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The role of the UK government’s key security policy planning committee in the run-up to the rapid collapse of the Afghan government has been questioned, further stoking the Whitehall blame game over ministers’ failure to predict the crisis.
Diplomats, analysts and the opposition suggested the National Security Council, which is chaired by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, did not fulfil its purpose to prepare a coherent strategy or any contingency plans in the months preceding the rapid Taliban takeover of Kabul last month.
The forum comprises senior ministers and military and intelligence officials. Its role is to co-ordinate security policy and establish mitigation measures.
MPs have said that thousands of Afghans eligible to come to the UK are stranded in the country amid accusations the government failed to plan adequately ahead of the long-planned withdrawal of international troops at the end of last month and implement an earlier evacuation effort.
“If the Whitehall system is working, the JIC [joint intelligence committee] feeds into the NSC, which sits down with the prime minister and decides policy, as well as a course of action,” noted one senior diplomatic official. “That does not seem to have happened ahead of this crisis and is the bit that has been missing.”
Professor Michael Clarke, a specialist adviser to the government’s joint committee on national security strategy, said the NSC was “supposed to be the strategic brain of the government”, but there was “no evidence that any of the [NSC] discussions set in train a clear process for handling the implications of a Nato troop withdrawal from Afghanistan”.
“The rapid collapse scenario was certainly there and pretty well understood — but there was a systemic failure because little or no preparation was made for it,” he said.
Peter Ricketts, the UK’s first national security adviser, said: “It would certainly be interesting to know whether the NSC met in the early summer to co-ordinate contingency plans.”
Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, was heavily criticised for not immediately returning from holiday as the crisis escalated last month. He said on Wednesday the government’s central assessment on Afghanistan was that the capital was “unlikely” to fall to the Taliban this year.
Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, was quoted by the Spectator on Thursday as saying that in July he argued “that whatever we think, the game is up and we have to do what we can to accelerate whatever we’re doing”.
Raab, who is in Qatar on a diplomatic mission to help secure a safe passage out of Afghanistan for eligible people, retorted that both he and Wallace were “all working to the same set of assumptions”.
“We shouldn’t be seeing this unedifying blame game,” noted the senior official. “The purpose of the NSC is to set the government on one course of unified contingency planning.”
Many security experts believe the creation of the NSC by the then prime minister David Cameron in 2010 was one of the more effective changes in the machinery of government in recent years — and has led to more joined-up thinking across foreign, defence and security policy.
Government officials said the forum had met on a number of occasions in recent months. However, they conceded meetings were often last minute and too infrequent. Clarke said: “The fact that it singularly failed in this case is a demonstration of how moribund the NSC has become under the current government.”
Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, said the “chaos of recent weeks raises clear questions for the prime minister” because the Afghan crisis was “exactly the sort of scenario the NSC was created for”.
“The prime minister knew 18 months ago the US were planning to withdraw. There should have been long-term planning and co-ordination between departments. Did the NSC meet? And why wasn’t he leading from the centre?”
Downing Street on Thursday said it did not discuss NSC matters.
The government’s review of security, defence and foreign policy, published in March, made just two references to the UK’s role in Afghanistan.
It stated that the UK would “support stability in Afghanistan, as part of a wider coalition” and support the Afghan government’s counter-terrorism efforts.
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