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The foreign secretary has defended his delayed return from holiday as Kabul was taken by the Taliban, insisting that everyone was “surprised by the scale and the pace of the collapse” in Afghanistan.
He insisted that he was “focused” on responding to the situation while he was abroad and was leading the evacuation of British nationals and Afghan workers, but now recognises he should have led the crisis response from Whitehall sooner.
“With the benefit of hindsight, I would have been back earlier, but we were all surprised by the scale and the pace of the collapse of the situation in Kabul,” Raab told Sky News.
“I was still doing all the things you would need me to do to focus on what really mattered. Engaging in Cobra meetings, but critically securing and ramping up the Foreign Office presence in Kabul.”
Raab said he had been in close contact with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, defence secretary Ben Wallace and home secretary Priti Patel “to make sure we could not just secure the airport, but get the people home”.
“We’ve got over 9,000 people home since that point in time, and I do think that demonstrates that we were on the job,” he added.
He also confirmed that all single-nationality UK citizens who want to leave Afghanistan have been brought home, with 2,000 leaving Kabul airport in the last 24 hours.
“Mono-nationals, so single-nationality UK who have got documentation, the lion’s share, almost all of them that want to come out have been brought home,” Raab explained.
Those remaining are, according to the foreign secretary, “rather complex cases, large family units where one or other may be documented or may be clearly a national”.
The government is under increasing pressure to ensure that any remaining British nationals and Afghan employees who have supported the British government are evacuated from the country within days, after US president Joe Biden yesterday rejected calls to delay the 31 August deadline for the withdrawal of American troops.
Raab has faced renewed calls to resign over reports he stayed on a family holiday in Crete two days after being advised to return as the situation in the Afghan capital worsened.
The Sunday Times reported that he had been told on the Friday that he should return to the UK, but that he persuaded Boris Johnson he could stay in Crete until Sunday.
It was also suggested in the Daily Mail that Raab did not make himself available to speak with Afghan foreign secretary Hanif Atmar while he was abroad, meaning the call did not take place.
He has faced calls from opposition parties to resign as foreign secretary over the incidents, with his shadow Labour counterpart Lisa Nandy claiming he “should be ashamed” over the delay.
But Raab said it was “nonsense” to suggest he wasn’t engaged in the situation while he was in Crete.
“We discussed the matter. I agreed to come back on Sunday. I’m not going to add further to the speculation around that,” he said.
“Some of the reporting of some of the assertions being put to me are just not true.
“We were focused overwhelmingly on securing the airport and I was engaged in meetings.
“Stuff about me lounging around on the beach all day is just nonsense. Stuff about me paddleboarding: nonsense. The sea was actually closed, it was a red notice.”
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