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At last! Afghan special forces heroes set for sanctuary in UK after government U-turn

Hundreds of Afghan special forces soldiers abandoned by Britain despite risking their lives to fight against the Taliban are finally set to be given sanctuary in the UK in a major victory for The Independent.

Some 400 soldiers who served in two specialist units will have their applications to settle in the UK reviewed after the Ministry of Defence decided to change how it assesses their claims.

The dramatic U-turn comes after a joint investigation by The Independent, Lighthouse Reports and Sky News revealed how soldiers had been subjected to torture and murder at the hands of the Taliban after being denied help by the UK government, despite extensive evidence showing they were paid, trained and worked “shoulder to shoulder” with British special forces.

Afghan commandos fought side-by-side with British soldiers in their war against the Taliban (Supplied)
Afghan commandos fought side-by-side with British soldiers in their war against the Taliban (Supplied)

The two units are known as the Triples because their full titles are the Afghan Commando Force 333 and Afghan Territorial Force 444.

Our six-month long investigation revealed how their cases were not being properly considered 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.

We found that in some cases seemingly no consideration had been given to official certificates and ID cards showing their closeness with the UK special forces (UKSF). In other instances, references from British colleagues and evidence of a payslip from the UK were ignored.

At least six Triples members have been murdered by the Taliban since the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.

Now, after intense lobbying within government,The Independent understands ministers have agreed to review the soldiers’ applications after accepting they were indeed paid by the British.

If successful, the special forces soldiers will be allowed to bring their family members with them to the UK – meaning thousands in fear of their lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan could be given sanctuary.

Campaigners who have supported the soldiers welcomed the news and called on the government to do “everything in its power to relocate these men and their families as soon as possible”. They questioned the integrity of the MoD’s decision-making and raised concerns over the department’s desire to maintain a “case-by-case” review.

Colonel Simon Diggins, a former defence attaché in Kabul, said he was “pleased to hear that the government has committed to review the Triples’ cases and that the MoD has finally acknowledged – as has been long argued by many veterans – that these Afghan soldiers, who were paid by as well as trained and mentored by the UK, deserve our support and sanctuary.”

He added: “I note that there is still a case-by-case review process planned: this must not be used as a delaying tactic as these brave men and their families are at risk. This must take days, not years.”

Timing is critical as up to 200 of the special forces who are living in Pakistan are also facing potential deportation back to Afghanistan if the UK does not relocate them soon.

Many former Triples have been tortured by the Taliban following the takeover (Supplied)
Many former Triples have been tortured by the Taliban following the takeover (Supplied)

Security minister Tom Tugendhat said: “We should never have left our comrades behind. [Veterans minister] Johnny Mercer has been working hard to turn this around.”

A parliamentary statement on the changes is expected this week from the Ministry of Defence.

The Independent also understands that questions have been asked by officials working for the Independent Inquiry relating to Afghanistan, which is investigating alleged war crimes committed by the UK Special Forces in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013, over the UKSF’s unwillingness to approve Triples’ cases for UK resettlement.

When a former member of either the CF333 and ATF444 unit applies for help to the MoD, their case is referred to the UKSF for investigation, we found. According to sources, the UKSF has been obstructing the process and not approving many cases, leading to what were effectively blanket rejections.

It is understood that, before the U-turn, there was a feeling within the MoD that it would be too hard to help the Triples because the UKSF were failing to cooperate. Independent Inquiry officials are particularly interested in the Triples units because they may be able to provide testimony that is relevant to the inquiry, sources say.

Armed forces minister James Heappey has been pressed on the plight of the Triples in the Commons (PA)
Armed forces minister James Heappey has been pressed on the plight of the Triples in the Commons (PA)

Professor Sara de Jong, from charity the Sulha Alliance, said: “This U-turn shows that the government can put things right after they get something wrong. Unfortunately, the special forces cases are not the only wrong decisions that desperately need a review. Our casework of interpreters and labourers also shows a catalogue of errors.”

Sarah Fenby-Dixon, Afghanistan consultant at the Refugee Aid Network, said: “This apparent change in government policy towards the Triples is very welcome and long overdue.

“It is testimony to the tireless campaigning by lawyers, journalists and volunteers who recognised the horrific threats and attacks faced by these men as a direct result of their work alongside UK forces.

“It is now imperative that the government does everything in its power to relocate these men and their families as soon as possible.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said they would not comment “on speculation” and insisted that any Arap applications would be assessed on a “case-by-case basis”.

They added: “We are honouring our commitment to those brave Afghans who supported the UK mission in Afghanistan, and have been granted settled status.

“So far, we have brought around 24,600 people to safety from Afghanistan, including over 15,200 people from the Arap scheme, which is one of the most generous of any country, and thousands of Afghans eligible for our resettlement schemes."