Habibullah* was full of pride when, aged 18, he was recruited to serve in Commando Force 333 (CF333), an elite Afghan fighter unit set up, trained and funded by the British. He went on to join high-level missions with British troops in the fight against the Taliban, serving until the fall of Kabul in August 2021.
Unable to board a UK evacuation flight during the West’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and quickly realising that the Taliban knew his address, Habibullah was left with little option but to pay smugglers to help him flee the country – and eventually seek refuge in the UK.
Three years on from his dramatic escape, he is a shell of his former self. For the last year and a half he has been languishing in a dingy shared hotel room in Worcester, living on £9 a week, as he waits for a decision on his UK asylum claim. He crossed the English Channel in a small boat in August 2022, hoping he could build a new life in the UK. “What hurts me most is that despite working closely with British forces, there is no attention given to me,” he says.
The 26-year-old is one of hundreds of Afghan former commandos who served with CF333 and its sister unit Afghan Territorial Force 444 (ATF444) – known collectively as the Triples – who have been denied relocation to the UK, despite being paid by the British and living and working side by side with UK troops. In collaboration with investigative newsroom Lighthouse Reports, The Independent has documented dozens of cases where former members of the Triples have been beaten, tortured or killed by the Taliban after the UK failed to relocate them.
Now, we can reveal that the abandonment of these Afghan commandos has driven a number of them to travel to the UK via dangerous and irregular routes – journeys the prime minister has vowed to bring an end to with his pledge to “stop the boats” – as they see this as their only option of finding safety.
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 the crossing in a dinghy from France.
As part of a unit that had been fighting the Taliban right up until the fall of Kabul, the trained sniper knew he was “the number one enemy for the Taliban”. He had already decided to flee Afghanistan when he got the heartbreaking news that a close friend who also worked in the CF333 unit had been murdered.
He said: “When I heard the news, I was somewhere between Afghanistan and Iran. I was in contact with my friend about my decision to flee. He was trying to convince me to wait for the flights from Kabul because back then there were still some flights evacuating people from Kabul. We thought that our British colleagues would be aware of the risks we were facing and would arrange flights from Kabul airport.
“He was saying I should wait for these flights, but I thought I shouldn’t stay at risk any longer. He was at the house of his brother-in-law when the Taliban killed him. The Taliban must have been following him very closely.”
The 29-year-old was shot dead outside the house by a gunman on a motorcycle. Habibullah described the moment he heard his friend had been killed, saying: “Everyone who worked in these units would expect news about one of us being killed by the Taliban. We were all fearing that reality. Yet when I heard the news I was shocked and I couldn’t believe it. I left so many messages for him hoping that he would get back to me.
“I was waiting for hours hoping he would get back to me. Eventually I accepted it when I saw the pictures of his dead body.”
In the last picture he has of them together, the pair are on a break from a run they had been on. The Afghan government had just collapsed and they knew their lives in the Afghan army would soon change irreparably. “We were remembering those days as good days,” said Habibullah. “We had the sense that this would be our last time together like this. But I had no idea this would be the last time I’d see him.
“After he was killed I realised that we were really under the Taliban surveillance wherever we went.”
On fleeing Afghanistan, he had initially hoped to stay in Iran, but left after discovering that the country was deporting Afghans.
He then crossed the border to Turkey, during which he said he was attacked by armed robbers and had to use the skills he learned while serving in CF333 to escape. While there, he found a month’s work in a factory processing recycled materials, which he said he did “to get shelter”.
But in Turkey, he also saw the authorities trying to round up undocumented Afghans to return them to Afghanistan, so he decided to flee into Europe.
“When I reached Germany and provided my documents to the German authorities, they told me that maybe I’d have a better chance if I went to the UK, because I worked for the Brits. In France, the police also told me that I should go to Britain because I worked for them,” said Habibullah.
He said it “wasn’t easy” to reach the UK from France: “We were using a small boat with 25 capacity, but there were 65-70 people. Halfway to Britain the fuel ran out, the weather was so bad, the boat was struggling. The French Border Force came and rescued us and took us back to France. The second time, we went with the same boat and got to the coast of Britain.”
On arrival in the UK, Habibullah said he was “hopeful” that having worked with the British forces he would be swiftly granted protection. “I was very honest when working with them. I participated in so many operations with them across the country,” he said.
But the Afghan national is still waiting for a decision on his asylum claim almost a year and a half after applying. In 2022 he also sent in an application to the Ministry of Defence’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap) scheme, for Afghans who worked alongside UK forces, but has not heard anything back.
Describing his life in the hotel, Habibullah said: “I’m in a small room shared with another person. There’s a bathroom, three meals per day. They give us £9 for one week. I don’t have a work permit, so I’m not able to work, open a bank account, [and I] can’t go to the gym to fight back my anxiety.
“I stay in this room. It has been so long. I don’t know what’s going to happen. The money they give us for one week is not even enough for an hour’s journey. I am stuck here.”
He said he was worried about the possibility of being deported to Rwanda under the government’s plan to send asylum seekers there: “Everyone who is in the hotel waiting for their documents is worried about this possibility. Sometimes I think I’m full of worries. I have got used to worrying.”
Habibullah said he received two kinds of money from the British while serving in CF333 – one was a monthly stipend, dependent on rank, for which he as a soldier earned around $100 per month – then a $5 stipend for every mission he attended, of which he did around 25 to 30 per month.
“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.
Politicians in all the main parties, as well as current and former military personnel, have been campaigning for the Ministry of Defence to help personnel from the two units.
Luke Pollard MP, Labour’s shadow armed forces minister, said: “Since before the fall of Kabul to today, the government’s treatment of Afghans has been a shameful saga of failure. They failed to deal with the ballooning backlog of Arap applications and have left Afghans in limbo.
“Ministers’ mismanagement of Afghan resettlement continues to be one of the most comprehensive failures of ministerial leadership and competence in recent times. Britain’s moral duty to assist these Afghans is felt most fiercely by the UK forces they served alongside. Enough is enough.”
Tim Willasey-Wilsey, a former diplomat in the Foreign Office who worked with CF333 from 2002 to 2008, said: “It’s been an uphill struggle getting anyone to focus on Habibullah’s case because he came to the UK illegally. But how else was he supposed to come? He had been left on the tarmac at Kabul airport after assisting with the evacuation.
“He had seen a close colleague murdered and he did not have time then to lodge a formal Arap request. Some of these requests have not had replies from London for months and many have been rejected for unknown reasons. The fact that Habibullah still remains loyal to the UK is a source of both great pride and intense shame.”
A government spokesperson said: “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. There is no need for Afghans to risk their lives by taking dangerous and illegal journeys."
*Habibullah is not his real name