, with one colleague remarking that the failure to co-ordinate threatened to undermine the whole rescue operation.
There was also no co-ordination with the US authorities, which he says may have led to ‘duplicate visas’.
Attempts to share evacuation lists were opposed by one official suggesting it may have been a breach of European data protection laws and data security rights.
He says an email he wrote warning people might die unless things improved was criticised for being ‘shrill’.
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