Written evidence submission by

Federica D’Alessandra, Ross Gildea and Emily Jones

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford (AFG0015)





Federica D’Alessandra is Deputy Director of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC) and Executive Director of its Programme on International Peace and Security (IPS), where Dr Ross Gildea is a Research Associate. Dr Emily Jones is Associate Professor in Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. The Blavatnik School of Government is one of the University’s newest departments, with a mission to inspire and support better governance through evidence-based, policy-oriented research and teaching. While all authors are affiliated with the Blavatnik School of Government, this submission is made exclusively in the authors’ personal capacity. The authors, whose professional interest is helping to improve quality of government and policymaking, have followed UK policy towards Afghanistan particularly closely over the past few months on account of the fact that some of our current and former Afghan students and their families were directly impacted. This submission draws exclusively on publicly available sources and represents the views of the authors and not the Department or Institutes with which they are affiliated.


Summary / Overview


The following submission examines two main aspects of the call for evidence on government policy in Afghanistan. First, it examines how the UK handled the international military withdrawal, with a particular focus on UK-international and interdepartmental co-ordination, as well as the design and implementation of evacuation and resettlement plans. Second, it engages with the question of government support for those at risk, both in the process and aftermath of withdrawal. To address these questions, the submission is divided into three main sections. Each section corresponds to a discrete phase highlighted by the authors: (I) the weeks and months prior to the initiation of withdrawal operations; (II) the conduct of evacuations; and (III) the period following the conclusion of withdrawal operations.  In the submission, we seek to highlight a serious of questions which we believe warrant further clarity, and which will offer important insight into events surrounding the withdrawal. Each series of questions is preceded and contextualized by background information which is publicly available. Given the recent nature of events, uncertainty in governance in Afghanistan, and related issues of data availability, the document draws primarily on government publications and investigative/media reporting. We recommend that MPs consider and pursue the questions we have identified in future inquiries to HMG on Afghanistan. Our aim is to identify pertinent areas of inquiry to better understand government policy and the events of the past few months and, once these questions are addressed, to utilize insights from Afghanistan to improve planning and decision-making in future crisis scenarios.


Written submission


Section I. Observations regarding the weeks and months before withdrawal operations begun


  1. Information and the Decision to Withdraw

After an almost 20-year campaign, Her Majesty’s Government (HMG)’s decision to authorise a withdrawal of UK forces from Afghanistan was taken amid contentious debate on the likely future of the country, including fundamental matters of governance and security. It raised a multitude of considerations for policy delivery. Crucial to the withdrawal process was the availability and use of information by policymakers, which informed decisions on key issues including overall delivery, timelines for operations, and the nature and scope of the withdrawal. Each of these dimensions, both in conception and implementation, have been subject to public scrutiny in recent months. A central aspect of this scrutiny concerns the use of intelligence and risk assessments, which led HMG to adopt specific policy strategies. For example, expert observers and Members of Parliament have questioned why contents of a risk assessment (provided to HMG on July 22nd) carried out by the UK Foreign Office appears to have been overlooked.[1] The assessment reportedly warned that a coalition withdrawal may precipitate the rapid advance of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the collapse of security forces, and a humanitarian crisis.[2] It appears to echo concern with the US intelligence community, which was seemingly made available to the Trump and Biden administrations, that an expedited withdrawal could lead to a collapse in resistance to the Taliban in a matter of days.[3] As such, to assess decision-making in this period, it is important to gain an understanding of what information was available to HMG when the withdrawal was enacted, how the government evaluated and parsed this information, and the manner in which it was weighed against UK policy objectives in Afghanistan. We therefore encourage MPs to pursue answers to the following questions:



  1. UK Withdrawal and Co-ordination with International Partners

From its earliest phase, the US-led war in Afghanistan, as well as efforts to rebuild the country’s institutions, were carried out in partnership with coalition forces, of which the UK formed an integral and crucial component. Managing coalition relationships is important to the pursuit of UK objectives in Afghanistan; as described by Karen Pierce, the UK Ambassador to the United States and former Ambassador to Afghanistan, activities there have “always been a shared endeavour”. [4] In fact, the decision to withdraw UK personnel from Afghanistan coincided with, and was likely shaped by, comparable moves by coalition partners, in particular the United States. Illustrating this interdependence, in August 2021 Prime Minister Boris Johnson described Afghanistan as in a “precarious” situation, whereby the UK was attempting to “manage the consequences” of the US to withdraw forces.[5] As these comments infer, the UK withdrawal appears to have been reactive, with policymakers adjusting to unfolding events, suggesting a lack of sufficient planning and co-ordination between HMG and NATO allies. Prime Minister Johnson is on record stating that “we not have wished to leave in this way”.[6] Indeed, the Prime Minister joined leaders of other G7 countries in (unsuccessfully) requesting the US government to extend its presence in Afghanistan beyond the August 31st deadline.[7] It is a reasonable conclusion that the apparent discord among coalition partners,[8] whether on issues of intelligence, risk assessments, operational and contingency planning, or arranging evacuations, may have had a deleterious impact on the withdrawal process, with serious implications for the safety of individuals at risk and eligible for evacuation. The disconnect between the UK and US may also have effects beyond Afghanistan, potentially undermining multilateral cooperation into the future.[9] On these grounds, we encourage MPs to pursue answers to the following question:



  1. Inter-departmental Co-ordination, Capacities, and Planning

Inter-departmental coordination and preparedness are crucial in moments of crisis (whether ongoing or anticipated). Inter-departmental coordination and preparedness are especially vital for the design and implementation of plans for the safe evacuation and resettlement of UK citizens and individuals at risk.[10] Given information seems to have been available to HMG on the possibility of a humanitarian crisis unfolding as withdrawal operations took place, and given multiple UK government departments (including MoD, FCDO, and the Home Office) shared responsibilities for withdrawal operations, we also encourage MPs to inquire about:



  1. Formulating Evacuation and Resettlement Policy

In the months leading up to the withdrawal of coalition forces, the Taliban began to exert increased military control over parts of Afghanistan. In late 2020, even amid peace talks, the Taliban carried out bombing and ground assaults across the majority of the country’s provinces.[11] Throughout the course of the UK mission, the government’s objectives and operations were not solely dependent on their own government employees, but also range of local actors who aided and facilitated activities in Afghanistan. Prior to withdrawal, the Taliban initiated a “campaign of targeted killings” against journalists, media employees, and other local actors who opposed their rule and were seen as linked to the Afghan government or coalition forces.[12] In addition, experts expressed particular concern for the future of girls and women under Taliban rule. According to a report conducted by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, “…2020 marked the highest number of women killed recorded in a single year since UNAMA began systematic documentation in 2009”.[13] Based on these trends, it is reasonable to conclude that the withdrawal of UK and coalition forces presented a serious risk to the safety of many Afghans, including those who worked with or otherwise supported coalition forces and their policy objectives, the Afghan government, or were generally part of efforts to strengthen civil society and human rights in Afghanistan. Given verified knowledge of these threats well in advance of the withdrawal, they raise pressing questions regarding the design of evacuation and resettlement schemes – notably who qualified, when, and what support did they receive to safely evacuate – by UK government departments. For example, lack of clarity concerning eligibility of security guards at the UK Embassy or Chevening Scholars and their families led to public outcry, and it was only thereafter that both categories were included in evacuation and resettlement efforts.[14] Even upon their inclusion in the plans, the majority faced severe obstacles and delays in being evacuated.[15] The delays were crucial, as these individuals were under very credible threat and, as was reported, subject to physical attack.[16] In terms of implementation of the schemes, reports have indicated that thousands of individuals – including many who may be under direct threat – who are potentially eligible for resettlement in the UK were left stranded in the aftermath of the August 2021 withdrawal.[17] On this basis, we propose addressing the following related questions:



Section II. Evacuations from Afghanistan and Operation Pitting


  1. Inter-Departmental Planning and Processing of Cases

As the withdrawal of UK and coalition forces approached completion, it became clear that the Taliban were gaining control of Afghanistan and that many individuals, including those at severe risk of harm, were desperately seeking evacuation. As crowds gathered at Kabul airport, declining coalition forces left the facility vulnerable to attack and limited the UK’s ability to conduct a coordinated and safe evacuation plan.[18] Attacks carried out at the airport killed dozens of civilians and coalition soldiers,[19] with the final steps of withdrawal organised against the backdrop of severe threat levels.[20] Experts warned of increasing chaos in the capital, coupled with intensifying demand for evacuation.[21] With increasing demand on UK capacity likely presenting challenges for national departments involved in the evacuations, we believe it would be fruitful to procure answers to these questions:



  1. Evacuation, Resettlement, and Safeguarding Those at Risk

As UK evacuations were taking place, many Afghans facing threats if they remained in Afghanistan were worried that they would not be able to leave the country. These included individuals covered by the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (ARAP) programme, as well as those connected to the UK presence in Afghanistan but who fell outside the conditions of ARAP.[22] In addition, the UK government approved the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS), which included “those who have assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan”, as well as vulnerable and minority groups, including women and girls at risk, ethnic and religious minorities, and members of the LGBT+ community.[23] However, given the shifting of eligibility requirements, there was uncertainty among those in Afghanistan as to which individuals – and family members – might qualify under the schemes, as well as severe problems in communication between affected individuals and UK officials.[24] Moreover, in September 2021, it was reported that the names of hundreds of Afghans at potential risk of reprisal by the Taliban had been subject to a data breach, originating with an email from the team overseeing the ARAP scheme and the Ministry of Defence.[25] In preceding weeks, it had been reported that personal information on Afghan staff had been left in the UK embassy.[26] Given the gravity of these events, we recommend further inquiry on the following questions:



  1. Facilitating Evacuation from Kabul Airport

As the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan and its capital, thousands flocked to the airport in Kabul to seek evacuation. Taliban forces set up checkpoints to control the route to the airport.[27] Many individuals and families eligible for UK evacuation were forced into hiding for fear of attack.[28] Lines of communication to those eligible for evacuation were therefore severely disrupted or constrained, while those who were called forward for evacuation faced a dangerous and uncertain journey through areas controlled by Taliban. Due to this situation, it was reported that both the UK and US may extend extraction operations beyond the airport in Kabul or ‘grabs’ at the airport perimeter to aid those eligible for rescue.[29] However, while other governments – e.g. the US, German, and French – appear to have pursued additional means of evacuating individuals situated beyond the airport in Kabul,[30] the extent of comparable UK operations remains unclear. In light of these events, we recommend clarification to the following questions:



  1. Evacuation and International Co-Ordination Among UK Officials

Speaking to parliament on September 6th 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that “our armed forces, diplomats and civil servants have completed the biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history.”[31] Previously, he praised both UK troops and government officials for working “around the clock to a remorseless deadline in harrowing conditions.”[32] The nature and scale of UK evacuation efforts required co-ordination – often under very unfavourable conditions – between multiple departments in both London and Kabul (e.g. the Home Office, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and the Ministry of Defence). [33] However, co-ordination efforts may have failed at critical moments. For instance, significant efforts to evacuate UK embassy guards reportedly failed because “clearance to enter does not seem to have been given by the British officials processing evacuation visas.[34] This was despite alleged agreement with Taliban for safe passage to the airport in Kabul, and the approval of US officials.[35] Indeed, by way of possible explanation, sources indicated that UK evacuation efforts were not as well organised or resourced as other countries.[36] Due to the importance of coordination to the evacuation, we believe it would be useful to seek answers to the following questions:




Section III. Observations regarding the weeks since withdrawal operations concluded


  1. Supporting Those Eligible for UK Resettlement

Throughout the withdrawal process, as well as in the ensuing weeks after its conclusion, HMG administered a resettlement policy to relocate eligible individuals to the UK and manage the “exceptional and unique circumstances in which many arrived.”[37] As the crisis escalated and the scale of the challenges facing vulnerable Afghans came into sharp relief, HMG revised its resettlement policy. Updating its commitments, HMG developed a second scheme, the Afghan Citizens' Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), which is “in addition to the ARAP contingent and British nationals”.[38] The avowed aim of the scheme is to “take in up to 20,000 refugees over the coming years, with a focus on women and children, as well as religious and other minorities.”[39] Upon arrival, a plan referred to as “Operation Warm Welcome”, led by Victoria Atkins in her role as Minister of Afghan Resettlement, aims to aid their transition to life in the UK.[40] However, these policy moves by HMG have attracted criticism related to their scope and delivery, including from MPs across parties. Particular concern has been expressed as to the future of those who remain at risk in Afghanistan, and the responsibility of the UK to work with partners to assist those seeking safety.[41] Criticism has also been levied at arrangements made for Afghans who have arrived in the UK, with reference to inadequate facilities, financial support, and healthcare.[42] We therefore recommend acquiring information on the following questions:




  1. UK Policy and Aid to Afghanistan

As the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, HMG, international experts, and many Afghans expressed grave concern surrounding the policies to be enacted by the new Afghan government.[43] While the Taliban have sought to foster a better international image,[44] based on their previous record in government, many anticipate a return to brutal policies and widespread rights violations, especially regarding women and minority groups.[45] The former Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab held talks with partners, including counterparts from the United States and India, to discuss the humanitarian response to Afghanistan and to ensure that any prospective aid would be allocated to vulnerable groups.[46] In a statement to the House of Commons, Prime Minister Boris Johnson linked the provision of aid to Afghanistan to the policies of the government, notably their attitude toward terrorist groups: “we and our friends will hold them to their agreement to prevent Afghanistan from ever again becoming an incubator for terrorism.”[47] With the European Union warning of a “a major humanitarian and socio-economic collapse", the aid strategy of HMG and international partners will be crucial. As considerations on aid strategy continues, we believe it is important to acquire information on the following questions:



















October 2021

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/sep/01/dominic-raab-uk-intelligence-said-kabul-unlikely-to-fall-this-year

[2] https://news.sky.com/story/afghanistan-senior-conservative-alleges-leaked-foreign-office-report-warned-of-rapid-taliban-advances-on-22-july-but-raab-claims-intelligence-said-taliban-takeover-was-unlikely-this-year-12396875; https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2021/09/01/foreign-office-warning-july-taliban-could-retake-power/

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/18/massive-policy-fail-cia-warned-taliban-takeover

[4] https://www.npr.org/2021/08/19/1029437801/how-the-u-s-withdrawal-from-afghanistan-has-affected-its-relationship-with-the-u

[5] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/taliban-must-allow-people-to-leave-say-nato-foreign-ministers-t0vs89w9x

[6] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-afghanistan-taliban-uk-withdrawal-b1910618.html

[7] https://www.euronews.com/2021/08/24/afghanistan-boris-johnson-to-urge-g7-leaders-to-boost-aid-for-refugees

[8] Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested that the US made a unilateral decision on Afghanistan when he noted that “the US decision to pull out has accelerated things” https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-afghanistan-taliban-latest-b1902983.html.  During a critical stage of the withdrawal, US President Joe Biden reportedly delayed taking a call from Prime Minister Johnson. In recent weeks, UK and US diplomats have also been mutually critical of each other, see: https://www.businessinsider.com/uk-us-feuding-afghanistan-withdrawal-2021-9?r=US&IR=T. Observers have also reflected on the apparent fracture in relations between the US and Europe arising from Afghanistan, and whether European states can rely on the US as a partner: https://www.economist.com/europe/2021/09/02/after-afghanistan-europe-wonders-if-france-was-right-about-america

[9] Former Prime Minister Theresa May issued the following instructive assessment: “What does it say about us as a country? What does it say about NATO, if we are entirely dependent on a unilateral decision taken by the United States?” https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/afghanistan-theresa-may-boris-johnson-b1904502.html Former UK ambassador to the US Peter Westmacott is quoted as stating: “Four years of Trump had already started even Brits asking themselves whether it was time to begin reducing levels of dependence on the U.S. for foreign and security policy…This week’s fresh indications that America really doesn’t see foreign policy as much more than an extension of domestic politics means people are once again asking those difficult questions.” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/18/world/europe/britain-afghanistan-johnson-biden.html It also appears that many MPs have been censorious of the US role in Afghanistan: https://www.economist.com/leaders/2021/08/26/the-mess-in-afghanistan-exposes-britains-foolish-security-policy

[10] https://homeofficemedia.blog.gov.uk/2021/09/13/factsheet-uk-support-to-resettle-afghan-nationals/

[11] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/afghanistan-violence-peace-talks-taliban/2020/10/25/4161716e-156c-11eb-a258-614acf2b906d_story.html

[12] https://www.economist.com/asia/2021/08/04/why-britain-must-shelter-afghan-journalists


[14] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/20/afghanistan-uk-embassy-guards-employer-disputes-minister-claim-of-kabul-evacuation; https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/aug/15/foreign-office-blocks-afghan-students-from-uk-scholarships ; https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/aug/18/scholarship-alumni-urge-no-10-speed-up-evacuation-afghan-students

[15] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/sep/03/one-out-of-125-embassy-guards-promised-help-to-leave-afghanistan-made-it-to-uk

[16] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/05/former-british-embassy-driver-badly-beaten-in-kabul 

[17] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/aug/30/mps-trying-to-rescue-more-than-7000-people-trapped-in-afghanistan

[18] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-58305185

[19] https://www.ft.com/content/efc7732d-7dc2-4e72-8788-a716617dd96e

[20] https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/08/28/world/afghanistan-taliban-biden-isis-news

[21] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-58256696; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/21/trapped-in-hell-kabul-airport-chaos-casts-doubt-on-us-promise-of-safe-evacuation

[22] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/19/guards-at-kabul-embassy-told-they-are-ineligible-for-uk-protection?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/26/afghan-chevening-scholar-relieved-after-evacuation-to-uk; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/27/fear-fury-kabul-thousands-face-being-abandoned-by-uk

[23] https://www.gov.uk/guidance/afghan-citizens-resettlement-scheme

[24] https://metro.co.uk/2021/08/26/afghanistan-helpline-redirected-callers-to-washing-machine-company-15156117/

[25] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-58629592

[26] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2021/08/27/british-embassy-left-details-afghan-staff-taliban-find/

[27] https://www.politico.com/news/2021/06/24/biden-afghanistan-withdraw-troops-white-house-visit-496009

[28] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/sep/17/they-left-us-to-die-uk-afghan-aid-staff-hiding-from-taliban

[29] https://www.wsj.com/articles/cia-u-s-troops-conduct-missions-outside-kabul-airport-to-extract-americans-allies-11629915605; https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/uk-rescue-squads-afghan-refugees-rush-avoid-last-minute-crisis-kabul-airport-1161309

[30] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/23/afghan-guard-killed-in-kabul-airport-gun-battle

[31] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-statement-to-the-house-on-afghanistan-6-september-2021

[32] https://www.ft.com/content/b6186428-e342-4ab8-a04d-a677f301d401

[33] https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2021-09-09/debates/017F6A64-8D5D-469F-8187-DDFD1832BC9A/AfghanistanFCDOResponsesToMembers.

[34] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/26/attempt-to-evacuate-afghans-guarded-british-embassy-fails

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/afghanistan-resettlement-and-immigration-policy-statement/afghanistan-resettlement-and-immigration-policy-statement-accessible-version

[38] Ibid.

[39] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-58402721

[40] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/operation-warm-welcome; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/09/afghan-refugees-uk-hotels-operation-warm-welcome

[41] https://news.sky.com/story/afghanistan-20-000-refugees-to-resettle-in-the-uk-under-pms-plan-but-critics-say-its-not-enough-12384055

[42] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/sep/18/afghan-evacuees-in-uk-face-homelessness-and-destitution-mps-say; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/09/afghan-refugees-uk-hotels-operation-warm-welcome; https://news.sky.com/story/thousands-of-afghan-refugees-stuck-in-uk-hotels-with-no-date-to-be-moved-to-permanent-homes-12425036

[43] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/if-the-taliban-abuse-basic-human-rights-they-cannot-expect-legitimacy-in-the-eyes-of-the-afghan-people-or-the-international-community; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/sep/13/taliban-west-girl-education-afghans; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/19/uk-wrestles-with-effects-of-taliban-rule-on-terror-drugs-and-aid;

[44] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-58466939

[45] https://www.dw.com/en/afghanistan-what-to-expect-from-the-taliban/av-58897422; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/29/world/asia/us-taliban-deal.html

[46] https://www.reuters.com/world/uk/uk-will-double-humanitarian-aid-afghanistan-286-million-pounds-this-year-2021-08-18/

[47] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-statement-to-the-house-on-afghanistan-6-september-2021