In July 2010, near the end of my two-year tour as defence attaché in Kabul, I was phoned by the commander of our field hospital in Camp Bastion. ‘Simon’, he said. ‘We’ve an interpreter here, a triple amputee, and we can’t do anything more for him – we’re a field hospital, and don’t do definitive care.’ I was puzzled. ‘Surely, you just evacuate him back to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham, like all our other badly wounded soldiers, and they can look after him there?’ He explained that he couldn’t – the Home Office was worried that the interpreter, or his companion, might claim asylum.
This began my involvement in the scandal of the way Britain has treated Afghan interpreters who served alongside the British army. These interpreters were essential to our operation in Afghanistan, and they risked their lives on a daily basis trying to help our troops. Now, they face being killed by the Taliban as they gain ground in Afghanistan, unless Britain changes its policies and allows them all to flee to the UK.
The position of interpreters who helped Britain could not be more perilous. These individuals are seen by the Taliban and Isis not only as traitors to Afghanistan but also, because they supported the ‘kufr’ (the infidel), as traitors to Islam as well. Over 300 interpreters have been murdered by the Taliban since 2014. Many more have been intimidated out of their homes or – because the Taliban often wreak revenge on their families as well – been thrown out by their communities. In some cases, Britain has, in effect, colluded in this by encouraging interpreters to move to Kabul, claiming that they ‘could hide in plain sight’ in a city of 5 million, ignoring the way that Kabul itself is segregated along ethnic lines, which makes hiding almost impossible.
The solution, obvious to all, but reluctantly embraced by politicians and officialdom, is to offer all those who worked with the British army sanctuary in the UK. This is even more obvious now that the United States and Nato are finally withdrawing from the country.
The issue has been rumbling on for years. In 2016, the late Paddy Ashdown described our decision to refuse entry to an Afghan interpreter as an ‘act of shame in our nation dishonouring the service these people have given’. But the disquiet over the scandal culminated this week in a rare public intervention from senior military officers and officials: five former chiefs of defence staff, a former national security adviser and head of the Diplomatic Service, and 25 other senior officers wrote to the Prime Minister, warning him that the current relocation scheme for Afghan interpreters is not fit for purpose, with hundreds still unable to escape to the UK.
To be fair to the government, its latest Afghan policy (amended after President Joe Biden announced that America was withdrawing from the country) is a considerable improvement on its predecessors. The government now accepts that sanctuary should be the default option for former interpreters and those who were obviously working for the UK. It still seems though that on the ground in Afghanistan there is an unhealthy bureaucratic desire to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s to prevent successful applications. Lurking beneath these decisions, one also senses, is the ghost of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy which guided the first policy iterations.
Around 2,500 interpreters served alongside the British army in Afghanistan. Of those, barely one fifth were offered relocation before this year, and only if they met very specific and strict eligibility criteria. Additionally, a huge number – around 35 per cent – had been dismissed from the army over the years. Under the previous resettlement scheme this meant they were automatically barred from being able to relocate to the UK. The net effect of a severely restricted eligibility window, and a blanket policy of not permitting those dismissed from the army to apply for resettlement, was to reduce the potential immigrant group considerably – a frankly contemptible way to treat those who had served so bravely alongside our forces.
Under the latest resettlement scheme, the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP), Afghan interpreters who were dismissed from the army are now able to apply for sanctuary, but their applications are still often being unreasonably rejected. Records of their dismissal from the army are often non-existent, there is no appeal system, and the process is not independent, with the Ministry of Defence marking its own homework. Given that denying someone sanctuary may well lead to their death at the hands of the Taliban, this is an unacceptable situation.
The UK has dragged its feet for the past seven years when it comes to dealing with the Afghan interpreters, but now time is running out. The Taliban are gaining more and more territory in the country and there is a substantial risk that they will overthrow the Afghan government. We have, at best, two short months to relocate those in danger. The United States has led the way by being prepared to move all those applying for sanctuary in the US to a third country, where their applications can be processed in safety. We should consider doing the same. Despite the recent good work of the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and many of their officials, we are not there yet. If we don’t act soon this scandal will soon become a tragedy for the Afghans who worked with the British army, to our everlasting dishonour.