Struan Stevenson: We still haven’t learned the lessons of the arms trade. And the next one could be costly

Joe Biden’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan possibly marked the biggest military defeat in American history, although with Korea, Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba, there is plenty of competition for the title.

President Biden’s decision to end the ‘forever war’ has certainly handed a windfall to the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies. The US left behind $83 billion worth of weapons, including around 208 aircraft, 2,000 armoured vehicles, 600,000 small arms, 32,000 grenades, mortars, rockets and bombs and 30 million rounds of ammunition.

Experts from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have flooded into Afghanistan, examining the hardware and marking the items they want sent back to Tehran. Already convoys of trucks carrying captured American military vehicles have been seen crossing the border to Iran. In due course, the most sophisticated US weaponry will be reverse-engineered and sold to Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, the vicious Shi’ia militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Even Russia and China are taking a close interest. As an exercise in re-arming America’s enemies, Joe Biden has excelled.

While American and British armchair generals debate the pros and cons of the disastrous military strategy in Afghanistan, few will have stopped to consider the implications of the conflict in terms of its effect on the international arms trade. It seems as if history has a nasty habit of repeating itself each time the US and UK get involved in a war, or each time they sell military equipment to dubious allies.

The US abandoned a treasure trove of weapons and hardware when they bolted from Vietnam in 1975. Then, during the 1970s, America offered military equipment and assistance to the Shah of Iran, only to see him ousted by a fundamentalist Islamic revolt in 1979, led by the fanatical Ayatollah Khomeini. The mullahs were very grateful to discover that they had fallen heir to a fleet of powerful, new F-16 fighter jets and other modern weaponry courtesy of the US.

To help redress the balance, Britain and its allies proceeded to supply Saddam Hussein with arms to assist Iraq in its long war against Iran. However, Saddam then used these weapons to help his army invade Kuwait. As a result, US and UK forces had to face their own weapons during the Gulf War and the liberation of Kuwait.

When the US intervened in Somalia in 1992, they faced American-made M-16 rifles, machine guns, howitzers, armoured personnel carriers and anti-tank missiles, part of a $154million shipment of weapons earlier supplied to Somalia by the US government. In Afghanistan, history has been repeated yet again. When US and UK forces launched their ‘war on terror’ following the 9/11 terrorist atrocities in America, they immediately faced a formidable array of weapons in the hands of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, such as Stinger anti-aircraft weapons and Barrett M82A1 sniper rifles. These weapons had been sold to the Mujahidin in the 1980s by Britain and America, to assist them in their fight against the Soviet army.

We never seem to learn and our next lesson may be a costly one. The ongoing sale of arms to Pakistan in particular, should cause grave concern in the West. Imran Khan, the Pakistani Prime Minister, has openly congratulated the Taliban for “breaking the chains of slavery” in ousting the Americans and British from Afghanistan. He has been accused of allowing the Taliban to use Pakistan as a safe-haven during the 20-year conflict and of supplying them with military equipment and intelligence during their rapid advance to Kabul this summer.

Thousands of heavily armed Pakistani fighters have joined the Taliban. With around four million Afghan refugees fleeing to Pakistan and placing a considerable strain on the already fragile economy, the danger of a rising tide of Islamist anger turning on the government is ever present.

Against this unstable and volcanic background, Imran Khan is trying to keep the lid on the Pakistani powder-keg and cling to power. Should he be overthrown, the Western allies may face, for the first time, an Islamic fundamentalist enemy armed with nuclear weapons and a deadly arsenal of modern US and UK-built military equipment.

Now more than ever, it is vital that the US and UK should apply a restrictive code of conduct on the sale and export of arms, especially to countries neighbouring Afghanistan like Pakistan, which spends seven times more on arms than it does on schools. British ministers and senior civil servants have approved the sale of arms to nearly 80% of countries subject to arms embargos, trade sanctions or other restrictions over the past five years. UK military hardware has gone to 58 countries of the 73 listed as subject to restrictions by the Department for International Trade (DIT). Arms sales to Pakistan were accelerated when Theresa May was Prime Minister.

It is a sad fact that the world today spends 250 times more on arms than we do on peacekeeping. More than 28 million people have been killed in wars since 1945, of whom 84 per cent were civilians. A further 26 million have been forced to flee their homes and become displaced people within their own countries; 20 million more have become refugees abroad, all as a result of conflict. War is the ultimate failure of mankind. The sale of arms, ammunition and military hardware to unscrupulous countries and non-state armed militias, fuels and intensifies violent conflict, leading to widespread genocide, death, destruction, misery and human rights violations. We need to think again.

The international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), signed by 110 states, was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2013 and came into force in December 2014. The ATT regulates the international trade in conventional arms and seeks to establish international standards governing arms transfers; 31 of the countries who signed the treaty have not yet ratified it. Several countries, including Russia, refused to sign the treaty. America has flip-flopped, with Obama signing, Trump revoking and Biden pledging to re-join.

As President Kennedy famously said: “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind”.

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The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992