THE sound of fury will fill Westminster this week as MPs and peers return from their summer recess to express their alarm over what many regard as the worst failure of British foreign policy since the 1956 Suez crisis.
For days political flak has been flying across the stretch of tarmac that separates the Foreign Office from the Ministry of Defence as the blame game for the Afghanistan debacle continues to play out.
Parliamentary statements are expected tomorrow on various aspects of the West’s humiliation.
Tempers will be high. Fingers will be firing metaphorical bullets at the Government front bench. Boris may wisely hunker down in his Downing St bunker, delegating the Commons dispatch box to his embattled Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
Last week, in a display of deflection before MPs on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Dominic Raab sought to blame the lack of intelligence for catching the West lead-footed when the Taliban surged towards Kabul.
The Foreign Secretary was adamant the “central proposition” was, once allied troops were withdrawn by the end of August, “you’d see a steady deterioration from that point and it was unlikely Kabul would fall this year”.
But then came the moment when the minister’s mouth dropped open and his brain stalled.
Tory backbencher and Afghan veteran Tom Tugendhat, the committee’s highly-respected Chairman, politely pointed out how on July 22 – 24 days before the fall of Kabul – the Foreign Secretary had been warned the Taliban could return rapidly to power, causing cities to collapse and triggering a humanitarian crisis.
Raab looked flustered. He asked for the source of such seemingly accurate intelligence. “It’s your principal risk report,” replied Tugendhat. The Secretary of State looked sideways and replied: “Yeah. As I said, we are very mindful of that…” Not that mindful, it would seem.
Underlining the inter-departmental tensions, Tugendhat noted how he had never had so many moles leaking information.
Unhappily for Raab, the committee has launched an inquiry into the Afghan debacle to “provide some much-needed clarity” given “big questions remain”; a contender for understatement of the year.
After the ministerial grilling, the Foreign Office sought to downplay the department’s principal risk register, saying it was just a monthly corporate assessment but adding it too contended the peace process in Afghanistan would “run for up to a further six months”.
“It is simply wrong and misleading to suggest this document is in any way at odds with our detailed assessments of the situation in Afghanistan or our public position throughout the crisis,” declared an insider.
And yet its warnings turned out to be remarkably accurate.
Amid Raab’s criticism of the lack of “military” intelligence, Ben Wallace defended the uniformed ranks, telling the Spectator magazine: “I’ve already seen some lines about the failure of intelligence. It’s not about failure of intelligence, it’s about the limits of intelligence.”
And in another swipe at his Cabinet colleague, the Defence Secretary, a former Scots Guardsman, seemed to allude to the principal risk register’s warning, saying: “I remember back in July arguing that, whatever we think, the game is up and we have to do what we can to accelerate whatever we’re doing.”
Raab hit back, suggesting Wallace was, with hindsight, being somewhat economical with the truth.
“Ben and I were taking the same assessment throughout until very late,” he insisted, stressing how the central proposition was for a steady deterioration throughout the rest of the year. “So, we were all working to the same set of assumptions,” he added.
But then – not that anything was needed to deepen the ill feeling – Boris waded in to undermine his Foreign Secretary still further.
On a visit to British troops who had helped with the evacuation in Kabul, the PM admitted: “It’s been clear for many months the situation could go very fast and that’s been part of the intelligence briefing.”
Yet Raab stuck to his line and later openly contradicted Boris; not a good idea if you want to stay in your job.
The Foreign Secretary suggested that among everyone, even the Taliban, there was a “common widespread surprise at the speed with which the consolidation of power happened”.
Perhaps in penance for holidaying on Crete while the Taliban seized control, Raab zipped off to Qatar and Pakistan to try to secure safe corridors for those hundreds if not thousands of people still wanting to escape the obscurantist regime now in control of Afghanistan.
While the Secretary of State insisted he would not engage with the Taliban, Sir Simon Gass, the PM’s special representative for Afghan transition, has been in Qatar, meeting “senior Taliban representatives” about further evacuations, while, to the same end, Richard Moore, the MI6 chief, has been holding talks with the Pakistan military and Foreign Office Minister Lord Ahmad has been in Tajikistan.
The race is now on to co-ordinate a reopening of Kabul airport to get more people out of Afghanistan and more humanitarian aid in.
Raab will doubtless be hoping this happens before he runs the noisy gauntlet of a Commons statement to MPs, so that he can at least report some good news amid all the bad.
Wallace has described the continuing evacuation efforts as “Dunkirk by WhatsApp” with officials scrambling to contact Afghans, who have worked with the British military, to help relocate them and their families.
One of the consequences of the Suez crisis was the resignation of Anthony Eden as PM.
While Downing St has insisted Boris has full confidence in Raab, the consensus at Westminster is that, come the PM’s Christmas reshuffle, the Foreign Secretary will be out; Michael Gove is being tipped as his replacement.
Just as the humiliation of Suez underlined how post-Empire Britain was no longer a world military power, so too the humiliation in Afghanistan has now confirmed the US is no longer the all-conquering superpower it likes to think it is.
The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban means the world has just become a more dangerous and uncertain place.