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As the Taliban swept across Afghanistan in the months after the U.S. withdrawal began in May, there were frequent reports of the group’s fighters capturing military equipment that had previously been supplied by the United States to Afghanistan’s security forces. In the wake of the Taliban’s capture of Kabul late last month, however, it became clear that the group was now in control of vast stores of U.S.-provided equipment. This situation led directly to a series of questions, such as: How much U.S. stuff does the Taliban now have? How much is that stuff worth? And, can the Taliban actually use it?
When directly asked versions of these questions, the U.S. national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, responded, “We don’t have a complete picture, obviously, of where every article of defense materials has gone, but certainly a fair amount of it has fallen into the hands of the Taliban.” The lack of a clear picture coming from the U.S. government has led many others to try and paint it instead. Unfortunately, many of these attempts are getting it wrong, and their inaccuracies are being amplified by partisan and nonpartisan social media users alike. In light of all this confusion, I’ll describe five myths surrounding the Taliban’s new arsenal of U.S. equipment and provide some thoughts on what this new arsenal means for the group going forward.
Myth 1: The Taliban have captured $88 billion worth of weapons and equipment.
Statements to this effect conflate the net worth of the Taliban’s current arsenal with the sum total of funding that the United States appropriated for reconstruction of Afghanistan’s security sector. According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), “As of June 30, 2021, the U.S. Congress had appropriated nearly $88.61 billion to help the Afghan government provide security in Afghanistan.” There are at least four factors that make the Taliban’s current arsenal worth far less than this figure.
First, not all of that money was even spent. As SIGAR reported in June, “Of the nearly $3.1 billion appropriated for the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF) in FY [fiscal year] 2020, over $2.4 billion had been obligated and more than $2.1 billion disbursed, as of June 30, 2021. About $675.6 million of FY 2021 ASFF has been obligated and $247.4 million disbursed, as of June 30, 2021.” In plain English, Afghanistan’s army and police collapsed before the U.S. military could spend all of the money that Congress gave it to support these forces.
Second, the primary cost driver of Afghanistan’s security forces has consistently been not military equipment, but the salaries of personnel in the force. In other words, the U.S. never spent anything close to $88 billion on weapons and equipment for Afghanistan’s security sector. For example, in FY 2016, personnel costs consumed 29 and 48 percent of the budget for the Afghan army and police, respectively. Thus, huge sums of that $88 billion were disbursed to individuals in Afghanistan’s security forces who then dissipated it via personal spending into the country’s economy. Additional large sums—perhaps as much as $300 million per year—were skimmed by corrupt security leaders by harvesting salaries paid to “ghost soldiers.”
Third, additional large fractions of that funding were spent on consumable items. For example, in FY 2016, about 15 percent of the army and police budgets was spent on things like fuel and ammunition. Another 10 percent and 4 percent was spent on army and police training, respectively. Last, not all of the weapons and equipment the U.S. funded are even still in existence: Large numbers of the guns, vehicles, radios and other equipment that the U.S. provided to Afghanistan were destroyed over the course of almost 20 years of constant fighting.
Taking all of these factors into consideration, it is clear that the Taliban’s arsenal is worth only a fraction of the $88 billion that the United States appropriated for the Afghan security forces since 2002.
Myth 2: The Taliban have captured everything the U.S. ever gave to Afghanistan’s security forces.
In recent days, there have been numerous infographics purporting to show the amount of U.S.-provided equipment captured by the Taliban, the most widely shared of which came from an article in The Times. Some of the graphics openly disclose that the figures listed are estimates, but The Times’s figure does not. Rather, it gives exact numbers for each of 19 different pieces of military equipment. The problem is, these numbers are inaccurate. As with funding, they appear to conflate the total number of each piece of equipment that the U.S. provided to Afghanistan over the past 20 years with what the Taliban have now. This is clearly incorrect.
For example, contrary to The Times’s claim that the Taliban now have four C-130 transport planes, SIGAR reported that only four C-130s were even in Afghanistan as of this summer (the fourth was out of the country for routine maintenance). The Times’s graphic also ignores that perhaps as many as 46 aircraft were flown by Afghan Air Force pilots to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in an attempt to flee the country. While the Taliban may know how many aircraft they currently have, even the best estimates make clear that the rest of us do not. And given the vast numbers involved and the fact that the pieces of weaponry are scattered all across the country, it’s safe to say that even the Taliban don’t know exactly how many guns and vehicles they now have in their possession.
Myth 3: The Taliban know how to use all the stuff they’ve captured.
They do not. While the Taliban are now touting a video in which they claim to be flying a Blackhawk over Kandahar, a reputable report clarifies that the pilot is a former member of the Afghan Air Force. Regardless, it is clear the Taliban do not have a cadre of trained pilots for the helicopters and aircraft they now own. Even if they were able to coerce or co-opt every pilot from the Afghan Air Force left in Afghanistan to get in the cockpit, they’d still be short on pilots for two reasons: Many have already fled, and the Taliban killed some of them during their campaign to conquer the country.
While less exciting than aircraft, the Taliban have also likely captured scores of military-grade pieces of electronic equipment, such as encrypted radios and jamming devices used to counter improvised explosive devices. Given the difficulties the U.S. had in training Afghan army and police personnel to use this equipment (e.g., the U.S. eventually encouraged these forces to use WhatsApp instead of the radios we provided), it is likely the Taliban also do not know how to use most of this type of gear.
Myth 4: The Taliban don’t know how to use any of the stuff they’ve captured.
They do know how to use a lot of it. There are plenty of pictures and videos of Taliban fighters using American-made small arms (e.g., M16s, M4s) and night vision devices, reports of them using mortars, and visuals of them using long-range D-30 howitzers (albeit in direct fire mode). There is also no shortage of evidence that they know how to drive and operate the various up-armored vehicles they’ve captured, including HMMWVs, MRAPs and MSFVs. And while the Taliban may not have the ability to fly their C-130s or American-made helicopters, their C-208s, PC-12s, and A-29s are relatively simple fixed-wing aircraft that someone with basic to moderate knowledge of flying could get off the ground (though arming these aircraft and using them to deliver effective airstrikes is another level of difficulty likely beyond the Taliban’s current capabilities). Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters also seem feasible for the Taliban to operate—if not immediately, then in the near-term future. The Pakistani government has them (some of which were given to it by the U.S.), as do many Eastern European states. It is therefore conceivable that the Taliban could get some pilots trained in a few years by one of these countries or, more immediately, rent some as contractors.
Myth 5: The Taliban can’t maintain any of the stuff they’ve captured.
Sure they can. The Taliban already know how to maintain the Russian-made small arms they have, and while the specifics of American-made small arms are slightly different, if Taliban fighters haven’t already figured out how to maintain the ones they’ve captured over the years, they could certainly do so now via the internet. And in terms of vehicles, basic maintenance of most of the vehicles the U.S. provided to Afghanistan’s security forces can be handled by knowledgeable auto mechanics. More extensive maintenance would require a more specifically trained mechanic, but the U.S. trained quite a few of these via the National Maintenance Strategy–Ground contract. It seems likely that the Taliban could either entice or coerce these individuals to continue maintaining the group’s new vehicle fleets. While spare parts are unlikely to be provided by U.S. companies, the Taliban have captured thousands of vehicles; cannibalization alone should be sufficient to last them for years. Aircraft will again be the most difficult element of the Taliban’s new arsenal, especially given that the U.S.-made aircraft used by the Afghan Air Force were all being maintained entirely by U.S. contractors. That said, the U.S. trained a sizable number of Mi-17 mechanics who could also be co-opted or coerced to keep these helicopters flying—or the Taliban could attempt to contract for their maintenance from Pakistani or Eastern European companies.
It’s true that the Taliban now have a sizable new arsenal of military weapons and equipment that were provided to Afghanistan by the United States. But that arsenal is worth far less than $88 billion, and it’s not as large as many reports are saying it is. While the Taliban cannot use all of the arsenal they do have, they can use the vast majority of it, and they should be able to maintain quite a bit of it, either on their own or with some help.
What does this mean for the Taliban as a fighting force? The Taliban have been a ground-centric force with little to no air capability for decades, and in the immediate term, that’s unlikely to change very much. But the group is now an up-armored and armed-to-the-teeth ground-centric force, which has the potential to help greatly in its attempts to consolidate control of the country and deal with various remaining internal challenges, such as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province or the National Resistance Front—neither of which has any air capability, either.
In the months and years to come, however, it seems likely that the Taliban will find ways to get their new-found aircraft in the air and to figure out how to provide air support to their ground forces. At a minimum, the Taliban now have an ample war chest, pieces of which could be sold to the highest bidder as a means of generating much-needed revenue for their new government. Given the potential financial advantages of selling weapons, and the extensive smuggling networks throughout the region, it seems likely that at least some of the Taliban’s newfound small arms will find their way to Kashmir, the Middle East, Africa and beyond. All told, the Taliban’s new arsenal is less valuable and sizable than many believe, but it is nonetheless a noteworthy foundation on which to build. Observers are likely to see the Army of the Islamic Emirate—and a number of jihadist groups worldwide—wielding American-made weapons for years to come.