Defence Secretary defends Dominic Raab as Labour calls for him to be sacked

19 August 2021, 10:53

By Will Taylor

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has defended Dominic Raab for failing to call his Afghan counterpart, while Labour have called for him to be sacked.

Help for Afghan interpreters who helped British forces was reportedly delayed because the foreign secretary was unavailable to make a phone call while on holiday.

Speaking to LBC's Nick Ferrari, Mr Wallace said: "I don't know about his call sheet - we all have long ones - but what I will tell you is, last Friday, phone calls to a rapidly disappearing Afghan Government would not have made the blindest of difference.

"If you remember last Friday, we were absolutely desperate about keeping the airport open.

"Could we fly any more planes out?

"Could we get the people on the ground out?

"That's why all the way through the weekend I worked alongside my officials and the Prime Minister on calls..."

Read more: Afghanistan: 12 people killed at Kabul airport as crowds try to flee Taliban rule

He added: "That was the number one issue. As we saw, we managed to fix that but there were some real touch and go times.

"No phone call to an Afghan Government that had predominantly melted away was going to make a difference."

Dominic Raab was unable to make a call, the Foreign Office said
Dominic Raab was unable to make a call, the Foreign Office said. Picture: Alamy

Mr Raab, who has already faced criticism for taking time off in Crete while the Taliban took over Afghanistan, was "engaged on a range of other calls", a spokesperson said.

Reports say that officials suggested to Mr Raab, who has since returned from his trip, that he should call the Afghan foreign minister Hanif Atmar on Friday, before the Taliban seized Kabul.

He was "unavailable" while on holiday and the Daily Mail said the Afghan foreign ministry declined to set up a call with a more junior minister.

Read more: Desperate Afghan mothers fleeing Taliban 'throw babies over Kabul airport barbed wire'

Read more: Taliban 'beat and whip' crowds as regime tightens grip on Afghanistan

The Foreign Office said: "The Foreign Secretary was engaged on a range of other calls and this one was delegated to another minister."

The headlines will not ease complaints aimed at Mr Raab and Mr Johnson, who was said to have gone to Somerset, for holidaying while the Taliban advanced. They were criticised by MPs in Parliament on Wednesday, which was recalled to debate the crisis.

Lisa Nandy MP, Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary, has since said: "What could possibly have been more important than safeguarding the legacy of two decades of sacrifice and hard-won victories in Afghanistan?

"While the Foreign Secretary lay on a sun lounger, the Taliban advanced on Kabul and 20 years of progress was allowed to unravel in a matter of hours.

"The Foreign Secretary should be ashamed and the Prime Minister has serious questions to answer over why he remains in the job."

The Taliban has effectively seized control of most of Afghanistan after the former government and its army collapsed in the wake of international forces' withdrawals.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said on Twitter: "Who wouldn't make a phone call if they were told it could save somebody's life?"

It came after he said in the Commons on Wednesday: "You cannot co-ordinate an international response from the beach."

The Government has also said it is pushing allies to join its bid to take in Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban, amid reports the group has carried out beatings, whippings and fired into a crowd demonstrating against the raising of the Taliban's banner in Jalalabad.

The UK has said it could resettle up to 20,000 people, with 5,000 to be accepted within the first year.

The Government called it "one of the most generous asylum schemes in British history" while Labour criticised the number of people involved as too small.

A No 10 spokeswoman said: "We are now asking our international partners to match the UK's commitments and work with us to offer a lifeline to Afghanistan's most vulnerable people."

The UK has also doubled the amount of humanitarian aid it gives to Afghanistan to £286 million, but Downing Street has said this will be distributed by the United Nations and NGOs.

Mr Raab will speak to fellow G7 ministers on Thursday to discuss cooperation.

Boris Johnson told MPs on Wednesday that the Government had secured the return of 306 British nationals and 2,052 Afghans.