A leaked Foreign Office report seen by Sky News warned government ministers on 22 July that the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan would lead to “rapid Taliban advances”.
The department’s own document, which is not currently in the public domain, suggests Afghanistan’s cities were in danger of being taken over following the departure of military personnel and was published more than three weeks before the UK government launched Operation Pitting in the middle of August.
But a spokesperson for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said it is “simply wrong and misleading to suggest this document is any way at odds with our detailed assessments of the situation in Afghanistan or our public position throughout the crisis”.
Conservative chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat read extracts of the ‘Principal Risk Register’ report to MPs during an almost two-hour questioning of Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The document stresses the move could lead to “the fall of cities”, the “collapse of security forces” and that the embassy “may need to close if security deteriorates”.
It came as Mr Raab told MPs that the “central assessment” of ministers had been that Kabul was “unlikely” to fall this year.
He said: “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, the central 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.”
The foreign secretary noted that this line of thinking remained “until late”, but stressed that work to develop an evacuation plan was ongoing from June.
But Mr Tugendhat, who led the gruelling interrogation of Mr Raab and served in the region himself, said the leaked document stressed the volatile nature of the country much sooner than the government has suggested and that there is “an issue with intelligence”.
“The Foreign Office’s own principle risk report highlighted in July, on 22 July, the risk of complete failure in Afghanistan – and now we are seeing, even now, people who didn’t make it out in time,” Mr Tugendhat told Sky News.
“So there is a lesson to be learned there.”
He added: “I’ve spoken to a lot of people in the last few weeks who are very keen that I should understand exactly what has been going on inside the Foreign Office, inside other elements of government.
“And I have been extremely careful in which bits of information I use and which bits I don’t in order to protect absolutely the security of our nation and those areas where we do need to be cautious.
“But I think in a warning like this, which clearly has now been well-overtaken by events, revealing that it was made on 22 July is a matter of public interest.”
An FCDO spokesperson said: “The Principal Risk Register is a standard monthly report for the management board which does not contain intelligence assessments.
“It is an internal document which sets out potential risks to the organisation for planning purposes including around duty of care to staff.
“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 July 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.”
Mr Tugendhat told Sky News the report was given to him by “somebody who was in a position to know”.
“Well it is quite clear that there are two kinds of intelligence failures: there are those failures where the intelligence agency failed to provide the intelligence – and that is the traditional meaning of the word,” he said.
“And there is a second kind of intelligence failure where whoever is the principle didn’t read it.
“I am afraid you can’t blame the spies if the officers don’t read the report.”
Mr Tugendhat also referenced the report during Mr Raab’s committee hearing, highlighting that there was a risk major cities in Afghanistan could collapse.
Mr Raab asked for the source of the information before flicking through his folder and responding with details about the central assessment – the intelligence picture the Foreign Office was working from when it made decisions about Afghanistan.
This, he said, stated that it was unlikely Kabul would fall before the end of the year.
This assessment, which was backed by the independent Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and military chiefs, remained the driving force behind government policy until “late”, despite other sources which stated more action might need to be taken.
But Mr Tugendhat suggested the JIC assessment appears to be at odds with the department’s own risk report.
The foreign secretary has faced criticism after it emerged he was on holiday in Crete while the Taliban was advancing on Kabul.
The leaked document suggests Mr Raab travelled abroad on holiday after his own department advised Kabul was at imminent risk of falling.
It also poses more questions as to why more was not done sooner to extract British nationals from Afghanistan.
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During the committee hearing, Labour MP Chris Bryant asked Mr Raab if he was already on holiday on 11 August – when the US assessed the Taliban was likely to capture the whole of Afghanistan.
He also noted that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Mr Raab and the top civil servant at the Foreign Office were all on holiday at the same time.
The foreign secretary repeatedly refused to answer questions about his trip and said he would not participate in a “fishing exercise”.
Meanwhile, Conservative Bob Seely pressed Mr Raab on why the UK’s intelligence was “clearly wrong” about how quickly the Taliban would take over Afghanistan.
The foreign secretary replied that there was some “optimism” from the US but admits that “clearly” the assessment they could not advance at the speed they did was “not correct”.
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