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UK arms exports to Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Country overview
The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, located in South Asia, borders Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and China; and has a population of around 34 million. Afghanistan is a presidential republic, with a recent constitution created in 2004. In 2014, Ashraf Ghani was directly elected as president in the country’s first democratic elections. From 1996, Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban, this ended with the US-led military intervention in 2001. The continuing conflict between the international forces, the Taliban and ISIS has a disastrous effect on civilians and, as a result, the country has one of the largest forcibly displaced populations in the world, exceeded only by Syria and Colombia.

As of 2018, Afghanistan has neither signed nor ratified the Arms Trade Treaty. However, the country has acceded to a range of international treaties, including the UN Convention Against Torture.

How many licences for the sale of arms to Afghanistan has the UK issued between 2008 and 2017?
After peaking at 152 approved military arms export licences to Afghanistan in 2010, the following years saw a numbers return to those seen in previous years. The numbers of approved export licences from 2008 to 2017 have been reasonably consistent, with an average of 89 per year. However, in 2015 and 2017 there were considerable decreases in the number of approved military arms export licences, with 49 and 34 approved in these years respectively. Nevertheless, the value of these licences in 2017 proved to be considerably high.

In total, from 2008 to 2017, 891 licences were granted to Afghanistan.

What is the total value of those exports in GBP?
After a steadily rising from 2008 to 2011, reaching a peak in 2011 at £15.8m, the sale of military arms to Afghanistan decreased significantly between 2011 and 2016. In 2016, the value of military arms exports to Afghanistan stood at £3.3m – an 80% decrease compared to the levels in 2011. However, this only lasted until 2017, when again there was a huge spike to £19.4m.

In total, from 2008 to 2017, there was £104.7m worth of approved military arms exports from the UK to Afghanistan.

What are the top 10 types of arms export licences Britain is selling to Afghanistan?
Whilst the data given above is just for military exports (single-use), when you consider both military and dual-use exports (dual-licences are permits to control all the material, software and technology that can be used for civil purposes like humanitarian aid, but also for military goals) the top ten export items requiring licences are as below. The majority of the military items exported to Afghanistan are those designed to support a regular war, including body armour, small arms ammunition and assault rifles. However, the sales also included surveillance items, namely equipment using cryptography, which can be used for spying purposes.

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2017

Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?
Afghanistan is an extremely unstable country, characterised by the presence of several active armed groups, including pro-government forces, the Taliban and ISIS. Who frequently carry out armed attacks – ranging from using explosives and suicide bombings to ground fighting.

The conflict has directly affected the civilian population, and the UN Mission in Afghanistan(UNAMA) states that there is “a strong correlation between the use of weapons and civilian casualties”. Violence between 2009 and 2017 has reportedly caused 28,291 civilian casualties and left another 52,366 injured.

Pro-government groups, including the Afghan National Security Forces, are reportedly involved in this violence and were responsible for 20% of the civilian casualties in 2017. The US State Department considers that Afghan security forces “occasionally acted independently” which could be linked to the expansion of illegal militias, recently denounced by Human Rights Watch due to their threat to the civilian population. The security forces are reportedly responsible for carrying out a range of serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and the torture and sexual abuse of children.

The UK arms sales to Afghanistan is a matter of deep concern for two reasons. Firstly, the reinforcement of military capabilities in such an unstable country risks increasing the level of violence and secondly because of the regime’s security forces troubling human rights record. The type of weaponry exported to Afghanistan, mainly conventional items used for battle, are arguably sustaining the Afghan ground force capabilities. This is problematic, taking into account the fact that ground fighting is reportedly among the biggest cause of civilian casualties. Moreover, the regime has not demonstrated a behaviour that inspires trust.

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, as a 2017 FCO report shows.

The British government has also referred to other of violations as a matter of concern in Afghanistan. For instance, in 2016 the 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 affirmed that it would continue to support the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission “to increase its capacity to investigate allegations of abuse by security forces”. However, in 2017, the FCO attributed most of the civilian harm to the Taliban and ISIS, stressing that the UK will 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 since 2017 is likely a result of this policy combined with the election of Theresa May; Brexit; and the fact that many of the foreign governments involved in the war have promised to leave Afghanistan. It is, however, worrying that the UK government does not find the increased presence of arms in Afghanistan a problem, considering the amounting human rights violations and violence against civilians that continue to take place.

Despite this catalogue of harm, the UK still deems it acceptable to sell weapons and arms to the Government of Afghanistan. Human rights abuses continue.
For more from this investigation please go here