The government has been forced to publicly admit that flawed decision-making led to Afghan heroes being turned down for sanctuary in Britain following a major joint investigation by The Independent.
Defence minister James Heappey confirmed the government will now re-examine 400 cases of special forces soldiers who have been rejected for settlement in the UK after their plight was highlighted by this publication.
In an investigation by The Independent, Lighthouse Reports and Sky News, we revealed how soldiers from two units known as The Triples – so called because their full titles are the Afghan Commando Force 333 and Afghan Territorial Force 444 – had been subjected to torture and murder at the hands of the Taliban after being denied help by the UK.
This is despite extensive evidence showing they were paid, trained and worked “shoulder to shoulder” with British special forces before the fall of Kabul.
We also revealed how their cases were not being properly assessed by the government, even though they fitted the criteria for help under the flagship Arap (Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy) scheme, designed to relocate eligible Afghans who served with the British.
In total, some 2,000 applications from those with credible links to Afghan specialist units will now be reviewed, meaning thousands in fear for their lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan could be given sanctuary.
Making the announcement in the Commons today – three days after The Independent revealed the U-turn – Mr Heappey admitted some decisions were “inconsistent” and “not robust”, as he conceded there had been mistakes with the process.
The armed forces minister said a recent review of processes around eligibility decisions showed “instances of inconsistent application of the Arap criteria in certain cases”.
He promised the government would now “take necessary steps” to apply the criteria fairly as he promised a new team at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will make sure “decisions [are] changed if that is necessary”.
He told MPs: “I can confirm that the MoD will undertake a reassessment of all eligibility decisions made for applications with credible claims of links to the Afghan specialist units.
“Undoubtedly there have been some decisions made that are not robust and need to be reviewed ... We will now work quickly to make sure that these decisions are reviewed and cases and decisions changed if that is necessary.”
The Independent’s joint six-month-long investigation revealed how cases were not being properly considered. In some cases, seemingly no consideration had been given to official certificates and ID cards showing their closeness with UK special forces.
In other instances, references from British colleagues and evidence of a payslip from the UK were ignored.
Shadow armed forces minister Luke Pollard pressed the government on how long the reviews would take and asked: “Will basic errors like this happen again?”
Shadow security minister Dan Jarvis said it was “beyond bewildering that we haven’t got to this point sooner”. He asked for an assurance that the government would “work at pace to put this right”.
Sir David Davis, former minister and ex-SAS reservist, said in the Commons that he had been contacted by those who helped train the Triples who testified that they were the “most loyal, bravest, and most effective soldiers that were in operation in Afghanistan”.
He continued: “As a result, they are the ones the Taliban feared the most, which is I guess why the Taliban has been executing them in front of their own families whenever they can catch them.”
He said the UK had a “debt of honour” to the soldiers and the government should “do everything to deliver on that debt of honour as soon as possible”.
Mr Heappey later cautioned against the idea of blanket approval of the special forces soldiers under the Arap scheme – insisting there had been good reasons to turn some Aghans down.
He said the special forces cohort “present a unique set of challenges in terms of eligibility decision-making” – pointing out that some served in their units when the Afghan government that replaced the Taliban after the UK-US invasion was still being established.
Campaigners have welcomed the news that the Triples cases will be re-examined but have raised concerns over the department’s desire to maintain a “case by case” review.
Major General Charlie Herbert, who served alongside the Triples, said that the units had been “raised, trained, advised and accompanied by UK armed forces through the Afghan campaign, and played a pivotal role in the war against the Taliban”.
“While I’m pleased to see the announcement today, it is nothing short of shameful that it has taken over two years to reach this point,” he added.
He explained: “In that time, a number of former members of these units have faced intimidation, violence and, tragically in some cases, death at the hands of the Taliban. I urge the government to accelerate the processing and relocation of all those not yet relocated to safety in the UK.”
Tim Willasey-Wilsey, who worked closely with 333 from 2002 to 2008, added: “This is excellent news. Now the challenge is to identify the genuine applicants and get them to safety before anyone else is murdered by the Taliban.
“There are plenty of people with long experience of 333 and 444 in the UK who can help the MoD weed out the fraudulent applicants. It would be another mistake to adopt a purely bureaucratic approach to this task and it would waste valuable time”
The UK’s abandonment of these soldiers has forced several Afghan commandos to travel to the UK via dangerous and irregular routes – journeys Mr Sunak has vowed to halt with his pledge to “stop the boats”.
Habibullah, whose name has been changed to protect his family in Afghanistan, arrived in Britain following a year-long tumultuous journey from Iran through Europe, which culminated in him crossing to these shores from France in a dinghy.
“I never let down the British forces, I risked my life to help them. We’ve been for so many operations together, I was always there for them, but they let me down when I came to their country,” he said.