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Afghanistan’s weapons cache – a lucrative business for smugglers but trouble for neighbours

The recent collapse of the Western-backed government in Kabul has had many consequences to Afghanistan, but one area that has been under-reported upon is the increased risk of foreign-made weapons being now used to fuel conflict and to violate human rights in neighbouring countries.

Afghanistan has a limited arms manufacturing capacity and has historically relied on the import of foreign-made weapons (FMW), as was the case for the former Afghan National Army (ANA) and police. But it is a country that is awash with arms.

A few years ago, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) published a summary of arms transfers to Afghanistan from United States and other NATO countries.  Data released by the US Department of Defence indicated that over half a million small arms had been sent to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2016.  These transfers, totalling some $981 million, included ammunition and weapons components.

Such a profusion of guns has consequence. For decades, human rights groups have warned of the risks associated with the proliferation of small arms (conventional hand-held firearms such as assault rifles).  Various studies have highlighted the terrible impact of their spread on development prospects and human security.  According to Amnesty International, around 500 people die on average everyday as the result of violence committed using firearms.

It is not surprising then that security analysts and regional governments border Afghanistan, including India, have expressed concern over the potential for FMW to be smuggled out of Afghanistan.  The return of cross-border smuggling, which has been curtailed since 2001, is seen by some as even inevitable. But inevitability is far from even. According to Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at Rand Corp, the country’s neighbours have responded to the risk in different ways, particularly in relation to regional counterterrorism cooperation.

In recent weeks, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, representing post-Soviet states, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Eurasian political and economic alliance, met in Tajikistan to discuss the situation and to explore possible responses.

Simultaneously, the Taliban has reportedly sought to crack-down on weapons and equipment leaving the country.  This comes as reports of foiled smuggling operations continue to be reported by Indian media.  But nothing is so simple and unconfirmed reports emerged on Twitter in August that the Taliban was also shipping weapons and equipment to Pakistan.  It is hard to know what is really happening. The circulation of misinformation has unfortunately obscured the reality of the situation.  Accurate reporting has been further complicated by the lack of reliable data surrounding FMW imports, ANA and police caches, and defence items abandoned by United States in Afghanistan.

Last month a large number of arms were recovered from smugglers attempting to transport FMW into Pakistan when a truck originating in Helmand province was stopped in Kandahar by Taliban.  According to the commander in charge of the operation, the recovered weapons were destined for use by unspecified terrorist groups operating in Pakistan. 

Though this claim cannot be substantiated, the Taliban’s leadership has indicated its intention to prevent terrorist groups from operating within Afghanistan’s borders.  High on this agenda is containing the threat posed by so-called ISIS-K, the regional affiliate of Islamic State.  There are, however, many groups operating in the region which are similarly unconstrained by national borders or formal association with states and state actors. 

This is of particular concern for the Indian government, whose officials and independent security analysts have alluded to potential knock-on effects in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).  Their concern is that FMW could be used to support pan-Islamist insurgencies embolden by the apparent success of the Taliban and potentially armed with some of their spoils.

India, which claims the region as their territory, is also on high alert for terrorist attacks against civilian targets in J&K and beyond.  Memories of the 2007 Mumbai terror attacks loom large.

But India might not be the immediate recipient of such terror. Indian Army officials have also suggested that FMW will, according to reporting by India Today, “create havoc in Pakistan first” before attempts are made to smuggle them into India.  The relationship between the Taliban and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is long standing.  And given their recent support in suppressing the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan’s Panjshir province, the Taliban are in their debt.

The nature of the Taliban’s relationship with ISI is a matter of intense political controversy in the region and of significant interest to Western intelligence services.  However, the extent of their inter-operability and patronage of the Taliban seems to suggest that ISI will enjoy material benefits from the Taliban take over, namely, expropriated or abandoned FMW. 

John Bolton, former military advisor to George W Bush, has warned of the risk to Pakistan’s civilian government.  He suggested in an interview with Channel 4 that ISI may, in collaboration with the Taliban and others, seek to overthrow the government in Islamabad.  This extreme scenario is a worrying one, especially given Pakistan’s nuclear weapons stockpile, however it demonstrates the many dimensions to this crisis.  Such fear-mongering might fuel real life tensions.

The proliferation of weapons in the region also raises both moral and legal questions for the current US administration, the former government of Afghanistan’s chief benefactor. 

Certainly, the US has questions to answer. Between April and June 2021, their government authorised the transfer of $212 million (£156 million) worth of weapons and military equipment to Afghanistan for use by the ANA, including 3 million rounds of ammunition.  Was so much weaponry merited? Commentators, politicians, and independent security analysts have pointed to a number of factors behind the rapid collapse of the Afghan state in August 2021, and much gravitates around the capacity of the ANA as a viable fighting force.  The Taliban, for instance, referred to the ANA as a “rented army” in a recent broadcast interview with the BBC, and the matter of endemic corruption within its ranks has also been prominent.

What is clear is that a lack of credible intelligence, perhaps coupled with the long-standing naivety of Western actors in Afghanistan and a break-down in communication between intelligence actors, resulted in inflated expectations on the part of the current US administration with respect to the resilience of the Afghan state when it authorised recent arms transfers to the ANA.

As a matter of urgency, the question of whether United States was aware at the time of the potential for FMW to be expropriated by the Taliban and others should be addressed.  And, if so, what steps were taken to ensure compliance with international law?

Overall, while analysis by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and others suggests the Taliban will struggle to operationalise many larger military assets, such as HUMVEES, helicopters, and light aircraft, the availability of small arms and their ammunition is a far more serious issue for Afghanistan’s future stability and that of neighbouring countries.  Given the reliability and mobility of FMW, these weapons will, as they have in the past such as with the arming of mujahideen in the 1980s, continue to feature as a major driver of conflict and violence in the region.

The failure of the West to learn from the mistakes of the past comes, once again, at the detriment of regional security and the ability of Afghan civilians and their neighbours to lead peaceful lives.