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A plea to Ben Wallace: It’s time to listen over Afghan war hero - as campaign grows

Senior military figures and MPs are among the 50,000 people supporting The Independent’s petition

Tara Cobham,Andy Gregory
Monday 15 May 2023 12:38 BST
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Piers Morgan and The Independent’s Geordie Greig appeal to Sunak to help Afghan refugees

Defence secretary Ben Wallace is yet to answer The Independent’s call to give refuge to Afghan war heroes who served alongside British forces, despite previously saying the West must do it’s “very best” to “stand by our obligations” to those who supported the UK in Kabul.

This website launched a high-profile campaign after revealing how an Afghan pilot who served alongside the British army was forced to flee to the UK on a small boat and is now being threatened with deportation to Rwanda.

The air force lieutenant, who says has been “forgotten” by the US and British forces, has written a letter to Rishi Sunak about his plight, which has been stonewalled.

An Afghan war veteran who served alongside British armed forces is among those who have fled to the UK on small boats and are now being threatened with deportation to Rwanda. (The Independent)

Mr Wallace, who previously served in the Scots Guards regiment of the British Army, also has all the details of the case and has so far done nothing.

Scores of military figures, celebrities and figures from across the political divide have already pledged their support to the campaign, including former head of the British Army Sir Richard Dannatt, former head of Nato Lord Robertson and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

The defence secretary has previously spoken movingly about helping those who dedicated their lives to Afghanistan before seeing Kabul fall to the Taliban.

When British troops were racing to rescue UK nationals out of the country in the summer of 2021, Mr Wallace broke down as he admitted some people would not get out.

Asked why he felt the situation “so personally”, he replied: “Because I’m a soldier... because it’s sad and the West has done what it’s done, we have to do our very best to get people out and stand by our obligations and 20 years of sacrifice is what it is.” More than 50,000 have also backed The Independent’s petition.

Here are some of those who have backed our campaign so far:

Tobias Ellwood

The chair of the Commons defence select committee was among the first major figures to offer his support to the air force lieutenant after our initial report about his plight.

Mr Ellwood, the Conservative MP for Bournemouth East, warned that his “case illustrates the gaping hole in the current system”, which has “no functioning process” allowing Afghans to apply for asylum from abroad.

“This is clearly not who we are as a nation, and is not how our migration system should operate,” he said, adding: “There is something very wrong if pilots who worked alongside us in Afghanistan could now be sent to Rwanda.”

The case ‘illustrates the gaping hole in the current system’, said Tobias Ellwood (Yui Mok/PA)

Admiral Lord West

In the same report – which came a day after Rishi Sunak promised to review the veteran’s plight, during a grilling by MPs – a former head of the Royal Navy added to the criticism, saying the government has a “duty” to look after those who fought alongside Britain.

“Not least because they were helping us. But also because no one is ever going to want to help us if we ever get involved in a situation like that again,” said Admiral Lord West, chief of Naval staff from 2002 to 2006.

He added: “I understand all the issues about trying to stop boats coming across the Channel and people drowning. But I think occasionally one has to show some flexibility. And I would have thought this was a classic case where we should.”

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Sir Laurie Bristow

The following day, the British ambassador to Afghanistan during fall of Kabul in 2021 was among a wave of public figures to back our campaign.

Sir Laurie Bristow warned that the lives of Afghans who “worked for us and with us … are at risk as a result”, adding that “many of our own service people owe their lives to Afghans who worked and fought alongside them in Afghanistan”.

Sir Laurie Bristow was stationed in Afghanistan during the evacuation of Kabul (PA)

Sir William Patey

Simultaneously, Sir Laurie’s predecessor warned of the extreme danger the war hero would have faced had he stayed in the country.

“He flew combat missions against the Taliban so obviously he would have been under direct threat of reprisal in Afghanistan; he would have been killed,” said Sir William Patey, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan from 2010 until 2012.

“I really don’t see how he cannot get asylum or qualify under the various Afghan schemes. It’s a bit farcical that he is being threatened with Rwanda.”

General Sir Richard Barrons

The pilot’s route to the UK should not affect his asylum chances, said a former chief of joint operations, who served in Afghanistan.

“This should not be complicated,” said General Sir Richard Barrons. “This pilot is either entitled to come here or he’s not. The fact that he went through other countries to get here is not surprising considering the mess the government made with the evacuation process.”

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Rory Stewart

Rory Stewart, a former international development secretary, said the pilot’s story was “profoundly shocking” because it went directly against the pledges made to those in Afghanistan.

“We are shirking our responsibilities towards Afghans who risked their lives to fight alongside us and who are now at risk of their lives,” warned Mr Stewart, the former Tory MP who now co-hosts TheRest Is Politics podcast.

Rory Stewart said the pilot’s story was ‘profoundly shocking’ (PA Archive)

Kevan Jones

Describing the pilot’s case as “a stain on Britain’s great reputation”, former defence minister Kevan Jones said: “We always stick by our friends.

“We should continue to do that. This government is clearly not doing that in this case and many others.”

Colonel Simon Diggins

Their comments came as then-deputy PM Dominic Raab was repeatedly pressed on the veteran’s plight on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Colonel Simon Diggins, who served as a defence attache in Afghanistan and was involved in the Kabul evacuation, said: “We shouldn’t accept the terminology that he got here ‘illegally’; that is not the right language for people like him who have no other means of getting here safely.

“It is appalling that this man who was in our allied forces is being treated in this way.”

Colonel Simon Diggins served as defence attache in Afghanistan (Colonel Simon Diggins)

Major General Tim Cross

Major General Tim Cross, who served in Iraq, the Balkans and Northern Ireland, described the case as one of “common sense, or rather the lack of it”.

He went on: “If this man was a member of Afghan forces fighting alongside the coalition then the risks to him are obvious. The whole Afghanistan withdrawal was terribly done, and cases like these are the human consequences of mistakes we made in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Major General Tim Cross was the top British officer involved in planning post-war Iraq (AFP via Getty Images)

Sir Keir Starmer

As our campaign picked up steam, Sir Keir Starmer said it was “a disgrace” that a brave pilot who fought alongside British troops faced “being forced out” of the UK.

The Labour leader also accused the government of a “shameful level of incompetence” as he called on ministers not to deport him.

The dramatic intervention came as the pilot wrote an open letter to the prime minister, in which he directly appealed to Mr Sunak to offer sanctuary in the UK to him, his family and fellow Afghans who served alongside Britain.

Keir Starmer said it was ‘a disgrace’ the pilot faced deportation (Getty)

Lord Robertson

Next to offer their support was former Nato chief Lord Robertson, who warned that it would be an “indefensible disgrace” if the Home Office carried out its threat to send him to Rwanda.

Lord Robertson, former secretary general of the military alliance, urged the government to show decency and give the pilot the respect and safety he deserves.

It came as The Independent highlighted the plight of hundreds of Afghans stranded in Pakistan after the UK government stopped military flights and demanded they pay for their own accommodation before being allowed to travel.

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Bear Grylls

The former SAS soldier, who is now a survivalist and television adventurer, urged ministers to “do right by those who have given so much to keep us safe”.

In an opinion piece for this website, Bear Grylls wrote: “Imagine braving the horrors of war to support the forces of a country that you don’t even live in, only to find that when you travel to that country for genuine sanctuary from horror, torture and the many other dangers of your own country (braving even more hardships along the way), you’re told that you aren’t acknowledged or wanted.”

Bear Grylls has backed our campaign, urging ministers to ‘do right by those who have given so much to keep us safe’ (Getty Images)

Lord Alf Dubs

Lord Alf Dubs – a child refugee who fled the Nazis before the Second World War – said the idea of deporting a pilot was “absolutely shocking” and accused Rishi Sunak’s government of “totally cruel” treatment.

The Labour peer called on the PM to make sure the veteran is allowed to stay. “If he risked his life for us, how can we possibly not consider giving him safety? The government must think again,” he said.

Lord Alf Dubs said the idea of deporting a pilot was ‘absolutely shocking’ (PA)

Sir Richard Dannatt

Sir Richard Dannatt, former head of the British Army, argued that the pilot was a “special case” for asylum and should be granted permission to stay.

The former head of the British Army said there was a “flaw” in the government policy if Afghans who helped British forces could be deported in the crackdown on small boat crossings.

His support came as polling by Savanta for The Independent found that just 23 per cent voters think the government is giving enough support to Afghans trying to escape their home country after working with Britain, while 47 per cent want more to be done.

Sir Richard Dannatt is one of many armed forces leaders to back our campaign (GETTY IMAGES)

Air Marshal Edward Stringer

Drawing powerfully on his own experience in the country, a former head of RAF forces in Afghanistan, was next to back our campaign. Writing an op-ed in The Independent, Air Marshal Edward Stringer said: “Now is the time for us to demonstrate the decency on which we so pride ourselves”.

He added: “It was in Basra in 2007 that I first heard reported an aphorism of the ‘Arab street’: that it is better to be an enemy of the British than a friend. If you are an enemy they will buy you, if a friend they will sell you ... If we are not to live up to this reputation, we should do all we can to look after those who risked their lives to help us.

His comments came as our petition calling for the government to provide refuge to Afghan war heroes topped 50,000 signatures.

Air Marshal Edward Stringer was also director of operations at the Ministry of Defence (Royal Air Force)

Piers Morgan

Hosting Independent editor-in-chief Geordie Greig and Lord Dannatt as guests on his TalkTV programme, Piers Morgan also called for the Afghan pilot to be granted sanctuary.

“I’m giving you the full support of this show, because I think it is a really important battle,” he said. “It may be one man but it actually represents a large number of people who sacrificed a lot, and many of them sacrificed their lives. We’re going to keep hammering away at No 10.”

Ben McBean

Ben McBean, a marine commando who lost an arm and a leg in Afghanistan, and described as a hero by Prince Harry, also backed the campaign, saying we must help our pilot settle in the UK.

Mr McBean told The Independent that he couldn’t see why “anyone would have an issue” with Afghan veterans being given a new home in Britain.

Ben McBean lost his left arm and right leg in a blast while serving in Afghanistan in 2008 (SWNS)

General Lord David Richards

The British former commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan has called on the government to show “solidarity and friendship” towards the pilot.

Lord Richards of Herstmonceux said it would be a “travesty of justice” if the airman was to be kicked out of the country.

Lord Richards, a former chief of defence staff and head of UK armed forces, told The Independent: “To deport this brave man would be so contrary to British instincts that I am confident the home secretary would do the right thing and allow him to remain here. Anything less than that would be a travesty of justice.”

Former Chief of Defence Staff General Sir David Richards (left) speaks with General Sir Michael Jackson at a reception at the Honourable Artillery Company in London (PA)

Simon Weston

Falklands war veteran Simon Weston said he was “genuinely saddened and upset” by the Home Office’s threat to remove the Afghan war veteran to Rwanda.

Mr Weston, who suffered 46 per cent burns when the British ship Sir Galahad was bombed and set alight in 1982, said the pilot had “done nothing wrong” by coming to the UK on a small boat.

Simon Weston said the pilot had ‘shown courage, endeavour and ingenuity to get here’ (PA)

Guy Ritchie

Hollywood director Guy Ritchie said it is “morally reprehensible” for Afghans who worked alongside British and US forces to be denied safe passage to the UK.

Ritchie, whose new film The Covenant tells the story of an Afghan interpreter left behind by US forces to face the Taliban, said those who worked alongside coalition troops only did so because they thought they’d be looked after.

Director Guy Ritchie, left, and actor Dar Salim on the set of "Guy Ritchie's The Covenant." (AP)

Bishop of Liverpool

The Bishop of Liverpool, John Perumbalath, said there was a “moral duty” to give the pilot safety in the UK.

He said: “The government has been woefil in its commitment to Afghan refugees and it is time for them to do the decent thing and reverse this cruel, heartless decision.”

Bishop of Durham

The Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler, said this plight of the war veteran illustrated “the bind that the government have created for themselves” by treating all small boat arrivals as criminals.

Rabbi Josh Levy

Rabbi Josh Levy, head of The Movement for Reform Judaism, added: “If they reached here on a boat, it is because there was no other choice. An inability to find the flexibility in these cases is inexcusable.”

Rabbi Charley Baginsky

Rabbi Charley Baginsky, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, said the UK had a “responsibility” to protect Afghans who worked with coalition forces, including the pilot.

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