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Are British-sourced weapons fuelling violence in Afghanistan?

Concerns have been raised over allegations that at least 9,000 assault weapons and two military helicopters sent from the UK to Afghanistan have gone missing since the Taliban takeover in August. 

With social media posts of Taliban fighters showing off US military equipment – including a Black Hawk helicopter – there are fears that British exports could have met the same fate. 

A Freedom of Information request sent by the London-based research charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) revealed the Government is unable to confirm whether two Mi-17 transport helicopters have ended up in the hands of Islamist extremists. The helicopters were donated to the Afghan Government by the UK in 2010.

The MoD responded to say they “no longer hold any information regarding the whereabouts of either aircraft”. They declined to say how much such helicopters cost the British public.

The Mi-17 is a Russian-made helicopter currently in production at two factories in Russia. The Mi-17 can be armed with bombs, small arms and cannons, and carries four missile launchers.

The Taliban may also have taken possession of recently donated arms since they swept to power three months ago. 

Increasing Arms Sales

The UK Government ramped-up sales of military equipment to Afghanistan in the final year of the conflict. Now there are very real fears these weapons are unaccounted for. 

Analysis by AOAV also revealed that licences for 9,000 assault rifles to be exported to Afghanistan were granted last year.

This means it is likely that the UK continued to arm Afghanistan even after the chances of a Taliban takeover dramatically increased. In April, President Biden declared it was time “to end America’s longest war” and announced the full withdrawal of American and Nato troops from Afghanistan by September. 

But, two months later, the UK Government authorised the sale of three different types of ammunition to Afghanistan, despite warnings that there was a “significant risk” that terrorist groups could re-establish themselves. 

There have been various reports since the fall of Kabul of Taliban fighters attacking and killing women’s rights activists and men who worked with the British and American forces, NGOs and other organisations. 

This isn’t the first time the MoD has lost track of it’s weapons. In 2014, in response to an FOI sent by AOAV, the department even then admitted it was unable to identify how many British-sourced weapons had been lost in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The MoD then rejected this request on cost grounds, claiming that to calculate the number of missing weapons would require them to examine 10,000 documents.

Adding Fuel to the Fire 

If such lost weapons, though, land in the hands of militants in Afghanistan, they threaten to add further to the chaos there. The head of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), David Beasley, has warned that Afghanistan is heading “to be hell on Earth”, in terms of famine and violence. He made the comments during his first visit to the country since the Taliban took over, earlier this week.

This is in part because when Western countries stopped sending weapons after the Taliban took power in August, they also stopped sending aid. This, the UN warns, risks leaving 23 million Afghans “marching towards starvation” and reliant on support from the WFP. 

But civilians could be even worse off if the vast amount of military equipment donated to Afghanistan by Western powers falls into the hands of Taliban or Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISIK), the self-proclaimed affiliate of Islamic State active in South Asia and Central Asia that has been responsible for a rise in recent attacks on civilians there.

What is clear is that the region is awash with violence. Overall, the UK has authorised £151 million worth of export licences for military equipment to Afghanistan between 2008 to 2021. And AOAV also found that between 2001 and 2016 the US Department of Defence issued contracts for half a million guns to Afghanistan, including over 200,000 assault rifles (non AK47), almost 100,000 AK47s, 57,000 machine guns, and over 9,000 sniper rifles.