The UK had expected a Taliban-led regime to take over in Afghanistan since 2020 but no-one had forecast the speed with which the group would sweep to power, the Government’s National Security Adviser has said.
Sir Stephen Lovegrove said the Taliban takeover had been anticipated since the February 2020 deal struck in Doha by then-US president Donald Trump with the group which paved the way for the American withdrawal.
The senior official defended the evacuation effort as the Afghan government collapsed much faster than had been predicted but faced fierce criticism over the absence of senior officials, who were on holiday as Kabul fell.
Appearing before a parliamentary committee, Sir Stephen said: “Pretty much from the moment at which the Doha agreements were signed (in February 2020) there was an intensive set of activities drawing on many, many different types of information and intelligence to assess what the likely outcome was going to be.
“The central scenario was going to be a Taliban-dominated government, we assessed.
“We thought that there was a considerably lower likelihood – though not negligible likelihood – of civil war.
“But when we were thinking about the Taliban-dominated government and how quickly that would come to pass, we certainly did not have the speed of the collapse as the central scenario, in fact nobody did.
“The Taliban didn’t, the Afghan government didn’t, the Americans didn’t.”
The UK’s ambassador in Afghanistan at the time of the collapse of the Government in August, Sir Laurie Bristow, issued a series of warnings about the progress being made by the Taliban.
The messages, obtained by The Times, showed Sir Laurie warned on August 2 that although Kabul was insulated from the intense fighting elsewhere “this is very unlikely to last indefinitely — the Taliban are positioning to put the capital under intense security and economic pressure when they see fit”.
By August 15 the Taliban was largely in control of the capital.
Sir Stephen said the messages from Sir Laurie had been factored into the Government’s response.
He told the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy: “Certainly as the pace of events accelerated, Sir Laurie was very alive to that. But his being alive to that fed into our assessments of planning, which was why – as those assessments from him came in – we accelerated our planning as well.”
The evacuation from Afghanistan “overachieved against its ambitions, albeit in very harrowing scenes with a great deal of human suffering” because plans were in place for a range of scenarios, including the faster collapse of the Kabul government.
He said the speed of the collapse had been contemplated but at a “very low” level of confidence.
“It wasn’t impossible to anticipate it, indeed it was anticipated in that it was contemplated that the speed of collapse could be very fast but that was a low level confidence – a very low level confidence – scenario.”
Sir Stephen said the central scenario was that the UK would maintain a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan and its government would remain operative until “at a minimum the end of this calendar year”.
He added that officials would “need to look at why we got the rapidity of the collapse question wrong”.
Sir Stephen faced intense criticism over decisions taken by senior figures to remain on holiday over the summer as Afghanistan fell.
Then-foreign secretary Dominic Raab has already been heavily criticised for his holiday in Crete as the Taliban swept across Afghanistan.
Commons Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat told Sir Stephen he was “slightly surprised” that in August the top officials at the Foreign Office, Home Office and “I believe I’m right in saying, you too” were away.
“I’m particularly surprised that, despite the fact that a British embassy was pretty close to being under direct attack, British officials were unquestionably in fear of their lives and the military had to deploy in order to hold a bridgehead to evacuate them, that various senior officials stayed on holiday,” he said.
“Would you expect a platoon commander to go on holiday just before the whistle went, or a general to stay on holiday at a time of a major operation?”
Sir Stephen said there were “structures right across Whitehall which allow for the continuity of senior leadership”.
He said “the systems worked well in very, very difficult circumstances” and asked if things would have been better if the mandarins were present, he said: “I genuinely do not believe so.”
But Tory MP Alicia Kearns, a former Foreign Office official, said: “I can only see the permanent secretaries choosing not to come back as an abdication of the duty of care to their staff.”