LONDON British military and political figures on Saturday called on the government to offer asylum to hundreds of Afghan interpreters at risk of Taliban reprisals now that the soldiers they helped start pulling out of the country.
In an open letter to the Times newspaper, signatories including Britain's former army chief said there were about 600 interpreters helping British troops in Afghanistan. To date, about 20 have been killed in action and dozens more wounded.
They said Britain had a "moral obligation" to protect these men, many of whom now fear retaliation from Taliban insurgents as the troops prepare for a full exit from the country by the end of 2014.
"The British military's job in Afghanistan would have been impossible without local interpreters, who have risked their lives and made extraordinary sacrifices just like British soldiers," the letter read.
The signatories included General Mike Jackson, former head of Britain's army, Paddy Ashdown, a former high representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute defence think-tank.
They said the current system of dealing with asylum claims by Afghans on a case-by-case basis was "slow, not transparent and offers no guarantee of success".
"After the Iraq War the UK gave Iraqi interpreters asylum in this country, but - shamefully - Britain is the only NATO country yet to do this for Afghan interpreters," they said.
All of Britain's 9,000 combat troops in Afghanistan are due to leave the country by the end of 2014, with nearly half of them expected to pull out this year.
Britain's Foreign Office said processes had been set up to ensure that the service provided by former interpreters working with troops is taken into account when individuals apply for asylum in the UK.
"People who have put their life on the line for the United Kingdom will not be abandoned," a spokesman said.
(Reporting by Natalie Huet; Editing by Stephen Powell)