UK special forces blocked resettlement applications from elite Afghan troops

<span>Afghan special forces patrol during an operation against Taliban militants in October 2019, in Helmand province.</span><span>Photograph: Watan Yar/EPA</span>
Afghan special forces patrol during an operation against Taliban militants in October 2019, in Helmand province.Photograph: Watan Yar/EPA

Elite Afghan commandos who fought alongside the British military have had their applications to relocate blocked by UK special forces despite evidence that they had served alongside them in dangerous missions against the Taliban.

Documents leaked and shared with BBC Panorama show that Britain’s secretive special forces were given a veto power over resettlement, prompting claims that hundreds of Afghan veterans have been left in limbo or danger in their native country.

In some cases, the documents show Ministry of Defence officials tried to challenge the reasons for rejection, but were told they could not do as so as a decision on whether or not to sponsor resettlement by the British military unit was deemed final.

The Ministry of Defence is already conducting a review, but there are also accusations of a conflict of interest at a time when a public inquiry is investigating the conduct of the SAS in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013.

Members of the Afghan 333 and 444 units, known as the Triples, who are in the UK could in theory be asked to give evidence if they were present on contentious SAS night raids, where it is alleged 80 civilians were killed in cold blood in Helmand province between 2010 and 2013.

“At a time when certain actions by UK special forces are under investigation by a public inquiry, their headquarters also had the power to prevent former Afghan special forces colleagues and potential witnesses to these actions from getting safely to the UK,” one former UK special forces officer told the BBC.

On Tuesday, the public inquiry will hear evidence from Johnny Mercer, the minister for veterans’ affairs, who is expected to say that he believed there were credible war crimes allegations against British forces and that it was a mistake to shut down the Operation Northmoor military police investigation in 2019.

Previous sessions of the inquiry have heard allegations that 11 Afghans were shot dead in their sleep in two night raids in 2011 and 2012, part of a broader policy of policy of “executing Afghan males of fighting age” when they posed no immediate threat to SAS soldiers.

It is also examining whether there was a subsequent cover-up of the events, including why the contents of an SAS email server were deleted in 2016, in such a way its contents could not be recovered, without being passed to the Royal Military Police as had been promised by the military.

The Afghan 333 commando unit was created originally at the request of the UK Foreign Office to oppose narcotics production while the 444 was established with the support of the Ministry of Defence as a counter-terror force. Both regularly fought alongside British forces, and were at times directly paid by the UK.

But while about 400 Triples veterans were brought to the UK shortly after the hasty western withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, dozens or more cases have subsequently been rejected in what lawyers representing them believe amounted to a blanket ban.

Earlier this month, James Heappey, the armed forces minister, announced there would be a review of outstanding resettlement claims because there had been “demonstrated instances of inconsistent application”. The review team would be independent of original decision makers, he told the Commons.

Labour estimates that 200 Afghans, former members of the units, face imminent deportation from Pakistan to Afghanistan. At least six members of the Triples are reported to have been murdered by the Taliban since the withdrawal from Kabul, said Luke Pollard, a junior shadow defence minister.

Documents relating to the public inquiry have been collated at a new website, Unredacted, which seeks to create a new public resource of national security material. It includes three briefings summarising the work of the inquiry so far.

Sam Raphael, a professor of international relations at the University of Westminster, which is behind the new web archive, said it aimed to “provide the fullest public account to date of the UKSF operations involving suspicious killings and the extent to which senior UKSF personnel had knowledge” of the allegations.

The Ministry of Defence said it did not comment on the SAS or other special forces. An MoD spokesperson said: “We are conducting an independent, case-by-case review of all applications from former members of Afghan specialist units, which includes applications from the Triples. This review will consider all available evidence, including that provided by third parties.”