The US is formally investigating whether to give safe haven to the Afghan pilot UK officials are threatening to deport to Rwanda, sparking fury from top politicians and military figures who called it “shameful” that Britain should turn its back on the war hero.
The former air force lieutenant, who flew multiple combat missions alongside coalition forces, has been living in limbo for months after coming to the UK on a small boat while his wife and child hide from the Taliban in Afghanistan.
There was shock at defence secretary Ben Wallace’s refusal to intervene after the pilot’s application to the UK’s Afghan refugee scheme was rejected this week – a decision that left him facing the prospect of a one-way flight to Rwanda.
While British officials have refused to intervene to halt the Home Office deportation threat, the US Department of State is now considering the pilot and his family’s asylum application after The Independent first raised his case.
General Sir Richard Dannatt, the former head of the British army, said the fact that the pilot had been “cast off” by the British for the US to handle was “a complete abrogation of our responsibilities and our decency”.
Air Marshal Edward Stringer, commander of RAF air operations during the Afghan conflict, said the UK government was making a “weaselling distinction” over the pilot’s war record.
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said that for Britain to “turn its back on a pilot” and fail to “do what is necessary to keep to the covenant that we protect his life as he helped to protect ours” is “shameful”.
Sir Iain told The Independent: “Without heroes like this pilot, who is now seeking our help to stay here, we would not be able to fight causes which matter to democratic governments who fight for freedom.”
He added: “We were allies and comrades in arms to those who helped the coalition, and now they themselves and their families are at risk from the Taliban. We have failed our pledge we gave to stand by them. To see America stand in for us and do the decent thing is galling and shameful.”
Labour said Rishi Sunak’s government appeared to be applying “Operation Cold Shoulder” to Afghan heroes, describing the intervention by the US as “deeply embarrassing”.
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The airman, who flew more than 30 sorties planned by British and US commanders against terrorist threats, was described as a “true patriot to his nation” by his US supervisor.
But the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has rejected his application to stay in the UK under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap), which is aimed at getting those who helped British forces out of Afghanistan.
The government said it did not accept that his role had “resulted in a high and imminent risk of a threat to [his] life”. The MoD also said it did not accept that Britain’s operations in Afghanistan would have been “materially less efficient or materially less successful” without his role.
Although category 4 of the Arap scheme – thought to be the pilot’s best chance of staying in the UK – is aimed at those “closely supporting and assisting” British forces, officials deemed him ineligible.
Senior military figures are disappointed that Mr Wallace – rumoured to be angling for the job of Nato secretary general – has not rushed to the aid of the Afghan pilot, who helped coalition forces against the Taliban.
“This is a very disappointing decision, justified on very narrow grounds,” Lord Dannatt told The Independent. “Are we denying he fought against the Taliban? This is a most ungenerous decision which sits uncomfortably with common decency.
“He came to this country, trusting in the decency of the British, by the only means available to him, and now seems doomed to be deported to Rwanda. To cast him off as America’s problem is a complete abrogation of our responsibilities and our decency.”
Air Marshal Stringer said: “Whether we had a de jure contract with these Afghan servicemen or not seems a weaselling distinction on which to fall back.
“The de facto contract was that we encouraged Afghans to join the security services and fight alongside us to achieve our ends, putting themselves at risk from regressive and dangerous forces such as the Taliban.”
He added: “When we removed the cover we had promised them, we left them dreadfully exposed. What weight does our moral authority carry when we weasel out of our obligations; and why should we expect people to trust us in future?”
Dozens of military chiefs, politicians and celebrities have backed The Independent’s call to allow the pilot and other Afghan veterans who helped coalition forces to be given safe refuge.
After serving alongside coalition forces, the pilot received two personal recommendations that referred to his strength of character and the role he had played in fighting the Taliban in the years leading up to the fall of Kabul in August 2021.
He has now been accepted onto the US’s P1 resettlement scheme, for which applicants have to be personally approved by a US official. There is no guarantee that he will be offered asylum, and the process can take years, but he has entered the assessment stage.
Currently living in Home Office accommodation in the UK, the pilot is despairing at his situation and said that the decision he made to risk his life for the coalition is his biggest regret.
“We made the biggest mistake in my life when we cooperated with the American forces and British forces, and now we have to suffer the pain of being stateless, far from family, [in] humiliation and misery,” he said.
He is also growing increasingly worried for the safety of his family, as he waits to hear the outcome of a separate asylum application to the Home Office.
Officials at home secretary Suella Braverman’s department warned the airman that he could be sent to Rwanda because his Channel journey is deemed to have been illegal. He has been given 90 days to appeal the decision to turn him down for the Arap scheme.
A number of Afghans who helped American forces before the US withdrew from Afghanistan, including the pilot, were referred to the scheme by their US supervisors directly after the fall of Kabul.
But aside from being asked to fill out a form with more details, the pilot heard nothing more from the state department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.
However, last month, after being approached by The Independent, the White House said it would investigate his case, and it has been confirmed to be in the system.
During his trip to Washington last week, Mr Sunak ignored questions about the pilot from The Independent as he arrived at the White House to meet US president Joe Biden. He also declined to address a similar question at the end of a joint press conference with Mr Biden later that day.
Labour’s shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said: “Britain has a moral obligation to these Afghans, yet Operation Warm Welcome has become Operation Cold Shoulder.
“The fact that the British government is trying to send a loyal-to-Britain Afghan pilot to Rwanda is a tragedy in itself, while the US government’s intervention is deeply embarrassing evidence of just how far the UK’s international reputation is being tarnished by the shameful behaviour of this callous and chaotic Conservative government.”
Armed forces minister James Heappey has said that members of the Afghan forces, such as the pilot, do not qualify “in principle” for the MoD’s scheme, which was initially set up to help Afghans who were employed by the British army.
A spokesperson for the government said it remained committed to protecting vulnerable and at-risk people fleeing Afghanistan, and so far has brought around 24,500 people to the UK.
“We continue to work with like-minded partners and countries neighbouring Afghanistan on resettlement issues, and to support safe passage for eligible Afghans,” the spokesperson said.
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