Government criticised over ‘shameful saga’ of Afghan special forces abandoned by UK

Exclusive: Labour writes letter to defence secretary Grant Shapps over concerns about Afghan schemes

Holly Bancroft,May Bulman
Wednesday 08 November 2023 22:15 GMT
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The special forces units abandoned to the Taliban by Britain

Rishi Sunak’s government has been condemned over its failure to bring thousands of Afghans who worked with British forces to safety in the UK despite repeated promises to do so.

Labour’s shadow defence secretary slammed the mismanagement of the government’s Afghan resettlement schemes as “one of the most comprehensive failures of ministerial leadership and competence in recent times”.

In a stinging letter to defence secretary Grant Shapps, John Healey urged his counterpart to “take a long hard look” at how the Ministry of Defence has been running the programme.

His intervention comes after a recent exposé by this newspaper in collaboration with investigative newsroom Lighthouse Reports and Sky News found that dozens of former Afghan special forces soldiers, who were trained and paid by the British, have been tortured or killed by the Taliban since the West’s withdrawal in August 2021.

Members of two army units known as “the Triples” have been rejected for relocation to the UK on the basis that they did not serve closely with the British. In fact, they served in such close partnership that members received a salary directly from the UK government, the investigation revealed.

In the letter seen by The Independent, Mr Healey has asked Mr Shapps to “confirm the reasons behind the reported decision not to grant Afghan Special Forces personnel, who were trained and funded by the UK, eligibility for relocation to the UK under the Arap scheme”. The Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap) is for Afghan citizens who worked “for or with the UK government in Afghanistan in exposed or meaningful roles”, the government website states.

Shadow defence secretary John Healey

Mr Healey said he was “deeply concerned” about the “shameful saga of MoD failure on Arap since the scheme was launched in April 2021”.

He has asked Mr Shapps to provide answers to a number of questions, including whether ministers have met their own target of clearing the backlog of Arap applications by August.

He also quizzed Mr Shapps on why his department stopped charter flights from Pakistan to the UK for those Afghans who had been found eligible for the MoD’s resettlement scheme. Some 3,000 Afghans are still stuck in Pakistan in UK-funded hotels waiting on relocation to Britain.

Many have been there for over a year and efforts have only been made to transfer them to the UK in recent weeks after Mr Sunak’s government was taken to court over the delays. The High Court heard that the prime minister had halted the use of hotels for Afghans coming to the UK in late November 2022 in a bid to save money.

The decision prompted the MoD to stop flights bringing people to the UK from Pakistan – leaving them at risk of arrest and deportation back to Afghanistan. Risk assessments from diplomats show that the UK government was advised that those awaiting relocation to the UK could not be fully protected from arrest, after the Pakistani authorities announced a crackdown on undocumented refugees in the country.

Diplomats in Iran also advised ministers that Afghans based there were also at risk of deportation. Following the court challenge, the goverment restarted chartered flights – with two arriving in recent weeks.

Mr Healey also asked for Mr Shapps to guarantee that his department had stopped instructing applicants to the Arap scheme to get documents approved by Taliban-run ministries.

Noting the professionalism shown by the UK forces who took part in the Afghan evacuation in August 2021, Mr Healey said the obligation to Britain’s Afghan allies was “felt most fiercely by the UK forces personnel who served in Afghanistan”.

He added: “The government’s mismanagement of the MoD Arap scheme - and its sister Home Office ACRS scheme - is one of the most comprehensive failures of ministerial leadership and competence in recent times.”

An MoD spokesperson said: “We have given an unprecedented level of commitment and support to help eligible people in Afghanistan. So far, we have brought around 24,600 people to safety, including thousands of people eligible for our Afghan schemes.

“We have never issued blanket decisions on applications from any cohort who have applied to the Arap scheme. All eligibility decisions are made on a case-by-case basis in line with the Arap policy and the immigration rules.”

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