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UK arms exports to Afghanistan (2012-2022)

Country Overview

Situated at the cross-road of Central Asia and South Asia, Afghanistan has a population of over 40 million which is governed by the Taliban’s regime, formally known as The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. 

Following the September 11 attacks in 2001, the United States and coalition forces launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, aimed at overthrowing the Taliban regime and dismantling Al-Qaeda, which resulted in a 20-year conflict. After defeating the Taliban government, an Afghan interim government was established. Three years later, in 2004, Afghanistan held its first-ever presidential elections. Despite this, nationwide conflict continued incessantly for a decade, as Taliban insurgents launched a series of attacks, consequently making territorial gains over this time.

On September 29th, 2014, Ashraf Ghani, was nominated as president in the nation’s first democratic elections; two days later the country signed Bilateral Security Agreements (BSA) with the US and NATO respectively, ending the international combat mission and removing most foreign forces. The withdrawal left the Afghan government unequipped to assert control and stability, with insurgency groups such as the Taliban and ISIS seizing this opportunity by increasing their attacks, leading to a significant escalation in violence across the country.

The Taliban’s reinstatement to power was confirmed by negotiations with the U.S. whereby a treaty was signed on February 29th, 2020. The terms of the agreement stipulated the withdrawal of U.S. occupation on the condition that the Taliban would pursue peaceful negotiations with the Afghan government and prevent members of al-Qaeda and ISIS from operating within the territory. This contract facilitated the Taliban’s prompt rise to power in August 2021, as twenty years of U.S. intervention officially concluded on the 31st of August 2021. 

Despite the peace agreement signed in February 2020 the Taliban launched a major offensive, capturing several key cities and territories. The country’s already fragile environment continued to be exacerbated by the Covid-19 epidemic, leading to a sharp decline in the economy and worsening the already grave humanitarian crisis. 

Afghanistan’s recent history, marked by profound human rights abuses, has had a devastating impact on civilians, inspiring mass migration. The country has amassed one of the largest displaced populations worldwide, exceeded only by Syria and Colombia. 

The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan had agreed to a range of international treaties, including the UN Convention Against Torture and the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The latter was endorsed on the 29th July 2020.

How many arms export licences did the UK issue Afghanistan between 2012 and 2022? 

 Overall, from 2012-2022, the UK government granted Afghanistan a total sum of 211 limited-value “standard” military export licences.  The numbers of approved export licences during this period have been relatively inconsistent. In 2012, 42 licences valued at £10.6m were afforded to Afghanistan for military use. Comparatively, in 2017, there were merely 12 licences approved, however, these amounted to £19.3m worth of goods. 

What is the total value of those exports in GBP?   

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2023

In total, from 2012-2022, there were £99m worth of approved military export licences issued from the UK to Afghanistan. Due to the complexity of the conflict, the value of licenses issued per year from 2012-2022 has been highly variable, with a value of £11m in 2012, £8.7m in 2013, and a decrease to 3.8 in 2014, when Kabul signed the BSA agreement with Washington and NATO. 

2020 highlighted the highest value of licences, when £22m worth of licenses for military equipment was granted, mainly to support the Afghan security forces to counter the resurgence of Taliban and ISIS violence. Whilst exports decreased drastically in the following year once the Taliban returned to power, they did not cease and continued to account for almost £1m. It is unsure why this happened and might be the issuance of historic licenses.

Overall, an average of £9.9m in military export licenses were issued per year over the decade (2012-2022) from the UK to Afghanistan. 

What are the top 10 types of arms export licences Britain is selling to Afghanistan?

The data above refers to the approved (including revoked) of direct and for corporation UK-Afghan military (single-use) export (permanent and temporary) licences. Most military items, exported to Afghanistan from the UK during 2012-2022, are designed to support a conventional war. This includes body armour and components, military helmets, small arms ammunition, and assault rifles and components. 

The top ten military weapon licenses, in accordance with such parameters, are listed below.

The top ten export licenses sold by the UK to Afghanistan from 2012 to 2021Total number of licenses
Body armour58
Military helmets56
Small arms ammunition32
Components for body armour56
Components for assault rifles31
Assault rifles23
Components for pistols22
Pistols18
All-wheel drive vehicles with ballistic protection17
Machine guns12
Top three licenses exported to Afghanistan from the UK between 2012-2022 by ratingValue of limited licensesNumber of limited licensesNumber of unlimited licenses
ML4 ‒ Grenades, bombs, missiles, countermeasures£64m388
ML6 – Armoured vehicles, tanks£14m2014
ML5 ‒ Target acquisition, weapon control and countermeasure systems£5.9m43
Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2023

Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?

Afghanistan was, and regrettably continues to be, an extremely unstable country. The period, 2012-2022 was characterised by the presence of several active armed groups, pro-government forces, the Taliban and ISIS, who frequently carried out armed attacks, ranging from using explosives and suicide bombings to ground fighting and revenge killings. When, on August 15th, 2021, the American-led coalition in Afghanistan fell, witnessing the withdrawal of U.S. troops and their NATO partners, the Taliban re-established their governing, totalitarian rule. 

Looking at the “War on Terror”, the UK government has approved £151m worth of military export licences, supporting U.S. forces and Ghani’s government in their unanimous plight to diminish the Taliban’s influence. Despite this significant investment, the Taliban were able to seize most of Afghanistan from Ghani’s Government in a matter of weeks, once NATO’s Resolute Support Mission terminated on 12th July. 

The UK sales of arms to Afghanistan from 2012-2022 is a matter of deep concern for two reasons. First, the reinforcement of military resources in a politically unstable country increased the levels of violence and led to a high number of civilian deaths. The Taliban and Ghani’s security forces have both been accused of committing human rights abuses, both responsible for killing and injuring civilians in indiscriminate mortar and rocket attacks. Civilian casualties from the former government forces’ airstrikes had reportedly doubled in the first half of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.  In 2021, The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported 5,183 civilian casualties between January and June, a 47% increase compared to the first half of 2020 when 45% of attacks were committed by the Taliban. That period involved the death of 1,682 children; the highest number recorded in Afghanistan by UNAMA in a 6-month period.

Second, under Ashraf Ghani’s leadership, the regime’s security forces produced a troubling record of human rights abuses. Pro-government groups, including the Afghan National Security Forces, carried out a range of serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture and even the reproted sexual abuse of children. Their actions contributed to at least 25% of total reported civilian casualties.  The U.S. Department of State acknowledged the Afghan security forces “occasionally acted independently,” provoking the expansion of various illegal militia groups, their activities have been denounced by Human Rights Watch due to their pervasive and amoral threat to the civilian population.

Notably, between 2011-2020, the UK approved some £16.8bn worth of arms and military export licenses to 39 of the 53 countries with concerning record on human rights, including Afghanistan, a country which the Global Peace Index 2021, named the least peaceful country in the world. The approval of such weapons for military use by the UK government may have then aided and abetted a brutal regime, a problematic fact given that ground fighting of Ghani’s forces were reportedly among the biggest perpetrators of mass civilian casualties. 

Particularly since the Taliban take over in 2021, international human rights bodies have condemned the alarming increase of human rights violations include forced disappearances, media crackdowns, extrajudicial killings, torture and prohibitions on women and girls’ education. No foreign government has yet recognised the legitimacy of the Taliban rule.

The British government no longer grants export licenses to Afghanistan.

What has the British government said about these concerns? 
The British government has demonstrated concern over the inadequate protection of women’s rights, the use of torture and mistreatment taking place in detention centres, and the weak rule of law in Afghanistan. There is still a large gap between the de jure rules and the de facto practice of the rule of law in Afghanistan, an issue pre-existing the Taliban’s 2021 governmental reinstalment. 

In 2016 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said: “a rising number (of the civilian casualties, ed.) was a result of Afghanistan National Defence and Security Forces actions.” In the same report, the government confirmed that it would continue to support the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission “to increase its capacity to investigate allegations of abuse by security forces.” In 2017, the FCO attributed most of the civilian harm to the Taliban and ISIS, highlighting that the UK would continue to “support the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, including advising the Afghan Air Force and security ministries”. 

The rise in arms export licences, in either/both the value and the amount approved, since 2017, is likely a result of this policy combined with the election of Theresa May, Brexit, and the rising pressure on foreign governments involved in the war to leave Afghanistan. It is, however, concerning that the UK government failed to recognise that the increased presence of arms in Afghanistan, a problem, especially regarding human rights violations. Where these weapons ended up and if they are now in the arms of the Taliban is unknown.

The UK’s approval and export of military licences has frequently proved to be problematic. Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) elaborates on this, noting that such occurrences “…haven’t happened by accident. None of these arms sales would have been possible without the direct support of (former Prime Minister) Boris Johnson and his colleagues.”

In 2021, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, defended the UK’s two decades of military action in Afghanistan, saying “if anyone is tempted to say that we have achieved nothing in that country in 20 years, tell them that our armed forces and those of our allies enabled 3.6 million girls to go to school.” Later adding, “tell them that this country, and the Western world, were protected from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan throughout that period. And tell them that we have just mounted the biggest humanitarian airlift in recent history.”