The World’s Deadliest Treasure Trove: The Taliban’s Captured Weapons | Andrew Gu
Yesterday, American armored vehicles packed full of soldiers rumbled through the streets of Kandahar, Afghanistan. Overhead soared a Blackhawk helicopter, an up-to-$27 million killing machine that has become a symbol of American military might. As you may have guessed already, those armored vehicles — as well as the Blackhawk — are operated not by the American military but by forces of Afghanistan’s new Taliban government, which showed off its newly-supplied arsenal of American-made vehicles and weapons in a victory parade in Kandahar.
Since 2002, the United States has spent some $83 billion on building the Afghan military, including more than $28 billion in weaponry and equipment (the equipment costs being enough to build two Gerald Ford-class supercarriers or pay off … 1.6% of America’s student loan debt) given to the Afghan armed forces. However, after two decades of conflict and a chaotic evacuation by both the Afghan Air Force and the American military, it’s incredibly difficult to tell just how much of that equipment has fallen into the hands of the Taliban. Some media outlets, such as The Sunday Times (creators of the misleading infographic linked here), have just taken the Afghan military’s equipment numbers and relabeled them as the “Taliban’s new arsenal” or something similar. Those outlets assume that all American-supplied equipment has fallen into Taliban hands, which is untrue; for example, 46 Afghan military aircraft, including 24 helicopters, managed to flee to Uzbekistan in the last days of the Afghan government. At least some of the rest of the equipment has been destroyed or rendered unusable by departing American and Afghan forces, but either way, the Taliban has still found itself in possession of an enormous amount of American-supplied equipment.
Fortunately, the headline-grabbing equipment, advanced American aircraft like the Blackhawk and the C-130 transport, isn’t exactly all that usable for the Taliban; flying something as complicated (or as prone to breakdowns) as a Blackhawk requires immense amounts of training and expertise which the Taliban (beyond the single, probably ex-Afghan Air Force pilot who flew the Blackhawk in the Kandahar victory parade) likely doesn’t have. Even if the Taliban were to find a crop of trained pilots capable of effectively flying advanced aircraft, finding replacement parts, expensive fuel, and maintenance workers (previously supplied by foreign contractors) for those incredibly complex mechanical beasts will be a nightmare, and all of this is without even mentioning the required software updates and cybersecurity required to keep them in the air in the long-term. Even if the Taliban were able to get the pilots, spare parts, foreign technicians, fuel, and technology required to keep their new aircraft in the air, they don’t have any of the proprietary technology stripped out of these aircraft following Trump’s deal with the Taliban in 2020. The loss of that proprietary technology essentially shot the Afghan Air Force in the foot, and with even less outside help than the government air force, the Taliban isn’t likely to effectively use their advanced aircraft anytime soon.
As a side note, it is possible for the Taliban to create a somewhat effective air force — Iran still maintains a fleet of captured American jet fighters from the 1979 Iranian Revolution — but it’s probably not worth the Taliban’s time or overstretched resources.
Given that the Taliban can’t effectively use the more advanced aircraft they have, there’s also the possibility of the Taliban selling their captured aircraft to America’s rivals, particularly China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran. However, many of those rivals, particularly China, already have access to a lot of the captured aircraft already, and for them, the main use of purchasing the aircraft would be humiliating America. Nonetheless, some of the captured aircraft may be equipped with advanced sensors and other new technologies, all of which would be well-paid for by a country like China. Even if the Taliban does end up selling the aircraft, an American rival getting access to some specialized technology probably isn’t going to turn the world upside-down.
On a more concrete and dangerous level, the Taliban did capture huge amounts of equipment they could use against the resistance in the Panjshir Valley (and any future opposition). The Taliban captured A-29 attack aircraft, some 16,000 night-vision goggles (though the numbers here are iffy), tens of thousands of trucks, dozens of artillery pieces, and plenty of infantry equipment, ranging from personal protective plates to hundreds of thousands of rifles. The Taliban, particularly the two Taliban special forces units, has already shown itself to be capable of using American infantry weapons, and it has demonstrated deadly proficiency with the captured artillery pieces. The night-vision goggles are a huge tactical edge over the Panjshir resistance, which is already struggling with supply issues due to its historical supply lines into Tajikistan having been cut off, and, like much of the other equipment, are far easier to use and maintain.
The captured American infantry equipment also serves a role beyond combat; the Taliban gets a sense of legitimacy through the use of American-style uniforms, whose association with American soldiers and elite Afghan Army commandos also carries an implicit threat of overwhelming force. Whether or not that ends up becoming an important factor is anyone’s guess.
With all of that in mind, the capture of so many American weapons and equipment is certainly terrible; in the coming weeks and months, that equipment is going to be used against the very people it was meant to help. However, especially given that we don’t even know exactly how much equipment the Taliban managed to capture, it’s still too soon to tell whether or not any of this is going to have a significant impact on the course of events in the future. To end off, I can’t offer you a stirring speech or a resolute conclusion; I can only leave you off with uncertainty, but given that we’re talking about Afghanistan, that’s par for the course.