Ministers square up over plight of Afghan special forces abandoned by Britain

Members of two elite units – championed by The Independent – have been denied sanctuary they were promised here after fighting with UK forces

Holly Bancroft
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 14 December 2023 22:34 GMT
The special forces units abandoned to the Taliban by Britain

A ministerial row has broken out over the fate of Afghan special forces afterThe Independent revealed soldiers who served shoulder-to-shoulder with the British had been abandoned by the UK.

The Independent revealed in a joint investigation last month how members of two elite units, known as The Triples, had been subjected to murder and torture at the hands of the Taliban after being denied sanctuary in Britain by the Ministry of Defence, despite being trained and paid by the UK government.

Now a rift has emerged in government, with different departments at odds over how many of the hero soldiers – described by one former military adviser as “putting their lives on the line” for the UK – should be brought to Britain. The clash will pile pressure on Rishi Sunak to spell out how the UK will help these heroes.

Defence minister James Heappey had on Monday played down the help that the UK could offer these commandos, despite former military chiefs hitting out at the MoD’s “outrageous” failure to help them. Mr Heappey told MPs that those from Commando Force 333 and Afghan Territorial Force 444 “are not automatically in scope for relocation”.

Britain owes debt to Afghan special forces, shadow minister says

Two days later, veterans’ minister Johnny Mercer seemed to publicly contradict his colleague, insisting the soldiers deserve to be in the UK and that he would do “everything I can” to bring them here. Mr Mercer, whose portfolio is part of the Cabinet Office, said the “vast majority” should qualify for resettlement to the UK under the MoD’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Police (Arap) scheme, designed for those who worked for or alongside British forces.

The Independent understands that Mr Heappey’s department objected to Mr Mercer’s intervention in the Commons.

There has been a tussle between Mr Mercer’s and Mr Heappey’s departments over who should be in charge of which aspects of the Afghan resettlement programmes, which have been repeatedly criticised by campaigners and politicians for failing to bring enough people to safety.

Mr Mercer was recently given oversight of the schemes by prime minister Rishi Sunak but Mr Heappey is in charge of deciding which Afghans who worked with the British forces are deemed eligible for relocation to the UK.

James Heappey at military base Garats Hay, where some Afghans evacuated from Pakistan are based (UK MoD Crown Copyright)

Involving the Home Office, Tom Tugendhat, who is a security minister, also publicly backed Mr Mercer on social media saying: “Many of us served alongside triple 3 and triple 4. They were integral to our combat strength”.

Separately, a former senior diplomat, Tim Willasley-Wilsey, said the abandonment of former Triples members “will leave a serious stain on Britain’s reputation”. He told The Independent that Mr Heappey was “incorrect” in reasons for refusing applications, adding the units were “umbilically linked to the UK”.

It comes after a joint investigation between The Independent, newsroom Lighthouse Reports and Sky News revealed dozens of these former commandos have been beaten, tortured or killed by the Taliban since 2021. It was also reported on Monday that 200 of the soldiers are in Pakistan facing imminent deportation back to Afghanistan.

Many members of the elite units have been rejected help by the MoD despite evidence to show that they worked “hand in glove” with British forces and were even paid by the UK government. Major General Charlie Herbert, who worked alongside the Triples and was a senior Nato adviser in Afghanistan between 2017 and 2018, said: “I can think of no other Afghan security forces who were more closely aligned to the UK than 333 and 444, nor who more loyally or bravely supported our military objectives.”

Veterans’ minister Johnny Mercer (PA)

However, Mr Heappey told MPs that “while we are acutely aware of the difficult circumstances in which many Afghans find themselves, not everyone will be eligible even if they worked for the Afghan security forces.”

He said that to help all Afghan special forces members “would be to give eligibility to hundreds of thousands of servicepeople, and five times that again to bring their dependents”.

Campaigners described Mr Heappey’s estimations are “disingenuous” and said there were around 2,000 members of the Triples who have been left behind – not all of whom will opt for relocation to the UK. It is also estimated that at least three and likely seven members of 333 have already been murdered by the Taliban.

Mr Heappey had described the two units as “Afghan-led taskforces” that “reported into the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs”.

Afghan interpreter who risked life to serve Britain deported back to Taliban after UK error

In response to a question in the Commons posed by Labour’s shadow security minister Dan Jarvis, who served alongside Afghan special forces, Mr Mercer said that “whilst technically the minister for the armed forces was right in that they were led and had direct command chains into the Afghan government, there is going to be no attempt whatsoever by this government to close down avenues for those who served in triple 3 and 4.”

Mr Mercer pledged to “not oversee a scheme that will not do its duty to those, particularly those in the triple 3 and 4 taskforces, who he and I served alongside in Afghanistan”.

The Independent has been campaigning for the UK to honour its debt to Afghan veterans who fought alongside British troops.

An MoD spokesperson said: “The UK government has made an ambitious and generous commitment 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.

“Each Arap application is decided and scrutinised on its own merits against each criterion outlined in the specific Arap policy and the immigration rules, which are published online.”

A government spokesperson added: “We are working across government to meet our commitment to resettle eligible Afghans in the UK.

“So far, we have brought around 24,600 people to safety, including thousands of people eligible for our Afghan schemes. Departments are working together to help resettle those eligible persons currently in third countries as quickly and safely as possible.”

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