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Afghanistan: British Equipment and Training

Volume 814: debated on Thursday 16 September 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what military equipment provided by the United Kingdom to Afghanistan is now in the hands of the Taliban; and what estimate they have made of the number of soldiers fighting for the Taliban who were trained by British instructors.

My Lords, the fluid and uncertain situation on the ground across Afghanistan means that there is no complete assessment of the matériel and equipment that the UK provided to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, which are now in the hands of the Taliban. The vast majority of the equipment provided comprises non-lethal support. We estimate the current strength of the Taliban to be between 35,000 and 75,000. It is not possible to estimate whether any British-trained Afghan National Defense and Security Forces personnel have joined the Taliban.

My Lords, it is not the fault of Her Majesty’s Government that NATO has suffered a humiliating defeat and disaster in the retreat from Kabul. Is there any information about weapons being sold to hostile states or to non-state actors such as the Wagner Group, and does my noble friend have any idea of the value of the British kit that was gifted to the Afghans that has now been lost? Afghanistan and the surrounding area are absolutely awash with weaponry that is in the hands of terrorists, criminals and our enemies.

I do not have the precise information about the value of kit that over the years was handed to the Afghan national security forces. In so far as a limited amount of government equipment was left, some was handed over to our American allies, but no equipment of any military use has been left that may fall into other hands.

My Lords, this is but one of a number of very serious and regrettable consequences of a premature and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some of this weaponry, such as rifles and pistols, and equipment, such as trucks, is pretty easily used, mended and deployed. But there are also, thankfully, modern aircraft and armoured vehicles which tend to need more skilled operators and technical maintenance including regular software updates. This is a NATO problem, not just a UK problem, because this equipment will be sold to the highest bidder and not just possibly used but, more importantly, reverse engineered, which will create very difficult problems for our future deployment of it. What steps are we and our NATO allies taking to monitor and interdict such possibilities?

The noble Lord makes an important point that this is broader than the United Kingdom. As the Chamber will understand, the NATO alliance activity in Afghanistan—obviously by implication of what it was doing—raised an inevitable risk; do you help and try to support, which includes providing equipment? You cannot have a crystal ball to see into the future. As I said earlier, when it became clear the Taliban were taking control of Afghanistan and an evacuation plan had to be conceived, careful thought was given to controlling what was under our control, and that was the equipment that we had. I have explained the situation in relation to that.

My Lords, Afghanistan, like many of the world’s poorest countries, is, as we have just heard, awash with sophisticated weaponry supplied by Britain, the West and other “friendly countries”. Does the Minister agree that the UK’s adding to this misery by hosting a cosy-sounding arms fair to boost income through the killing of innocents is both repugnant and immoral?

With all respect to the noble Lord, I do not recognise what he describes. I think we are all united in support, admiration and respect for what our troops did, as the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said, within the NATO operation in Afghanistan. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the people who served in Afghanistan—150,000 of them—in particular the 457 who lost their lives and those who sustained life-changing injuries. They have achieved improvements and change in Afghanistan that would not otherwise have been possible and I think we should celebrate that.

My Lords, does the Minister accept the warning from the Times in its “remembering 9/11” leader on Saturday, which concluded:

“America’s wars helped to radicalise a generation of Islamists, whose poisonous ideology has spread across the Middle East to Africa, from where new terrorist franchises plot fresh attacks on the West”?

How are the Government planning to protect our country from the terrorist threat of this poisonous ideology?

I share my noble friend’s concern about the ideology, as I think everyone else will in this Chamber. Along with our allies and friends, significantly, the United States, we act to try to uphold values, protect freedoms and assist those who find themselves oppressed and isolated. We act to try to minimise threats to this country and our partners. That was one of the reasons we engaged in the NATO alliance in Afghanistan.

My Lords, the Government have overseen a series of chaotic failures and miscalculations in Afghanistan which have damaged our international reputation and weakened our security—including the confirmation that military equipment has been left behind. Does the Minister believe that the UK and US military equipment left in Afghanistan poses a direct threat to the UK? If the answer is yes, why was there not a better plan to ensure that did not happen?

I do not share the noble Lord’s analysis, and I do not share his conclusion based on his analysis. As I said earlier, a very small amount of equipment was left behind. Some of that was gifted to partner nations and therefore is under their control. Anything else that was left—and it was a very small amount—was of no military use whatsoever.

My Lords, the Question on the Order Paper refers to British-trained soldiers who might have defected to the Taliban. Can I ask the noble Baroness about those trained by the United Kingdom who might now be in hiding? Operation Pitting was very effective, but there are still many people in hiding. What is the MoD doing to expedite their extradition?

The noble Baroness raises an important point. As she will be aware, we have made it clear that ARAP extends to all who worked with us. It is a scheme without a time limit, and we invite people to continue applying. In so far as British nationals are concerned, we have endeavoured to find where they are and maintain contact with them. We are doing our level best to support that. As the noble Baroness will understand, this is a difficult situation. The advice we have given to anyone wanting to try and get out who is either a British national or eligible under ARAP is to try and make their way to a neighbouring country. That is the best advice we can give. I reassure the House that we are supporting that advice by providing additional staff in neighbouring countries.

My Lords, in the wake of the desperate Afghan crisis, almost everybody agrees that we need stronger European defence co-operation, and I believe the Minister shares that view. Will she therefore have a word with the noble Lord, Lord Frost, who is sitting next to her, whose EU trade and co-operation agreement decimates our trade with other European countries, undermines our co-operation with them and is a terrible prelude to greater defence co-operation?

I am sure my noble friend sitting beside me has as acute hearing as I have, has listened carefully to the noble Lord and will find his own way of responding appropriately to the noble Lord’s concerns.

My Lords, why has there been no attempt at the United Nations to move a resolution to try and get a peacekeeping force so that embassies could remain open and the use of weapons, to some degree, could be policed?

Obviously, the situation is constantly under review by us and our international partners and friends, not least within the United Nations. But this is a very difficult situation on the ground and that is a reality we are having to deal with.

My Lords, how can the Minister be so sure that the kit left behind is of no military value? Can it not be converted for use, as the Taliban appear to be capable of doing? Does what she says apply to the American equipment left behind? Is the danger not that we have left a highly equipped Taliban army there—perhaps the best equipped army in the region?

I think there is little I can add, in response to the noble Lord, to what I have already said. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, astutely identified, this is a broader challenge than the United Kingdom; it is a NATO challenge. It is part of engaging in conflict that certain risks have to be taken; otherwise, we would never seek to intervene in any way whatsoever —and that is an unacceptable premise. What we have done in Afghanistan in co-operation with our NATO allies, we have done as responsibly as we can, and we have endeavoured to ensure as we left Afghanistan that we did not leave a legacy of equipment with military potential.