Taliban fighters stand guard outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport during an evacuation at Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Afghanistan on Tuesday, August. 24, 2021. Photo by Bashir Darwish/ UPI | License Photo
Sept. 20 (UPI) -- Many pundits believe U.S. President Joe Biden's hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan marked the biggest military defeat in American history.
Biden's decision to end the "forever war" has certainly handed a windfall to the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies. The United States left behind $83 billion worth of weapons, including around 208 aircraft, 2,000 armored 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 have flooded into Afghanistan, examining the hardware and marking the items they want sent back to Tehran. A convoy of trucks carrying captured American military vehicles has been seen crossing the border to Iran. In due course, the most sophisticated U.S. 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, 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 United States and United Kingdom get involved in a war, or each time they sell military equipment to dubious allies. The mindset in Washington and London appears to favor the concept of building strategic coalitions by selling arms. But history shows that the repercussions from such actions can be terrifying.
The United States abandoned a treasure trove of weapons and hardware when troops 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 United States.
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, U.S. and U.K. forces had to face their own weapons during the Gulf War and the liberation of Kuwait. When the United States intervened in Somalia in 1992, they faced American-made M-16 rifles, machine guns, howitzers, armored personnel carriers and anti-tank missiles, part of a $154 million shipment of weapons earlier supplied to Somalia by the U.S. government.
In Afghanistan, history has been repeated yet again. When U.S. and U.K. 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-Qaida, such as Stinger anti-aircraft weapons and Barrett M82A1 sniper rifles. These weapons had been sold to the mujahedin 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 4 million Afghan refugees fleeing to Pakistan and placing a considerable strain on the fragile economy, the danger of a rising tide of Islamist anger turning on the government is ever present. Against this unstable and volcanic background, 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 U.S.- and U.K.-built military equipment.
Now, more than ever, it is vital that the United States and United Kingdom apply a restrictive code of conduct on the sale and export of arms, especially to countries neighboring Afghanistan like Pakistan, which spends seven times more on arms than it does on schools. It is a sad fact that the world today spends 250 times more on arms than we do on peacekeeping.
More than 25 million people have been killed in wars since 1945, of whom 84% were civilians. A further 25 million have been forced to flee their homes and become displaced people within their own countries. Some 18 million more have become refugees abroad, all as a result of conflict.
War is the ultimate failure of mankind. While states have a right to defend themselves and police their territory and borders, the ready 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 Afghanistan disaster must surely act as a wake-up call. We simply cannot continue with business as usual.
The international Arms Trade Treaty, signed by 110 states, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2013 and came into force in December 2014. The treaty regulates the international trade in conventional arms and seeks to establish international standards governing arms transfers. Unfortunately, 31 of the countries that signed the treaty have not yet ratified it. Several countries, including Russia, refused to sign the treaty, lamely claiming it would have a discriminatory effect against their nation. America has flip-flopped, with President Barack Obama signing, President Donald Trump revoking and Biden pledging to rejoin.
As President John F. Kennedy famously said: "Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind."
Struan Stevenson is the coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is also chair of the In Search of Justice committee on the protection of political freedoms in Iran. He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley deliver remarks about the end of the 20-year military mission in Afghanistan at the Pentagon, in Arlington, Va., on September 1. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo