When Dominic Raab emerged from the Wilson Room, after nearly two hours in front of the foreign affairs committee, he was overheard uttering one word: “Phew”.
It didn’t sound like a boast that he had emerged unscathed, more a reflection of his sheer relief that the grilling was over. And he wasn’t just grilled, he was sautéed, baked and kebabbed. Never was a foreign secretary owned so much, by so many, to so “phew”.
Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat, a former Afghan veteran who is himself often talked of as a future foreign secretary, led the questioning. Tugendhat stressed at the start that these were not “personal questions”, they were rather questions on behalf of “the people”.
Yet Raab made clear he felt unfairly scapegoated for the UK’s Afghan evacuation failures. In fact, the 110 minutes often felt like a group passive-aggression session, with barely disguised mutual mistrust between the witness and his questioners.
Raab, seen by some MPs as particularly prone to tetchiness, kept his cool to start with. Asked why the French got out their staff earlier than the UK, he politely said the analogy “I don’t think is quite right”.
Put to him there are troops in South Korea and Cyprus decades after initial conflicts, he “gently” said the comparisons with peacekeeping missions were “not commensurate”. For good measure, he dissed Tugendhat’s claim the evacuation was the worst British foreign policy disaster since Suez (“I struggle with the Suez analogy”).
In ‘Tom v Dom’, we saw the ex-military officer’s clipped questions versus the ex-FCO lawyer’s legalese. The first flashpoint came when Tugendhat pointed out that Raab’s German counterpart had visited Afghanistan’s neighbour Uzbekistan to allow safe exit routes. When he said “the Germans got their people out first”, Raab screwed up his eyes in irritation.
There was plenty of diplo-oneupmanship on display, not least when Tugendhat deployed his artillery of acronyms. “When did you last update the NEO?,” he asked. “When did we last update the..?” replied Raab. “The Non-combatant Evacuation Order,” Tugendhat said. “I’d have to check that,” said Raab.
More importantly, Tugendhat tried a classic committee hearing ambush, quoting from an internal FCO document he’d been leaked. The “Principal Risk Report” for July 22, issued before Raab went on that infamous holiday to Crete, made scary reading. It warned “rapid Taliban advances” could lead to their “return to power, mass displacement and significant humanitarian need”.
When Raab asked for the source of such dire predictions, Tugendhat said deadpan that it was his own department. Later, the FCO hit back that this was a selective quotation as the document made clear it agreed with the central assumption that the Taliban would not be in power for the rest of the year. But in the hearing, Raab just looked puzzled.
Recent behind the scenes tensions between the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office were again on display, with Tugendhat voicing concerns of many in the military at the chaos and Raab continuing his attempt to spread the responsibility beyond his office.
Having blamed “military” intelligence for failing to anticipate the rapid collapse of the Afghan government, the foreign secretary added that the key decision to withdraw FCO personnel from Kabul for four days (a move that seriously delayed processing of evacuees) was based on military assessments of the safety of staff.
On the vexed issue of his holiday in Crete, Raab repeated his line-to-take that with “the luxury” of “hindsight” he would have returned earlier to the UK. It felt painfully clear that he doesn’t believe he did anything wrong, particularly as he stressed a “modern foreign secretary” is fully geared up for remote working and can attend Cobras and direct evacuations from a beach hotel room.
He even provided the committee with a bit of free personality assessment. “The caricature or critique of me is either I’m being lazy and delegate too much or I’m a control freak,” he said. “The truth is you need to exercise grip but you also need to be willing to delegate. If you don’t do that, you will never take decisions.” It certainly sounded like another elaborate defence of that Greek hotel stay.
Raab inexplicably refused 11 times to say when he had first gone on his family break (his line about Chris Bryant’s “fishing expedition” prompted plenty of jokes about seas being closed). Yet if that made him look shifty, it was nothing compared to his refusal to actually apologise for the British nationals and Afghan helpers (including UK embassy guards) left stranded in Afghanistan.
When Neil Coyle asked if he owed such people an apology, Raab replied: “We owe them every effort to get those out that we did.” That reply didn’t even make grammatical sense, let alone common sense (we owe to the abandoned the fact that others were not abandoned??).
Raab added that he also owed those left behind a duty “now to focus on the new reality in Afghanistan”, which is why he is making a trip to the region. But what was perhaps most fascinating about the entire session was his focus on the old reality of the West’s lack of strategy for the country itself.
Referring repeatedly to “optimism bias” and “wishful thinking” of some in Whitehall, he rightly pointed out that it was clear from Biden’s long record and the US election that his administration would complete Trump’s withdrawal plan. Tellingly, he was in fact referring to the optimism bias of the MoD down the years.
His “one reflection” of the evidence session was that after all the blood, sweat and tears, including of people like Tugendhat (“people around this committee”), there had over 20 years been “a desire” “to believe you can complete this task”. But that task lacked “clear military objectives, means to achieve them and a coherent exit strategy”.
In what felt like a reality check on Tony Blair’s liberal interventionism, he said there was the “much bigger question about effectively nation-building in such inhospitable climates”. And with US public opinion in a different place than 2001 “it comes back to the point of reconciling ends and means”. The subtext seemed to be this: the MoD is still deluded about gains in Afghanistan, the Foreign Office isn’t.
Raab added that people need to consider “how difficult emotionally, if not anything else, it is to extract yourself”. British veterans of the Afghanistan war, Tugendhat among them, may feel that amounted to a patronising suggestion that they were blinded by their emotional attachment to their mission and those they tried to help.
Raab wouldn’t be alone in thinking that the overall strategy in Afghanistan, and metrics of success, were flawed (the Washington Post’s expose on how the US public were misled is a real eye-opener).
But if that’s what he genuinely thinks, then a public inquiry into the decisions taken is surely the only answer. When the hearing ended, Raab thanked the committee “for your rigorous engagement”. Real rigour would mean a lot more questions like the wider ones he himself raised. Some real answers would help too.