Sun 5 December 2021

The Government can’t account for thousands of assault weapons, and two military helicopters, that it previously exported to the country, Sascha Lavin reports

The Government has been labelled as “irresponsible” 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 (FOI) request sent by the research charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) revealed that 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 the country. 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. 

Conflict and Chaos

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

Analysis by AOAV also revealed that licences were granted for 9,000 assault rifles to be exported to Afghanistan 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 after Biden made his declaration, 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 take over the country. 

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. As Katharine Quarmby has written for Byline Times, thousands of asylum seekers have since made their way to the UK – facing harrowing conditions.

This isn’t the first time that the MoD has lost track of its weapons. In 2014, in response to an FOI request, the department 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.

If such lost weapons, though, land in the hands of militants in Afghanistan, they threaten to add further to the chaos in the country. 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.

When Western countries stopped sending weapons after Taliban takeover 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.

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 more than 200,000 assault rifles (non AK47), almost 100,000 AK47s, 57,000 machine guns, and over 9,000 sniper rifles. 

Sam Perlo-Freeman, a spokesperson at the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) explained that the UK’s “irresponsible” arms exports helped the Taliban swiftly take power earlier this year, as weapons were supplied with little oversight. 

“Now many of these arms have fallen into the hands of the Taliban and other armed groups”, he told Byline Intelligence Team. “This is sadly typical of the policy of the UK Government, which exports arms with little regard for how they will be used or who they will end up with.”


Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.

Thank you for reading this article

New to Byline Times? Find out more about us


A new type of newspaper – independent, fearless, outside the system. Fund a better media.

Don’t miss a story…

Our leading investigations include Brexit, Empire & the culture war, Russian interference, Coronavirus, cronyism and far right radicalisation. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.

More stories filed under Byline Intelligence Team

More stories filed under Fact