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In the War on Terror, the Only Winner Is the Arms Trade

For people in Afghanistan, the war has been a catastrophe, leaving thousands dead and many more displaced. For the global arms industry, it's been an opportunity to profit.

US service members walk off a helicopter on 11 September 2017 in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Credit: Andrew Renneisen / Getty Images

On 11 September 2001, one of the world’s largest arms fairs opened in London. As people demonstrated outside, news spread of the attack on the World Trade Centre. A police officer told protesters that he thought it would be outrageous for them to continue to protest after thousands of people had been murdered in the US.

His words would have been better directed at the organisers of the arms fair. While many events were cancelled, the fair continued. It was a good week to be an arms dealer: with talk of war, share prices were shooting up. Twenty years later, it is clear that the winners of the ‘war on terror’ are Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, and other transnational arms companies.

Every so often, I receive emails claiming that war exists because the world is run by secret groups of Jews, or Muslims, or giant lizards. Not only are such theories racist and nonsensical, they miss the point that the world’s power structures are really fairly transparent. We don’t need conspiracy theories to see the truth of corporate and military power.

Former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook wrote that the chairman of BAE Systems had the ‘key to the garden door at Number Ten’. John Kampfner quoted an anonymous Downing Street aide who told him that whenever BAE’s Dick Evans encountered a problem, ‘he’d be straight on the phone to Number Ten and it would get sorted.’ In 2006, Blair intervened in a criminal investigation to ensure that BAE’s Saudi arms deals would not be investigated.

Blair’s closeness with BAE is only one example of arms industry influence. As Paul Rogers, Emeritus Professor at Bradford University, wrote recently, the military-industrial complex ‘incorporates arms companies, the military, the civil service, politicians, university departments and thinktanks, with many revolving doors connecting them, all in a single system which is necessarily profit-driven.’

The war in Afghanistan provides a striking example. Following the NATO invasion in 2001, the occupation of the country was left largely to the US. That changed in 2006, with thousands of British personnel were deployed to Afghanistan’s Helmand province despite the army being overstretched in Iraq.

It was widely suspected that the British military leadership had pushed for the deployment as they tried to ward off attempts to cut armed forces funding. According to Sherard Cowper-Coles, who became UK ambassador to Afghanistan, Richard Dannatt, then Chief of the General Staff, reportedly said it was ‘use it or lose it’ – a claim Dannatt denies. A Guardian/ICM poll found that only 23 percent of people in the UK believed that the presence of British troops would improve the situation in Afghanistan. Thirty-five British troops were killed in the first six months in Helmand.

Arms companies and military leaders share an interest in maintaining high military spending. Recent years have seen a steady trickle of articles in papers such as the Telegraph and the Times about supposedly low levels of funding for UK armed forces – typically, they quote a retired general or admiral or an anonymous serving officer saying that a particular part of the armed forces is under-funded, thus putting Britain at risk of being defeated by the Taliban, ISIS, Russia, or China. But ‘people who run an organisation want more funding for it’ should not be headline news – especially given how many senior officers retire to jobs or directorships in arms companies. Throughout this period of supposed underfunding, the UK consistently appeared in lists of the world’s ten highest military spenders.

The generals and arms dealers got their way at the end of 2020, when Boris Johnson announced the largest percentage increase in UK military spending since the Korean War. It was the most absurd policy announcement of a bizarre year. As epidemiologist Ceri Dare put it, ‘We cannot battle our way out of a pandemic with bombs and guns’; meanwhile, the failure of the NATO war in Afghanistan has made clear that weapons cannot deliver democracy. But for arms dealers, nothing has changed since 2019, when Raythen CEO Tom Kennedy said that it was ‘the best time we’ve ever seen’ for arms sales.

In March 2021, while dozens of people in the UK died each day from Covid, Boris Johnson announced a 44 percent increase in UK nuclear warheads. This understanding of ‘security’ is the reserve of privileged ministers and militarists who have never known the insecurity that comes with low wages, poor housing, and waiting lists for vital healthcare.

In 2010, Joe Glenton was sent to military prison for refusing to fight in Afghanistan. His doubts had grown during his earlier deployment; at one stage, he learnt that Hellfire missiles cost £100,000 each. He recalled wondering what £100,000 could do ‘to educate children, or what it would look like in medical supplies.’ We should ask what Afghanistan would look like now if, instead of spending billions on war, money had been used to fund education, healthcare, or civil society.

The influence of arms dealers, military leaders, and their allies ensures that militaristic approaches are simply regarded as normal. A wider concept of security is not considered, nor funding for tackling the root causes of conflict, nor a political effort to provide jobs in more secure and socially useful industries rather than the arms trade.

The London arms fair—known euphemistically as Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI)—will return next month. Representatives of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the US, Israel, and dozens of other countries will meet arms dealers and survey the goods on offer. They will be met by protests.

Covid, Afghanistan, and the climate emergency mean that it has rarely been clearer that the world’s problems cannot be solved with weapons. It has never been more important to resist the vile power of the arms industry.