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Inheritance of loss: the weapons left behind for the Taliban in Afghanistan

Overview
Following the collapse of the Islamic Republic and the withdrawal of foreign militaries from Afghanistan, the Taliban and others have access to billions of dollars’ worth of foreign-made weapons and other articles of defence material. According to data compiled by SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction), this includes firearms and ammunition, military aircraft, ground vehicles, and a range of military technology such as night-vision goggles and drones. 

Below is a list of sources that outlines the breadth and scope of the Taliban’s new arsenal – weaponry that was often funded or left behind by the US or NATO governments.

Defence articles abandoned by United States
Many defence articles and military supplies remain in Afghanistan, despite the destruction of equipment and ammunition prior to the US withdrawal on 31st August 2021.  

According to The Times (see image), this includes 22,174 Humvees, 64,363 machine guns, 358,530 assault rifles, 33 Blackhawk helicopters, 176 artillery pieces and 126,295 pistols.

An anonymous US official is cited saying “everything that hasn’t been destroyed is the Taliban’s now”.

For example, when United States handed over control of Bagram Airbase to the Afghan National Army (ANA) in July 2021, they left behind an estimated 3.5 billion items.  According to ANA General Mir Asadullah Kohistani and reported by the Associated Press, this included an unknown quantity of small arms and small arms ammunition (SAA).  

The US denies leaving weapons at the Airbase, although admits to having left behind thousands of civilian and hundreds of military vehicles.  Mobile phones, construction material, rations, as well as partially furnished medical, gym, and leisure facilities also remained. The ANA surrendered the airbase to the Taliban on 15th August.

US National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, has admitted United States does ‘not have a complete picture’ of where each article of defence material has gone.  Further complicating official estimates, Bagram Airbase was looted overnight following United States’ departure due to a miscommunication with the ANA.   

However, since the US handed Bagram Airbase to the ANA, the majority of weapons and other military assets in Afghanistan no longer belonged to foreign militaries.

Small arms supplied to Afghanistan by the US military
It is hard to find current figures on small arms held by the Taliban, but AOAV did record in 2016 that the US government sent over 1.4 million guns to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of these, we know of 503,328 small arms sent to Afghanistan between since 9/11 and 2016. 

The US Department of Defence (DoD) itself acknowledged that 509,321 small arms including grenade launchers were sent to Afghanistan in 2001 – 2016. Excluding grenade launchers this total comes to 484,680 for Afghanistan. But AOAV found more owing to undeclared DoD contracts. For example, the DoD recorded 17,634 more pistols and 38,698 less rifles than AOAV researchers found.

A wider analysis showed the DoD actually spent a possible total of $981,582,411 up to 2016 sending to Afghanistan small arms, including ammunition and attachments.

This includes 503,328 small arms being sent to Afghanistan 

* 200,965 assault rifles – not including AK47s 
* 95,981 AK47s
* 289,289 pistols 
* 57,745 machine guns 
* 13,258  shotguns 
* 9,227 sniper rifles 
* There were also 36,575 unspecified rifles listed and 288 unspecified non-standard small arms listed.

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Defence articles abandoned, surrendered by the Afghan military
According to SIGAR, United States alone spent $18 billion (£13.2 billion) between 2005 and 2021 on “equipment and transportation” for the ANA.  This included nearly 600,000 small arms and their ammunition between 2003-2016, according to an audit conducted by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). 

M24 sniper rifles, M18 assault rifles, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades were among the weapons supplied.

The Taliban now has access to ANA weapons caches across Afghanistan including garrison stations in Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat, although their inventories are difficult to assess currently.  What is known, however, is that the ANA received several major deliveries from United States between April and June this year valuing over $212 million (£156 million).  This included several fixed-wing aircraft, 174 Humvees, vehicle parts, and nearly 3 million rounds of ammunition.

Helicopters and fix-winged aircraft combined, the Afghan Airforce (AAF) operated around 167 aircraft as of July 2021.  Many of these aircraft are no longer in Afghanistan.  AAF pilots flew themselves and family members to safety abroad; around 40-50 can be accounted for in neighbouring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan

The US State Department has not confirmed the number of aircraft captured by the Taliban, although the Russian state arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, estimates the Taliban may have captured as many as 100 military helicopters.  Satellite imagery and social media monitoring is being used to locate AAF aircraft.

Outcomes

Taliban’s military campaign
Foreign-made weapons, ammunition, and equipment seized by the Taliban, or surrendered by the Afghan army and police, may have fuelled the group’s advance across Afghanistan in 2021.  As the group’s military campaign gained momentum in July, images began to appear on social media of Taliban fighters driving US-made Humvees and inspecting captured ANA arms and ammunition.

Risk to civilians
US officials have expressed concern over the possibility that foreign-made weapons may be used by the Taliban against civilians, diverted to Taliban affiliates abroad, or seized by the Khurasani affiliate of Islamic State, so-called ‘ISIS-K’.  To address this, US and other NATO forces were careful to remove high-tech and high-yield weapons from the country.  According to Whitehouse spokesperson John Kirby, one of the US Government’s highest priorities was preventing the Taliban from obtaining additional Howitzers, an indiscriminate artillery-type weapon used widely by the group.  It is not known whether NATO forces were successful in this regard.

Airforce operability
According to Joseph Dempsey, a research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Taliban will likely be unable to fully operationalise its airborne assets due to their technological complexity.  US military contractors had been providing technical support to the AAF prior to their departure earlier this year.  It is unclear as to whether the Taliban has trained pilots.

Independently verified footage has emerged over the past week of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter taxiing along the ground at Kandahar Airport in an apparent test flight.  However, there is no evidence to suggest the Taliban have deployed captured aircraft in combat operations.

Wider consequences
Regardless of whether the Taliban can fully operationalise the assets they now possess, defence analysts and regional experts have warned of the boost to the regional black market.  The remaining weapons in Afghanistan could drive the proliferation of small arms in the region, potentially fuelling other insurgencies and organised crime whilst providing the Taliban and ISIS-K with an income.  Furthermore, it may result in the rapid militarisation of Central Asia. The Moscow Times reports that Russia has received new orders for arms and military aircraft from several of Afghanistan’s neighbours in the past week.

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