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UK Special Forces blocked Afghan troops they had fought alongside from relocating to the UK after the Taliban seized power, BBC Panorama can reveal.

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Leaked documents show special forces rejected applications despite some containing compelling evidence of service alongside the British military.

Afghan commandos accompanied British special forces on some of the most dangerous missions of the conflict.

The Ministry of Defence said it was conducting an independent review.

When the Taliban swept to power in August 2021, members of Afghan Special Forces units CF 333 and ATF 444 – known as the “Triples” – were among the groups most at risk of reprisal, having supported UK Special Forces in their fight against the Taliban.

They were eligible to apply for resettlement to the UK under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (Arap) scheme, but hundreds had their applications rejected. Dozens have reportedly been beaten, tortured, or killed by the Taliban since.

The Armed Forces Minister, James Heappey, has now announced a review of about 2,000 applications after admitting that the decision-making process behind some rejections was “not robust”.

The documents seen by Panorama include a Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) document showing that since at least 2023 all Triples applications reaching a basic threshold were sent to UK Special Forces for approval or denial of sponsorship.

The SOP document, which was obtained by the investigative newsroom Lighthouse Reports and shared with Panorama, shows that if UK Special Forces denied sponsorship, the applicant was automatically deemed ineligible and a rejection letter was sent out.

Panorama has also seen internal Ministry of Defence emails in which civil servants administering the relocation scheme describe being unable to challenge special forces’ rejections, even when they believed there was a strong case for resettlement.

British/Afghan special forcesIMAGE SOURCE,BEN TAGGART

Image caption,

British and Afghan Special Forces fought together in Afghanistan.

Former members of the SAS, the army’s elite special forces regiment, have now told Panorama that they believe the veto outlined in the SOP document represents a clear conflict of interest for UK Special Forces.

The veto gave special forces decision-making power over applications at a time when a public inquiry in the UK was investigating allegations that SAS soldiers had committed war crimes on operations in Afghanistan where the Triples units were present.

The public inquiry has the power to compel witnesses who are in the UK, but not non-UK nationals who are overseas. If the Afghan Special Forces members were in the UK they could be asked to provide potentially significant evidence.

“It’s a clear conflict of interest,” said one former UK Special Forces officer.

“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.”

Another former UK Special Forces officer who spoke to the BBC said: “At best it’s not appropriate, at worst it looks like they’re trying to cover their tracks.”

A spokesperson for the public inquiry team told Panorama that it could not comment on specific witnesses but was “aware of the recent press articles about the Triples” and would “continue to ask anyone with relevant information to come forward”.

Panorama has spoken to former members of the Triples who had their relocation applications rejected in 2023 and say they witnessed or reported what appeared to them to be war crimes committed by UK Special Forces.

We have also seen the documents submitted by two former Triples officers along with their applications to the Arap scheme. They include:

  • An official invitation to SAS headquarters in Hereford to give a talk about the Triples
  • Letters from the British embassy regarding pay
  • Photographs with two directors of UK Special Forces and a British ambassador
  • Photographs with Gen David Petraeus, commander of the Nato coalition and all US forces in Afghanistan
  • A letter from a British officer describing an applicant as part of the “UK mentored Afghan SF” unit
  • Previous visas to enter the UK

The officers behind these applications were both denied entry to the UK.

They told Panorama they are now in hiding in Afghanistan, moving from house to house, unable to stay with their families or to work.

One said he had been interrogated and beaten by the Taliban before he went on the run, the other said he had escaped first but that he heard the Taliban had gone to his home looking for him.

“I’m living in a very bad situation. I am in hiding and mostly my family can’t live together and we cannot go out and we cannot work,” he said.

“I was sure that my British colleagues and friends, who we worked for several years alongside, would help me to evacuate to safety. Now I feel that the sacrifices I made have been forgotten.

“I feel I have been left alone in the midst of hell.”

Both officers worked on SAS operations which are now under scrutiny by the public inquiry.

One made a number of complaints to the British military at the time of those operations. He alleged that the SAS had committed war crimes, and even withdrew his men from their supporting role in SAS operations in protest at what he alleged were extrajudicial killings of Afghan civilians.

That move set off a crisis within UK Special Forces, forcing senior British officers to attempt to defuse the situation and bring the Afghan partner units back on side.

Photographs submitted as evidence showed applicants in meetings with and alongside senior British military figures, including former Director Special Forces Gwyn Jenkins.

Lawyers who have worked to support former members of the Triples in their applications said that there had been a significant increase in the number being rejected under the Arap scheme.

“A large number of Triples contacted us having been rejected in 2023, despite providing ample evidence of their work with the UK Special Forces in Afghanistan and the clear, serious risks they continue to face,” said Erin Alcock, a lawyer at Leigh Day.

The applications appeared to have been rejected under a “blanket policy”, Ms Alcock alleged.

The Ministry of Defence told Panorama that final decisions are made by Arap caseworkers and that cases deemed eligible are then sent for ministerial approval.

But it did not dispute that UK Special Forces had the power to reject applications in 2023.

A 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.

“The review is being carried out by independent staff who have not previously worked on these applications.”

Image caption,

A team photograph that showed members of the Triples, who have been obscured from view, alongside the British ambassador and US General David Petraeus. The Triples’ applications were later rejected

Mr Heappey, the Armed Forces Minister, told Parliament that Triples applications had been denied in part because the government did “not hold comprehensive employment or payment records in the same way as we do for other applicants”.

But military figures who served alongside the Triples dismissed the minister’s account, saying that the Afghan forces were paid directly by the British and that records were kept for every payment.

“I’ve seen spreadsheets where it’s very clear we paid them, not just for their service but for their skills, rank, and number of operations,” said one former officer.

“These guys were out on the ground most days for 20 years, fighting and dying and putting their lives on the line for us, in operations that we directed they should take part in,” he said.

A former special forces officer told the BBC that Mr Heappey had “either been mis-briefed or misled. Either way, it shows a real lack of professional curiosity on his part”.

UK Special Forces have previously been accused of preventing military investigators from questioning Afghan partner units about alleged war crimes committed by the SAS.

Former senior investigators from the Royal Military Police (RMP) told the BBC that special forces leadership repeatedly stood in the way of them interviewing Afghan troops in the course of their investigations between 2012 and 2019.

“We had identified the Afghan partner forces working alongside UKSF as being potentially key witnesses, but whenever we tried to conduct interviews, special forces leadership made it almost impossible,” said one former senior RMP investigator.

The RMP felt so obstructed in their inquiries that in 2014 it formally requested the military prosecutor charge a high-ranking UK Special Forces officer with perverting the course of justice after he terminated an interview with an Afghan soldier regarding allegations of war crimes – a case which the Service Prosecuting Authority declined to take up.

SOURCE: BBC NEWS