The return of the Taliban

Taliban inherit valuable US military arsenal

Tens of thousands of small arms and hundreds of armoured vehicles have been left behind in Afghanistan

Ricard G. Samaranch
3 min
Members of the Taliban military forces at the airport in Kabul

TunisThe defeat of the Afghan army and the seizure of power by the Taliban, which has come about with a speed entirely unforeseen by the White House, has many ramifications both inside and outside the new Islamic emirate. For example, the Taliban have appropriated the huge military arsenal that was part of the Afghan armed forces. For the time being, the Pentagon has not made public a precise assessment of how many units of each type of American-made weaponry have fallen into the hands of the fundamentalist movement, but it is feared that light weapons number in the tens of thousands, armoured vehicles in the hundreds and helicopters and warplanes in the tens.

Some U.S. military sources had speculated about the possibility of bombing to destroy the most dangerous and sophisticated weapons, but while it has taken the cooperation of the Taliban to evacuate Afghans who worked with Washington's troops, that has not been a viable option. The fact that there are still between 100 and 200 American citizens who wanted to leave the country and have not been able to do so with the last US plane that went up in the middle of the night does not make this option very possible either.

The images of bearded militiamen with M16 rifles and driving humvees during their offensive sent shockwaves through the country, and did a great disservice to President Joe Biden's image. "Obviously, we don't want to see our equipment in the hands of those who might act against our interests or those of the Afghan people and increase insecurity inside Afghanistan", Pentagon spokesman John Kirby acknowledged. But it is too late to do anything. The images being broadcast from Kabul airport show members of the extremist group inspecting helicopters and other aircraft left behind by Washington before leaving the country.

However, some security experts consider that the greatest danger for the US is the possible sale of this material, especially the more sophisticated ones such as attack helicopters, to states or groups hostile to Washington. And not only because they can use it to attack American or allied troops, but above all because they can reveal secrets of the superpower's military industry. The Taliban, on the other hand, who do not even have the technical know-how to operate Kabul's civilian airport, and who are now talking to Qatar and Turkey to manage it, will hardly be able to use this more sophisticated weaponry.

"Our soldiers, sailors, pilots, spend months and months of training to be able to use the planes. Sophisticated weaponry is a challenge for the Taliban", said Bill Roggio, of the Long War Journal, a media outlet specialising in counterterrorism. "They can use helicopters and planes in the short and medium term, but without a supply chain, their operational life is relatively short", he added.

Russia's role

Other experts have pointed out that the Taliban could receive technical support from Russia and, above all, from the Pakistani secret services, the ISI, because in both cases they have supported the military insurgency and do not lack expertise. Even so, they will be of little help in replacing the exclusively American-made parts of aircraft that require intensive maintenance. On the other hand, Moscow could be a useful ally of the Islamist movement when it comes to operating some Russian-made military aircraft that were also part of the Afghan army's weapons depots.

Now, most of the weaponry seized by the Taliban does not have this degree of sophistication. In fact, in their spectacular military offensive at the beginning of August, they already used American light weapons, ammunition and armoured and semi-armoured vehicles that they had seized from the Afghan troops stationed in the first provinces they conquered.

The bill

When it comes to estimating the volume of American weapons in the hands of the Taliban, the figures vary. According to the declarations of a member of the US intelligence services to Reuters, the Taliban would have about 2,000 US armoured vehicles and up to 40 aircraft, including some famous Black Hawk helicopters and ScanEagle drones. The numbers suggested by the British newspaper The Times are much more alarming: more than 20,000 armored vehicles, about 50 aircraft and 50 helicopters.

Between 2002 and 2017, the US delivered nearly 25 billion euros worth of weapons to the Afghan army, including more than 200 aircraft. But dozens of these are in neighbouring Central Asian countries because they were used by Afghan pilots to escape, while others were in the US for repairs.

As for the American light weapons in the hands of the Taliban, they could amount to more than 300,000 rifles and submachine guns, more than 100,000 pieces of communication equipment and up to 16,000 night scopes. The latter, together with the armoured vehicles, represent a qualitative leap in the military capabilities of the fundamentalist group and could facilitate the assault on the Panshir valley, the last pocket of resistance. Hundreds of Afghan army officers took refuge there, who joined the network of fighters loyal to the muhaidi leader Ahmed Sha Masud, killed by the Taliban days before the attacks of 11 September 2001 and now loyal to his son Ahmad.