Of all the distressing images coming out of the chaos and fear at Kabul airport, there was one which I found particularly moving.
It was not one of those showing desperate Afghans clinging to the fuselage of a huge transport plane as it took off from the runway. It was not one of those showing the bodies of people who were asphyxiated and trampled in the terrible crush at the gates. It was not even one of those – I was going to say “heartbreaking”, except that the word is so overused these days and has lost its impact – one of those truly shocking images of terror-stricken mothers literally throwing their babies over the fence, hoping they would be caught by one of the soldiers and taken to a relatively-safer life in the west.
No; it was a picture taken by a professional photographer and published on the front page of the Sunday Times on 22 August. It shows two British soldiers sitting in the dusty shade whilst they take a few moments’ break from duty. Duty which means trying to bring order, calm and perhaps reassurance – qualities for which the British used to be fêted, whether deservedly or not – to terrified people whose language they do not share, whose culture they probably view as quite alien, and whose country they do not know except as a place where comrades preceding them have fought and died or been horribly injured and disabled.
They are both young – one perhaps more than the other – but their exhausted faces are grim. One looks up and away, but the other looks directly at the camera, his expression almost hostile. I hope that both will return safely to those who love them. They might even return unscarred by the things they have seen and had to do, but that is doubtful: more damage done by this 20-year war, which has already caused so much death and destruction, only to turn – it seems, anyway – full circle. Could either of these young soldiers ever have guessed, even in recent years, how ‘the end of the war’ would unfold, and his role in it?
Their picture was also striking because, right alongside it, there was yet another report about the foreign secretary Dominic Raab.
Raab went on holiday in August, against advice from his department. It should have been obvious even to Raab – whose grasp of geography may not be the strongest – that, given their steady advance across the many provinces of the country, the Taliban would soon be at the gates of Kabul itself. The city did indeed fall to the Taliban whilst Raab was sunning himself in Crete, at a very expensive resort owned by a friend to the Kremlin. The foreign secretary did not return until two days later.
Next to the picture of the soldiers, the headline “PM told me I could stay on holiday” perfectly illustrates how things in Afghanistan (and indeed in the UK) have reached such a pass: one of this country’s top ministers sounding like a schoolboy blaming his mate for getting him told off. It’s usually someone else’s fault with this government, though, isn’t it? They seem to have been taking lessons from Donald Trump, always so quick to shrug off any responsibility when things went wrong. It’s ironic that it was Trump’s so-called ‘deal’ with the Taliban which led to President Biden’s hasty decision to bring the US troops home, and the ensuing – immediate – panic in Afghanistan.
Raab’s dereliction of duty – for that is what it is – has filled many ‘column inches’ and the sequence of events has gradually emerged. When it was first reported that he was not in the UK (far less at his desk) when Kabul fell, government spokesmen claimed that “everyone” had been taken by surprise: no-one could possibly have foreseen how quickly the Taliban would advance.
When it became known that Raab had not made a telephone call to his counterpart in Afghanistan which might have made the difference to whether people lived or died, his office claimed that the task had been delegated to another minister; then the defence secretary Ben Wallace said that making the call would have achieved nothing anyway; then it came out that the call had never actually been placed.
And the latest twist is that, when summoned back to London to deal with the crisis, Raab had asked the prime minister for permission not to return quite yet, but to remain in Crete until the scheduled end of his holiday. Johnson had apparently agreed. But we need have no fear; Raab may have been on the beach but he was keen to reassure us that he’d still had his finger on the pulse: “I was engaged in Cobra, talking to foreign counterparts, directly speaking to the head of our team here in London, I was doing that on an hour-by-hour basis.”
So whilst Raab was luxuriating on his lounger by the pool at a grand hotel, shirking the responsibility which his job, his good salary and common decency would require, the soldiers in that photo, and others – many others – were on duty at the gates of Kabul airport, trying to stop people from dying in the panic and the fierce heat, trying somehow to keep order, trying to ensure that those considered to have priority got to the front of the queue.
When Raab belatedly returned to his office, a photo was released of him apparently on the phone. Talk about staged. He’d managed to create a facial expression which presumably was intended to convey how determined he was, how much in control – of a situation which had long spiralled well out of anyone’s control.
What a contrast between him, surrounded by the splendour of the Foreign Office, attempting to claw back some semblance of rigour and decisiveness, and the two soldiers who with their comrades must attempt to compensate in whatever way they can for the shortcomings of the politicians back home.
And there are plenty of shortcomings.
Raab should be ashamed. Very ashamed. But faced with questions about his absence during the crisis, it’s clear he just doesn’t get it; he is now so steeped in the sense of entitlement, of superiority, shown by many in this government that he claimed, in all seriousness, that he felt he deserved a break “after two years of a very gruelling, demanding schedule.” Poor lamb.
I wonder what those soldiers think is a very gruelling schedule?
Raab has not publicly conceded that he showed, at the very least, an appalling lack of judgement. He has not apologised – nor does it seem likely he will do so. As for offering his resignation, as an honourable man would do in such circumstances: that seems vanishingly unlikely. Perhaps he is just not a very honourable man.
Let’s hope that, if the rumours are true and Johnson is now beginning to outlive his political usefulness, we don’t get Raab as our next prime minister. It would just be more of the same.