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UK technology issues contributed to Afghanistan withdrawal chaos

Multiple problems including email management, collaboration restrictions and lack of technical expertise may have risked the lives of thousands of Afghans, according to whistleblower Raphael Marshall

A number of IT issues contributed to the UK’s chaotic withdrawal from Kabul and hindered efforts to rescue Afghans eligible for entry to the UK, a whistleblower has said.

In evidence submitted to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee under its inquiry into government policy on Afghanistan, a former desk officer at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), Raphael Marshall, detailed the blunders that resulted in the delay of assistance to several thousands of individuals applying for evacuation after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.

According to Marshall, up to 150,000 people, including journalists, feminists, aid workers and judges who feared for their lives due to their connection to the UK and the West as a whole, applied for evacuation under the UK’s Leave Outside the Rules scheme, but less than 5% received any assistance – and some may have been murdered by the Taliban since.

Among the various technology-related problems cited in the evidence, he described the FCDO’s inability to screen, flag and respond to the evacuation requests arriving via email, which has resulted in thousands of unread appeals for assistance. At any given point, there were more than 5,000 unopened emails in the Microsoft Outlook inboxes of the Afghan Special Cases team and the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) scheme.

“Emails received an automatic response that the request for assistance had been ‘logged’,” said Marshall. “This was usually false. In thousands of cases emails were not even read.” He added that “hundreds, if not thousands” of emails relating to assistance requests to Afghans sent by MPs were also unread.

Emails were frequently forwarded between the ARAP, Afghan Special Cases and generic crisis mailboxes. According to Marshall, there was significant confusion in processing emails across these inboxes, as well as frequent changes to who was managing them, leading to inconsistent decision-making approaches and “an extremely brief institutional memory”.

The FCDO had faced a similar problem in terms of large numbers of unanswered emails during the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, as British nationals were stranded overseas. “Although lessons learned exercises were conducted after the Covid crisis, clearly the FCDO failed to recognise and address this problem,” he said.

Unread emails

Access to ARAP and Afghan Special Cases inboxes were locked after a story on The Observer on 29 August 2021 about the backlog of unread emails. “This could be interpreted in two different ways,” said Marshall. “In my opinion, this was an admission that at this stage the FCDO’s method of processing the emails only served a public relations purpose.

“On the other hand, if the FCDO believes that this method of processing the emails served any real policy purpose, then locking the inboxes undermined rescue efforts for public relations purposes,” he added.

In addition to processing spreadsheets from a number of organisations requesting the evacuation of their staff – such as the Afghan Women’s football team and the Afghan Paralympics team – the FCDO maintained multiple spreadsheets to list potential priorities based on the emails received from Afghan nationals. These lists lacked consistent methodology, with information available to support decisions often being insufficient.

For example, passport details were needed so the Home Office could perform checks before granting clearance, but the team could not follow up on this due to time pressures and the inexperience of the FCDO teams involved, as well as a general lack of organisation. In addition to a lack of information of the size of the cohort being selected for evacuation, the long processing times played a key role in many Afghans not being added to the final list.

A group of around six FCDO staff formerly in DFID volunteered to support the processing of the requests, but Marshall noted it was hard to integrate them effectively. This was due to the unfeasibility of sharing live documents or giving them access to the inbox receiving the requests, because the DFID and FCO IT systems are not yet integrated. “They were visibly appalled by our chaotic system,” he said.

Chaos in the process

As teams ran out of time and the system underpinning the final stages of the process became increasingly chaotic, even the very high-priority cases in parallel to the wider process were impacted, as Marshall noted this forwarded list appeared to “have been lost somewhere within the Home Office”.

Amid shortages of FCDO staff, soldiers were enlisted to help with reading and prioritising emails appealing for evacuation, call Afghan evacuees and issue them with travel documentation. “I deeply respect everyone who serves in the British Army but clearly soldiers’ training is not intended to equip them for this type of task. The soldiers were uncomfortable with this task,” said Marshall, adding that one soldier “remarked that he belonged with his comrades in Kabul, not processing emails in London”.

According to Marshall, some of the soldiers were likely using Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Outlook for the first time in a professional context and were doing their best, despite the administrative blunders that reflected their lack of technical experience.

“I understand that some administrative mistakes reflected this lack of experience, including sending 91 travel documents from the wrong email accounts, which meant that we did not have a full record of them,” he said, adding that this was not the soldiers’ fault.

“This was a predictable result of soldiers being asked to perform bureaucratic tasks for the first time in a high-stakes situation without any relevant experience or training.”

Delayed IT help

Moreover, FCDO supplied computers to soldiers to process requests, but the department’s IT team did not supply the passwords needed to unlock them. This was solved over a day after the machines were issued, and in the meantime, soldiers worked with one computer shared between roughly eight people, which hindered their efficiency and speed in working on the task at hand.

“The failure to issue soldiers with sufficient computers for over 12 hours clearly delayed the issuing of travel documents; it will therefore have reduced the chance of selected Afghans being evacuated, and consequently may directly result in the deaths of people unnecessarily left behind,” said Marshall.

Among the issues mentioned in the written evidence is the lack of logins for the FCDO’s non-secure phone system, which were required so that soldiers could call Afghan nationals for evacuation. Marshall described a scramble to get ahold of logins, including an approach to the British Embassies in Washington, which interpreted the request as so implausible that they reported it as a Russian phishing attempt to the FCDO, forcing the desk officer to apologise for breaking security rules.

“I was informed the correct course of action would have been to wait until the next morning and then request new logins from the relevant IT team. This would have wasted around 12 hours at a crucial moment to protect the integrity of an unsecure phone system,” he noted, adding that waiting for IT to get back to him would have delayed the process by several hours and “meaningfully reduced the chance of the circa 1,000 people we were seeking to evacuate from getting to the Kabul airport”.

The system adopted to prioritise people against the very limited number of evacuation spaces was crucial, but multiple factors, including the method of processing emails, coupled with various spreadsheets listing variable sets of criteria ineffective processes, significantly hindered the task.

“[Prioritisation] was an appalling task and mistakes were inevitable,” said Marshall. “It would have been impossible to design an entirely satisfactory system for this task. However, in my opinion, it would surely have been possible to design a considerably better system than the one employed by the FCDO.”

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