UK weapons sent to Afghanistan could fall into Taliban hands, government warned

British munitions worth £151m exported to Afghanistan over past decade, figures show

Adam Forrest
Friday 03 September 2021 09:57
comments
Tom Tugendhat warns that fall of Afghanistan is ‘beginning of new stage of chaos’

Millions of pounds worth of British arms exported to Afghanistan could end up in the hands of Taliban and terrorist groups in the region, campaigners have warned.

Figures collated by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) show the UK has sent weapons, ammunition and other military equipment worth £151m to Afghanistan since the beginning of 2008.

Despite the drawdown of UK forces over the past decade, arms have continued to be exported for use by Afghan soldiers, Afghan police and British troops who remained in the country until the final withdrawal at the end of August.

The UK approved £22m in munitions export licenses to Afghanistan during 2020, despite US government signing a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban last February.

Katie Fallon, a coordinator for CAAT, said the UK’s “short-sighted approach to arms export licensing will leave a brutal scar on the lives of Afghan civilians, women, and children in particular, for decades to come”.

The anti-arms campaigner added: “The government needs to urgently investigate which end users now have control over these military goods, and why the arms export licensing criteria in place have utterly failed to account for what was clearly a very high risk.”

Labour also pointed to the risk that British-made weapons could end up being sold on to terrorist groups, as military leaders warn that the Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, Isis-K, poses a threat to Britain.

“There is a clear risk of high-tech equipment falling into the hands of the Taliban, or worse, Isis-K and other terror groups,” said shadow defence secretary John Healey – adding that the prevention of illegal arms sales would have to be part of the strategy in dealing with Afghanistan.

The Labour MP added: “While they may not have the technical skills to operate many of these weapons systems, the black market value could be a significant source of income to fuel their operations.”

Some £72m worth of explosives were licensed for export to Afghanistan since 2008, along with £24m-worth of armoured vehicles, guns worth £4.4m and ammunition worth £2.8m.

Trevor Taylor, expert at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told Politico that UK and US weapons in Afghanistan could boost the Taliban – but said Islamist militant groups may struggle to use more technical items. “The Taliban have obviously got their hands on a chunk of material,” he said.

CAAT claimed the government had not been careful enough with export licensing risk assessments for Afghanistan in recent years.

“Either the government is incapable of applying their own regulations and accurately evaluating risk, or the criteria as written do not allow for even the most modest consideration of the long-term consequences of exporting weapons to a deeply unstable country,” said Ms Fallon.

A government spokesperson said the Department for International Trade had revoked all relevant arms export licenses “to remove Afghanistan as a permitted destination”.

“The UK takes its export control responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most robust and transparent export regimes in the world,” the spokesperson added. “We continue to monitor the situation closely and keep our licenses under constant review.”

A Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson added: “As part of our withdrawal we have been recovering equipment but at all times have prioritised the safe evacuation of people over equipment. The Ministry of Defence did not leave any weapons, ammunition or sensitive IT in Kabul following [the evacuation operation].”

Meanwhile, as part of our Refugees Welcome campaign, The Independent has launched a petition urging the UK government to be more ambitious in its plans to take in Afghan refugees.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments