back to article Foreign Office IT chaos: Shocking testimony reveals poor tech support hindered Afghan evac attempts

Diplomats and soldiers were left grappling with appallingly inadequate IT and secure communications support as thousands of Afghans struggled to get help from the UK during the fall of the capital Kabul in August. A massive shortfall in PC availability, lack of login for secure IT systems, disjointed IT systems and a desperate …

  1. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    FAIL

    "fewer than 5 per cent of these people have received any assistance"

    Okay, one question : why the blazes was it so important to email them documents before evacuating the people you knew were going to be murdered ?

    Wouldn't it have been better to just load them on the planes, get them to security and then let administration catch up with the situation ?

    Or is that too much to ask from a "civilized" country ?

    1. Natalie Gritpants Jr Silver badge

      Re: "fewer than 5 per cent of these people have received any assistance"

      Time to watch the movie Brazil.

    2. TiredNConfused80

      Re: "fewer than 5 per cent of these people have received any assistance"

      Probably so that they could prove to the squaddie guarding the door to said plane / gate to the airfield where the plane was taking off from that they were one of the people that we thought would be murdered and not some random chancing their luck.

      But yes I know what you mean.

      1. Wellyboot Silver badge

        Re: "fewer than 5 per cent of these people have received any assistance"

        There's also the probability ISIS would manage to get suicide bombers onboard, one to cause havoc at the gates and others to slip through and join the queue.

        1. Eclectic Man Silver badge
          Unhappy

          Re: "fewer than 5 per cent of these people have received any assistance"

          And the Taliban 'soldiers' manning roadblocks and 'checkpoints' were not allowing anyone through to the airport without travel documents.

          The fact is that a crisis stretches a system and demonstrates its flaws in real time. As a Brit I am deeply ashamed of the UK's performance in this crisis, and appalled by the haphazard management by the FCO. The testimony by a 25 year old cicil servant who alleged that there was no '24-hour' rota, and he was at one point alone in the crisis room is quite shocking. The admission by the FCO senior civil servant that in retrospect he would have returned from holiday earlier, is just mind boggling.

          Yes, Donald Trump did 'negotiate' the removal of US forces from Afghanistan without the knowledge of anyone else, but we did know this was coming and we did know that we'd have to get lots of people out when the Taliban eventually took control. It may have happened a lot quicker than expected by anyone, but that is no excuse for, as it seems, not having actually prepared anything in advance to manage things.

          1. PapaPepe
            Holmes

            Catch 22

            > ...not having actually prepared anything in advance to manage things...

            No invading army in the history of warfare prepared for defeat. If it was smart enough to do that, it almost certainly would have been smart enough not to invade.

          2. ButlerInstitute

            Re: "fewer than 5 per cent of these people have received any assistance"

            > quicker than expected by anyone

            At a recent talk I attended, given my some of the military who were on the ground doing this job, they said that everyone on the ground had known that they would fall quickly. It was only away from the area (ie in London) that it wasn't "known".

      2. Fazal Majid

        Re: "fewer than 5 per cent of these people have received any assistance"

        A few of the evacuees on the French flights was later found out to be a Taliban fighter. He was put in prison, but can't be deported back to Afghanistan due to human-rights laws, and the fact there are no more flights nor does the French government have diplomatic relations with the Taliban to arrange their return.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: "fewer than 5 per cent of these people have received any assistance"

          So what? Systems aren't perfect, but that doesn't justify not having a system. What percentage of 'fake' refugees do you think justifies not letting in any refugees? I will agree that its a number somewhere between 0 and 100, but it's a bit of a slippery slope that leads to 'some benefit claimants cheat, so lets deny everyone benefits' , a fairly standard tactic to hide crude populism behind incompetent bureaucracy.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: "fewer than 5 per cent of these people have received any assistance"

          >>>>A few of the evacuees on the French flights was later found out to be a Taliban fighter. He was put in prison,

          One. One guy who turned out to have previously been manning a Taliban checkpoint. He breached his surveillance order and was jailed for that.

    3. tip pc Silver badge

      Re: "fewer than 5 per cent of these people have received any assistance"

      if they pulled everyone out too early then Afghanistan would have failed much earlier.

      Don't forget, there was a functioning government in Kabul at the start of operations to pull out, repatriation only became necessary as the government rapidly disintegrated far quicker than strategists where predicting.

      France pulled their people out months before hand, but pull everyone out & Afghanistan would have failed much earlier as many of the people being removed where necessary for the country to actually function.

  2. Blofeld's Cat Silver badge
    FAIL

    Disgraceful ...

    This whole episode will no doubt feature in some future textbook as an example of how NOT to organise an evacuation.

    Reading the story here and elsewhere only emphasises the utter disconnect between the frantic efforts of people at the sharp end, and those seated comfortably in the upper echelons of Whitehall, demanding that their procedures must be followed.

    That the evacuation of dogs from an animal rescue charity was prioritised ahead of people who had actively put their lives on the line, is frankly unbelievable. (Did I read that right, or have I misunderstood something?)

    There should be resignations ... but there won't be.

    1. Peter X

      Re: Disgraceful ...

      Modded up, but...

      "and those seated comfortably in the upper echelons of Whitehall"

      I'm prety sure he was in Crete at the time. Paddle-boarding*

      "This whole episode will no doubt feature in some future textbook as an example of how NOT to organise an evacuation."

      I'm sure it will, but I'm equally sure that Raab's successor won't read it, same as Raab wouldn't have read it had it already existed. Sadly.

      * I've mentioned this in a conversation with people before, but I said "water-boarding" instead of "padding-boarding"... which totally changes things. Although, somehow, I'm not sure it isn't plausible!

      1. Eclectic Man Silver badge

        Re: Disgraceful ...

        I'm sure he said he wasn't paddle boarding because 'the sea was closed' that day.

        https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/dominic-raab-taliban-kabul-politicians-b1908571.html

        So presumably he spent the time on the sun lounger, reading Jeffrey Archer or Dan Brown.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Disgraceful ...

          reading Jeffrey Archer or Dan Brown

          Looking at Raab's general level of competence, those two authors would probably be a little too high brow for him...

    2. DS999 Silver badge

      Nobody cares about planning evacuations

      Because you only evacuate if you lose a war, and no military wants to be seen planning to lose a war.

      1. BOFH in Training

        Re: Nobody cares about planning evacuations

        Once Trump made the announcement, and you decided you following him out, shouldn't there be contigency plans made so that a proper evacuation can be done even if circumstances change?

        They had months to plan and prepare once Trump announced.

        It's not like Trump announced that they are withdrawing in one week.

        1. DS999 Silver badge

          Re: Nobody cares about planning evacuations

          The military can plan all they want, but anyone who has ever executed upon a complex "MS Project" plan for something with a budget in the tens of millions knows all the unseen pitfalls that await. And any of the plans we've been involved with are like planning a trip to the grocery store in comparison with what the Pentagon had to plan.

          So inevitably things like the IT chaos described in the article occur, and I'm sure people on the ground could relate a dozen stories just as bad of other planning failures.

          The only contingency plan that would have potentially avoided the shitshow would have been beginning to pull people out sooner. There's no guarantee that wouldn't have triggered the Taliban to move earlier though - it was the fact they took over well before the August 31 deadline that was the problem. If we began pulling out in March, and they began retaking territory at that time we would have had the same mess on our hands.

      2. CrazyOldCatMan

        Re: Nobody cares about planning evacuations

        and no military wants to be seen planning to lose a war

        Any military that is competently led *should* be planning for likely scenarios - including emergency withdrawal.

        Yes - the utter collapse of the Afgan Government was unexpected but it shouldn't have been - what did they think would happen when the US/UK publicly shoved them under the bus? It's a foregone conclusion that the majority of the Afgan army would either desert immediately (if they even existed given the corruption of the higher echelons - there were entire units that were being paid that didn't actually exist[1]) or run for safety as quickly as possible.

        There were (of course) units that did stand and fight knowing that they could at least take some of the Taliban with them rather than waiting to be tortured and killed if they surendered.

        [1] Same thing happened with the British Army in the 1800's - which lead to the establishment of a whole corps of officers and administrators to check such things..

        The abrupt US withdrawal *was* communicated to the UK DOD well before it happened so their planners and strategists should have been 'what-if' planning well beforehand. But that would involve the DoD actually being competent and not just full of time-serving wasters and superannuated senior officers.

    3. Fazal Majid

      Re: Disgraceful ...

      Particularly disgraceful to have failed refugees when you yourself are the son of a Kindertransport who fled Nazi persecution.

      1. BrownishMonstr

        Re: Disgraceful ...

        This is the Tory way. They do not care, except when there's a chance to load their pockets.

        Another example is Ms. Patel, whose family came over to seek refuge, but due to their big, big pockets, they're one of the good types, so are in no way refugees.

  3. Wellyboot Silver badge

    Such is the way of things.

    Sudden emergency -> government organisations flounder. By the time the senior FO officials realised that expected lifespan1 of Afgan government control was shrinking faster than a snowball in hades it was probably to late to do anything other than what actually happened on the ground.

    Most government administrations just aren't set up to be able to change how they operate quickly and there's no easy to understand graph that can be pushed under the nose of a minister to get the point across. Maybe they should've developed an emergency evacuation IT system that can be dropped into situations like this, but I'm having a hard time thinking of any remotely similar past event to precipitate that.

    Every competent military on the planet looked at the 'book' status of the Afgan military in July (some 300k troops trained with all the correct kit) and will have arrived at an expected time span for maintaining operations as everyone else left, how many would have settled on 'They'll give up almost immediately'.

    1In early July locals expected the govt to last until the end of the year, by late July it was maybe October and by mid August the Taliban are arriving tomorrow.

    1. Eclectic Man Silver badge

      Re: Such is the way of things.

      Unfortunately the 'book' status of the Afghan Army was fiction, designed to collect vast sums of money fro salaries of non-existent soldiers funnelled directly into the bank accounts of corrupt officials, who, strangely did manage to leave Afghanistan before the Taliban took over, or did nice little deals with them. (Allegedly.)

      1. DS999 Silver badge

        Re: Such is the way of things.

        The US and allies knew how corrupt the Afghani government officials and military were but looked the other way, because to admit it would mean admitting that the mission of setting up an Afghan democracy was a failure.

        They continued to push the narrative that if given more time, Afghanistan could be stabilized under that government. There were still people pushing that narrative after the Taliban retook the country (in almost every case without firing a shot!) in a matter of weeks proved for all the world to see how unstable and corrupt the government was. We could have stayed another 20 years and things would never have changed, it was always going to fall apart the minute we left.

        We should have left long ago, but Bush, Obama and Trump were all too chickenshit to pull out because their military advisors knew what would happen and how it would make them look.

        1. EvilDrSmith Silver badge

          Re: Such is the way of things.

          While not wishing to be seen defending the Orange Man, as both Eclectic Man and BOFH in Training note above, the pull out was actually initiated by him

          1. DS999 Silver badge

            Re: Such is the way of things.

            He made a deal with the Taliban for a date, which conveniently was to take place in the year AFTER the election. It isn't exactly brave to set a date that either your opponent will have to deal with, or you will deal with after the last election in which you're eligible.

        2. CrazyOldCatMan

          Re: Such is the way of things.

          We should have left long ago, but Bush, Obama and Trump were all too chickenshit

          And too fixated on the military version of the sunk costs fallacy - "all those boys are dead for nothing!".

          Yes - yes they were - dead because of your vanity and US-centric exeptionalist mindset.

          1. DS999 Silver badge

            Re: Such is the way of things.

            Yes unfortunately I think that's also why it took us so long to give up on Vietnam.

    2. Fazal Majid

      Re: Such is the way of things.

      The French and German knew, and evacuated their Afghans much sooner, which is why they did not need as much capacity in the last days' mad scramble and that's why they were not the "second largest evacuation".

      The Germans evacuated some through the land border with Tajikistan, as Tom Tugendhat pointed out to Raab. Raab responded "but the Tajik border was closed". Yes, because they evacuated in April, well before the closing, which he would have known if he had bothered to meet the Afghan or Pakistani foreign ministers.

      1. DS999 Silver badge

        Re: Such is the way of things.

        Well the US should have done the same, it makes no sense to me why we waited so long even if we were 100% sure that we wouldn't end up with the mad scramble situation we did.

        It isn't smooth sailing for them once they get here either. One political party hates refugees and was doing everything they could to make it difficult for them to enter the US which may be part of the reason why it didn't start happening sooner. They wanted refugees settled in other countries, anywhere but the US. Some governors in red states have been doing their best to prevent Afghani refugees from settling in their state, while at the same time criticizing Biden for leaving people behind. I suppose that's probably for the best, they wouldn't receive very good treatment from the people there who think muslim = terrorist.

  4. ComputerSays_noAbsolutelyNo
    Flame

    Cluster-F* of magnitude 11, on the Cluster-F* scale which goes from 0 to 10

    "... it found the situation in the UK so implausible that it assumed an email to FCDO Security was a Russian phishing attempt."

    You have reached peak-stuff-up,

    when your mates think your message,

    is a phishing attempt.

    Insane, simply insane.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Cluster-F* of magnitude 11, on the Cluster-F* scale which goes from 0 to 10

      There is such a thing as encrypted and signed mail.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So, this mess starts with the Foreign Office not having the capability of identifying it's operational requirements and outsourcing that job.

    Then the Foreign Office, being the organisation responsible for dealing with foreign crises doesn't have a plan for dealing with foreign crises, or any staff available to work outside of normal office hours. This is bridged by the army getting pissed off that it's planned it's end of moving people 3600 miles from Afghanistan to the UK via plane, but it isn't being told who it to move so it provides army staff to do the Foreign Office job as well, but the Foreign Office can't provide them with computers, phones or logins.

    Ye bloody gods.

    You'd think that in extremis you'd be able to stick a crisis team of couple of dozen people on functional equipment at your DR site. Assuming they have one, which you have to doubt given the level of competence shown here. The mind boggles. If we ran our company like that we'd go out of business.

    1. WanderingHaggis

      It boils down to your way of running things

      A lot relates to the Govt's philosophy i.e. small government means no slack, minimal staffing and no reserves for when the brown stuff hits the ventilator but taxes are lower. I'm sure the merger of departments was to streamline things a bit more. They were set up to fail.

      As for companies doing better -- remember the Olympics - I heard (unconfirmed but believable) that a civil service Sir Humphrey back at the start knew the private company in question was not going to work but was forced to use them; one had a quiet word with the generals so that they were ready when it fell apart.

      There are skilled and good civil servants but you need to let them do their job. One of the main problems with government is the Government.

      1. batfink Silver badge

        Re: It boils down to your way of running things

        I was part of the Opening Ceremony crew for the Olympics, so had a great deal of direct experience with G4S and the Armed Forces doing the same job of security. G4S were a shambles - they looked untrained and uninterested, and seemed to spend their time milling about. When the Forces took over they demonstrated how you could do security (including thorough frisking of people) efficiently, effectively and with good humour.

        They should have been doing it from the start, rahter than outsourcing it. However that would have prevented out Glorious Leaders from shovelling money to their favourite private firms.

      2. Version 1.0 Silver badge
        Unhappy

        Re: It boils down to your way of running things

        The Government's main concern is getting reelected ... our mess in Afghanistan is years old and never achieved anything other than making military suppliers nice sales every year. We see other examples of stupidity all over the UK, this has been going on for years now.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: It boils down to your way of running things

        A lot relates to the Govt's philosophy i.e. small government means no slack, minimal staffing and no reserves for when the brown stuff hits the ventilator but taxes are lower. I'm sure the merger of departments was to streamline things a bit more. They were set up to fail.

        Why is there a need for a department for international development and a foreign office? Choosing which foreign countries to develop is itself a foreign policy choice.

        As for small government, we don't have it. Do you know how many administrators in Whitehall ran the entire British empire covering quarter of the globe? It's a smaller number than we have now and absent of any use of IT to reduce the workload on individual people.

        Today's civil service is better manned than the organisation that ran a quarter of the globe and runs worse having adopted centralised micromanagement. Two hundred years or heck even a hundred years ago the task of "decide who goes" would simply have been delegated down to an appropriate level locally. Why can't (and more importantly don't) we do that now?

      4. BrownishMonstr

        Re: It boils down to your way of running things

        Give it some time, the Tories will insist the FCO needs to be outsourced to their pals.

        1. Flicker

          Re: It boils down to your way of running things

          Too late - already happened...

          https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/dec/08/capita-undercuts-british-council-to-run-turing-student-exchange-scheme

          Capita?? Really? Talk about rewarding repeated failure! Let's just keep on privatising profit and socialising risk and debt.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Organisation

    Admittedly it was a bit closer to home, easier to organise, and much easier to tell who was friend or foe, but we managed to evacuate 340,000 ish people from a beach in Dunkirk in a little over a week in 1940, without a single spreadsheet, email, dbase, mobile phone, password/logon, management consultant or satellite comms. We even managed to give them a biscuit/sandwich and cup of tea and put them on a train home once they got to Dover.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Organisation

      Dominic Raab was not yet born.

      1. keithpeter Silver badge

        Re: Organisation

        ...and his father was making a new life in England as a refugee as pointed out by someone further up the screen.

        Unbelievable

    2. Lon24 Silver badge

      Re: Organisation

      And if the FO was requiring every soldier to have their documentation and residency status checked before being allowed onto the beach then this post would probably be in German.

      I think I would prefer the average Tommy's eyeball judgement of who to let on the plane to then Raab's perfidious blind judgement 5000 miles and many hours away. A soldier's job and life depends on making snap decisions on inadequate information.

      1. druck Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Re: Organisation

        Don't let anyone on board wearing a Taliban uniform, Pike.

    3. Johan Bastiaansen

      Re: Organisation

      We didn't have computers then.

      1. CrazyOldCatMan

        Re: Organisation

        We didn't have computers then.

        Au contraire - there were people called 'tabulators' who were also called 'computers'..

  7. Eclectic Man Silver badge
    FAIL

    Rolls Royce Foreign Office

    The UK once described as " A Morris Minor country, with a Rolls Royce Foreign Office".*

    Not anymore.

    https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/5931/html/. (List C, first item)

    1. Fazal Majid

      Re: Rolls Royce Foreign Office

      You'll note the UK has a far smaller diplomatic network than its French, German or even Spanish or Italian peers, at No. 11:

      https://globaldiplomacyindex.lowyinstitute.org/country_rank.html

      Quite shocking for a UNSC Permanent Member.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Rolls Royce Foreign Office

      According to his wikipedia page, one of the "Rolls-Royce" civil servants at the Foreign Office between 2000 and 2010 was... Dominic Raab.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    About responsibility.......

    Funny isn't it that the commentary on the shambolic retreat from Afghanistan never mentions individuals who STARTED the shambles in 2001.

    *

    Why do we not hear about the stupidity of starting the process back then?

    *

    Why do we not hear about Tony Blair providing some of his millions to help clear up the shambles which his decisions created?

    *

    Oh......and he has NO excuses! Brits have been ejected from Afghanistan TWICE before (1842 and 1880). Russians have been ejected once, recently (1989).

    *

    Yet again.....politicians taking no responsibility for the death and destruction they create!

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hostile Environment

    All conforms with stated government policy on forrins. Why the shock?

  10. Version 1.0 Silver badge

    So we accepted a few evacuees but ...

    When they arrive in the UK and get caught smoking a little hash (normally daily in Afghanistan) we'll send them back. And if they don't break any of our crazy laws then they will have to spend a year or two doing paperwork to find all the evidence that they were legally evacuated ... and when we start sending them and their kids back because they did not arrive with passports written in English, will we call this the Hashrush, not the Windrush?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: So we accepted a few evacuees but ...

      New Home Office Project: Hound the Afghans?

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Honesty

    It seems the only people who know how to prepare for this scenario are military or ex-military. The military spend their lives preparing for chaos and in my experience generally does it quite well. If you want to avoid a suicide mission, one of the first things you think about is how to get out before you get in, perhaps if we'd done that in Afghan and Iraq we might have something left to be proud of. Those at the sharp end generally did a good job, they must wonder why they bothered.

    We are led mostly by those who actively avoided serious military service or were never interested in it. How often do I hear civvies bragging about their abilities when they've never been tested.

    Honesty is something which this government lacks, it is the best policy as this is the only way to learn and save lives.

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