British ambassador to Afghanistan told Foreign Office of Islamist militants’ growing presence seven weeks before fall of country’s capital
The British ambassador to Afghanistan repeatedly warned Dominic Raab that Kabul would swiftly fall into Taliban hands, diplomatic cables have revealed, despite the Foreign Office claiming the takeover came as a surprise.
Newly uncovered telegrams show Sir Laurie Bristow emphasised the Islamist militant group was seizing cities across Afghanistan and was on the brink of taking back total control of the country.
Mr Raab, then foreign secretary, has previously been accused of being “asleep at the wheel” amid the Taliban surge. A leaked report seen by The Independent revealed last month he was warned more than three weeks before the fall of Kabul on 16 August of the danger a swift Taliban advance would cause the collapse of the Afghan security forces and a major humanitarian crisis.
Telegrams published by The Times on Tuesday have now revealed Sir Laurie first warned seven weeks before the fall of Kabul that the Taliban would escalate its takeover plans as the US military left Afghanistan.
Three cables Sir Laurie and one from his deputy Alex Pinfield outlined the Taliban’s growing prominence throughout the country as the US prepared to withdraw its forces after 20 years. On 28 June, the ambassador predicted the Taliban were waiting for “irreversible” military withdrawal before seizing more cities.
“It is unlikely to do so while it perceives an ongoing threat from US air power,” he wrote. “From a Taliban perspective, doing so would risk provoking a slowing or a reversal of the US withdrawal, as well as taking significant casualties for little gain. It is more likely that the Taliban will wait until it believes international military withdrawal is irreversible before escalating its campaign.”
Sir Laurie told the Foreign Office more than 50 districts were reported to have fallen since the withdrawal of international troops began.
“Afghan security forces have retaken a number of the lost districts, but open source analysis indicates that of Afghanistan’s 421 districts, the Taliban now controls 156 to the government’s 82, with the remainder contested,” he wrote on 28 June.
Four days later, on 2 July, US president Joe Biden pulled his military from Bagram air base, formerly the largest of the American bases in Afghanistan.
Just over a month later, Sir Laurie sent another warning on 2 August, this time more desperate. He told the Foreign Office: “The gloves are off. We are entering a new, dangerous phase of the conflict.” Unless there was a major turnaround, he warned, the Taliban were soon likely to take their first city with more to follow.
“If that happens, the impact on already fragile political unity, military and public confidence and sentiment will be significant,” he added.
He warned the expected fall of Lashkar Gar in Helmand that week would increase pressure for Britain to rescue loyal Afghans. “The UK legacy in Helmand may add fuel to the public debate in the UK over relocating those who have worked for us during the last two decades in Afghanistan,” Sir Laurie wrote.
Mr Raab is believed to have gone holiday to Crete days after this telegram was received on 6 August.
France began its Kabul evacuation in May, while the UK’s operation up leaving more than 1,000 Afghans who had risked their lives to help Britain.
In his appearance before the Commons select committee last month, Mr Raab said intelligence assessments indicated Kabul was unlikely to fall this year. The former foreign secretary had claimed “a lot of people” were surprised by the pace of the Taliban advance and also conceded he would “not have gone away, with the benefit of hindsight”.
A final telegram was sent on 17 August from Sir Laurie after the Taliban took control of Kabul and diplomats fled the embassy for the Afghan capital’s airport.
“After 20 years, the Taliban are back in control of Afghanistan. The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has collapsed, and President Ghani has fled,” Sir Laurie wrote. “It took only nine days from the fall of the first provincial capital to a complete Taliban victory.
“It’s also a big and difficult moment for many of our people. Afghanistan has played a big part in the lives of many staff across Whitehall, and many have been deeply affected by developments.
“Above all, this is a difficult moment for our military colleagues who have paid a high price in the Afghanistan campaign.”
Dominic Raab was moved to the ministry of justice in Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle last month, a move seen as a demotion from his role as foreign secretary.
A government spokesperson said: “While the situation in Afghanistan was clearly deteriorating, the Taliban’s final advance on Kabul was significantly faster than anyone predicted.
“Despite an extremely difficult situation on the ground, months of intensive cross-government planning allowed us to deliver the biggest and most-challenging evacuation in living memory, bringing 15,000 people, including 7,000 British nationals and their families, to safety.”