Boris Johnson personally authorised the airlift of staff from a former UK serviceman’s Kabul-based animal charity when the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan’s capital city last year, according to a British government whistleblower.
Josie Stewart, a senior official at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office who previously worked on the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, said there was “extensive evidence”, including internal emails, that showed the decision to prioritise the evacuation of Pen Farthing’s Nowzad charity came from the prime minister.
Another whistleblower who used to work for the FCDO has claimed Johnson intervened to airlift Nowzad’s animals from Kabul, and that pleas for help from thousands of desperate Afghans seeking to flee the Taliban were ignored.
Raphael Marshallwho was also involved in the UK withdrawal from Afghanistan, told the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee in December there was a “direct trade-off” between transporting Nowzad’s animals and evacuating UK and Afghan nationals, including those who had served with British soldiers.
Johnson has previously dismissed Marshall’s testimony that he intervened to prioritise Nowzad’s staff and animals as “total rhubarb”.
In seven pages of written testimony to the committee, Stewart said it was “widespread knowledge” in the FCDO’s Afghanistan crisis centre that “the decision on Nowzad’s Afghan staff came from the prime minister”.
Stewart said: “I saw messages to this effect on Microsoft Teams, I heard it discussed in the crisis centre including by senior civil servants, and I was copied on numerous emails which clearly suggested this and which no one, including Nigel Casey [UK special representative for Afghanistan] acting as Crisis Gold [team leader]challenged.”
Stewart said the decision to prioritise Nowzad’s staff in the evacuation of Kabul last August was “only in response to this PM decision” and went against the judgment of officials.
She referred to an email from Casey that she was copied into that said Sir Stephen Lovegrove, Johnson’s national security adviser, “would seek input on the Nowzad case from Number 10”.
Stewart, head of the illicit finance unit at the FCDO, said she was not aware of a “deliberate decision to prioritise animals over people”. But she stated the Nowzad decision was “not in line with policy” and “carried significant opportunity cost in terms of the amount of senior civil servant time spent on the case”.
Stewart also accused Sir Philip Barton, head of the FCDO, of misleading parliament over evidence regarding the prime minister’s involvement in Nowzad.
Barton told the committee in January that Casey had not received any correspondence about Johnson and Nowzad.
Stewart said: “Nigel Casey explicitly testified that he had searched his emails and found nothing of relevance, yet when I searched my emails for ‘PM’ and ‘Nowzad’ I found more than one email referencing ‘the PM’s decision on Nowzad’ and with Nigel Casey in copy.”
At a hearing of the Foreign Affairs committee on Monday, Barton and Casey said they were not certain who authorised the evacuation of Nowzad staff.
Casey told MPs: “As it turns out there was a very good reason why none of us could remember that, and that’s because we had not been told at the time and we haven’t been since.”
He added that he and Barton had answered the committee’s questions “in good faith, to the best of our knowledge at the time”.
In response, Labour’s Chris Bryant said: “I find it difficult to believe you.”
Stewart criticised the “lack of accountability” over the Foreign Office’s management of the Afghanistan withdrawal.
“I feel a strong sense of moral injury for having been part of something so badly managed, and so focused on managing reputational risk and political fallout rather than the actual crisis and associated human tragedy,” she said.
“This manifest failure led to confusion, impossible demands on the crisis team and compounded human tragedy in Kabul.”
The FCDO said: “At all times, officials have responded to the committee’s questions in good faith, on the basis of the evidence available to us at the time.
“We are rightly proud of our staff who worked tirelessly to evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a fortnight.
“The prime minister has made clear he had no role in authorising individual evacuations from Afghanistan . . . including Nowzad staff and animals.”
Downing Street did not immediately respond to a request for comment.