LONDON — Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab defied demands to quit on Friday after failing to make a telephone call to help translators fleeing Afghanistan, saying that the Taliban’s rapid advance made contact impossible.
Raab was on holiday in Crete when his office was advised to call his Afghan counterpart to urge him to help evacuate local translators who had helped British forces.
But the call was never made, leading to demands that Raab quit and accusations that the United Kingdom had abandoned the translators.
“While the foreign secretary lay on a sun lounger, the Taliban advanced,” said the main opposition Labour party’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Lisa Nandy.
“The Foreign Secretary should be ashamed, and the Prime Minister has serious questions to answer over why he remains in the job.”
But Raab defended his actions, hitting out at media reports as “inaccurate.”
The call was delegated to a junior minister as he was “prioritizing security and capacity” at Kabul airport, on the advice of those overseeing the crisis response.
“The Afghan Foreign Minister [Haneef Atmar] agreed to take the call, but was unable to because of the rapidly deteriorating situation,” he said in a statement issued by his office.
“The whole of government has been working tirelessly over the last week to help as many people evacuate from Afghanistan as possible,” he added.
Raab’s office was advised last Friday to call Atmar as the Taliban swept towards Kabul.
The government said that it was prioritizing security at the airport, which the minister said “was the right” decision.
“As a result, 204 UK nationals and their families, Afghan staff and other countries citizens were evacuated on the morning of Monday 16 August,” he said, adding that 1,635 had since been flown out.
The British government has been under fire for its policy towards translators who aided British officials and military, with accusations that it was not doing enough to help.
On August 4, the British government said that it aimed to relocate the families of 500 staff in Afghanistan who supported British troops “as soon as possible” — some 2,500 individuals in total.
A new separate scheme was unveiled on Tuesday with the goal of relocating an initial 5,000 vulnerable Afghans in the first year, with plans to go up to 20,000 in the long term.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who on Friday chaired a fourth meeting of the government’s emergencies and contingencies committee in a week, said that he “absolutely” has full confidence in Raab.
Raab, a pro-Brexit ally, deputized for Johnson for three weeks when the prime minister was in intensive care with COVID-19 last April.
Earlier, Johnson met a few of the more than 2,200 Afghans already in Britain through the original relocation program.
Today I met a few of the Afghan former staff who have been resettled in the UK with their families.
They worked side-by-side with us and we stood by them and ensured their safety.
We're working tirelessly to help those in the country to whom we owe a debt of obligation. pic.twitter.com/jSuqDx6VDK
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) August 20, 2021
In a video message posted on Twitter, he insisted UK officials were “starting to see some good progress” at Kabul airport, despite chaotic scenes on the ground.
Britain was evacuating “as many more as we can, as rapidly as we can,” he added.
“What the UK now needs to do is work with all our friends and partners in the international community so that we use the maximum leverage on the new regime in Kabul,” Johnson added.