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Billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. and Russian weaponry may now be in the hands of the Taliban after the collapse of the U.S.-backed government on August 22, but there are questions about their ability to operate and effectively maintain the weapons and the extent to which black markets may have played a role in the Taliban gaining access to American weapons.
Between 2003 and 2016, the United States transferred 75,898 vehicles, 599,960 weapons, 162,643 pieces of communication equipment, 208 aircraft, and 16,191 pieces of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance equipment to Afghanistan, according to a report from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) within the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The same report also indicated that the U.S. spent as much as $83 billion to train and equip Afghan security forces over the last two decades. (On September 1, Forbes reported that the original GAO report citing these figures, along with another report highlighting equipment in Afghanistan, have since been scrubbed from their official government websites at the request of the Biden administration.)
The U.S. military began removing unused military equipment as early as this past spring, but it couldn’t bring home all of the hardware accumulated over a period of 20 years, leaving much of it in the hands of the U.S.-backed Afghan military. Of the more than 150 aircraft possessed by Afghan forces — which included 50 MD-530 choppers, 45 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, 30 military versions of Cessna single-engine fixed-wing aircraft, 23 Brazilian-made A-29 “Super Tocano” turboprop ground attack aircraft, and 4 C-130 civilian transport aircraft — 22 military planes and 24 helicopters may currently be located in Uzbekistan. As a result, it remains unclear how much leftover military equipment remains in Taliban hands as opposed to how much of the equipment was successfully moved out of Afghanistan.
Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army, indicated that the Taliban would likely face challenges trying to operate and maintain the leftover U.S. military equipment. “Someone could get in there, maybe find some operating manuals and figure out how to get the engine started, the rotors running, and get it up in the air, but they would probably be more of a danger to themselves than anyone else at that point,” Bowman said.
Additionally, Jonathan Schroeder, director of the Countering Threats and Challenges Program for the Center for Naval Analysis, said that equipment such as the Black Hawks and C-130s have complicated maintenance procedures and that “they would break and (the Taliban) would not be able to fix them.” However, Bowman conceded that these challenges would not be an “insurmountable problem for the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda partners.”
Additional reporting confirms that some of the U.S. aircraft loaned to Afghan military forces were flown out of the country before the Taliban takeover, even though Taliban forces have been posting pictures of confiscated aircraft on social media. Capturing aircraft may have been easy for the Taliban, but military experts have corroborated the assertion that the Taliban would have difficulty maintaining the aircraft, as many of them were maintained by U.S. contractors who left the country before August.
Many experts contend that Taliban forces lack the experience to fly these aircraft, but Jason Campbell, a former director for Afghanistan in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense for Policy, warned, “They will try and coerce former Afghan pilots to fly these planes.”
While Taliban forces may not be able to make maximum use of military aircraft, most experts agree that they will have access to a huge amount of military hardware on the ground, a reality that would be much more problematic.
The U.S. supplied to 20,000 M16 rifles to Afghan security forces in 2017 and another 3,598 M4 rifles and 3,012 Humvees between 2017 and 2021. Taliban forces were photographed utilizing some of this equipment during their August takeover of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Additionally, many of the deadliest weapons that Taliban forces currently have in their arsenal are Soviet-made, including the 122-mm D-30 howitzer artillery weapon. The Taliban’s access to small arms is also fueling fears that some of these weapons may appear in black markets, fueling insurgencies around the world, and allowing unused technology to be sold to Iran, Russia, and other adversarial nations. This would not only allow those countries to gain ground on American technological superiority but could also be used to “humiliate America.”
Some say that the Biden administration did not explicitly “leave the Taliban an arsenal of weapons,” but most experts, including Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Wilson Center in Washington, agree that it is a “colossal failure” that the Taliban now have access to state-of-the-art modern weapons.
However, many of the weapons currently being used by the Taliban forces are Russian, not American, such as the Soviet-made Mi-17 helicopter, showing that the disastrous consequences of the Taliban’s re-occupation of Afghanistan and seizure of weapons were not solely bought about by the Biden administration’s poor planning and execution of its military drawdown.
Still, if an underground supply chain emerges due at least in part to the Taliban’s ownership of left-behind weapons, there is a very real danger that these weapons will be routed to jihadists and other groups to wage terror on the U.S. and other Western nations, as well as to expand their territory and influence in central Asia, Africa, and other areas.
Unfortunately, the U.S. will need to rely on neighboring countries such as Pakistan, China, and Russia to put pressure on the Taliban to stop such a supply chain from forming, but at the same time, we can have no expectation that those nations could be relied upon to do so.