In the wake of the rapid collapse of the Afghan government this summer, the spectacle of Taliban militants’ jubilantly displaying thousands of captured trucks and dozens of aircraft given by the U.S. to the now-defunct Afghan military has been captured in countless images and videos of the aftermath of the American withdrawal.
Mine-resistant trucks and 1980s-vintage utility helicopters don’t intrinsically pose a huge threat to neighboring countries.
There’s no denying that the loss of billions of dollars of military hardware to the Taliban is a bitter pill to swallow following the fall of the Afghan government, which the U.S. spent two decades trying to build up. And it’s true that some of the less sophisticated vehicles and weapons will remain in Taliban service for years to come, helping them enforce their rule, in yet another case of U.S. weapons’ ending up in the hands of hostile actors.
However, these abandoned weapons haven’t created some high-tech military juggernaut despite exaggerated claims to the contrary. To say so is to ignore what the U.S. actually spent money on in Afghanistan and what parts of that arsenal remain usable by the Taliban today. Mine-resistant trucks and 1980s-vintage utility helicopters don’t intrinsically pose a huge threat to neighboring countries — let alone the U.S.
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Commonly bandied about is the particularly inaccurate sum of over $80 billion in U.S. weapons now said to be in the Taliban’s hands. Former President Donald Trump claimed in a speech last month that the U.S. had “left $83 billion worth of equipment behind,” while an infographic produced by the British newspapers The Times and The Sunday Times illustrating this total has been making the rounds. Retweeted by the likes of Donald Trump Jr., the tally reports that the Taliban captured 22,000 Humvees and 174 aircraft.
Unfortunately, some of these numbers are wildly off the mark and misrepresent the nature of the threat. These figures mistakenly count every dollar of U.S. military aid over its 20-year war as having gone to equipment and every piece of equipment transferred to the Afghan military during that time as being in the hands of the Taliban and functional today.
But over half of that roughly $80 billion went to ephemeral items like salaries for Afghan military personnel and contractors, uniforms, ammunition and fuel that was long ago spent, as well as infrastructure projects, operations and training costs. FactCheck.org calculated that equipment purchases since 2001 account for only about $18 billion.
Yet even that number is misleading. Much of the material was lost in combat — up to 100 vehicles per week at some points — or was retired from service. In addition, a very large share of U.S. military aid (particularly small arms) was allegedly pilfered by corrupt Afghan officials allied with the U.S. for sale on the black market.
Of course, even a fraction of the $80-odd billion total still adds up to a lot of hardware. But it’s important to remember that Washington armed the Afghan military to fight the Taliban, not other countries. That means the U.S. didn’t supply things like jet fighters, tanks or tactical ballistic and anti-aircraft missiles that could be aimed at other countries or international airliners for terrorist attacks.
In fact, except for some artillery donated by Turkey, nearly all of the Afghan army’s heavy weapons — tanks, howitzers, multiple-rocket launchers and so forth — came not from the U.S. but are rather Soviet-era weapons left over from the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s.
What the U.S. did give the Afghan National Army were hundreds of armored personnel carriers and tens of thousands of trucks and mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs, designed to give passengers better odds of surviving Taliban ambushes. These vehicles are still readily usable by Taliban fighters, and they may find them effective for moving troops within Afghanistan and confronting local opposition forces — but not neighboring governments in a conventional war.
The Afghan air force, too, was entirely equipped for fighting the Taliban with slow, small planes rather than with fast jet fighters and bombers and armored attack helicopters. According to a report in July by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the force counted 167 aircraft in flyable condition in the country, with all the helicopter types dating to the 1980s or earlier. (However, this count omits helicopters and around 20 PC-12 spy planes operated by the Special Mission Wing of the Afghan army.)
This inventory was then significantly reduced when the Taliban took over, with Afghan pilots flying around 50 to neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan ahead of time. U.S. forces also “demilitarized” 73 aircraft left behind at Kabul International Airport, sabotaging them so extensively that the Taliban felt “angry and betrayed.”
The Taliban did capture some intact U.S.-built aircraft elsewhere in Afghanistan. And by cannibalizing parts and perhaps forcing U.S.-trained pilots and technicians who didn’t manage to flee the country to staff them, the Taliban will undoubtedly be able to get some U.S.-built aircraft off the ground, like the Black Hawk helicopter recorded flying over Kandahar, allegedly controlled by a former Afghan air force pilot.
But without proper maintenance and training, these aircraft will be usable only for basic transport duties and delivering unguided weapons. They mostly lack precision-guided bombs and rockets, as the Afghan air force was reported to be running out of these U.S.-supplied weapons a month before the pullout last month. And realistically, combat aircraft require highly trained crew and abundant spare parts to remain operational. For instance, even with the extensive assistance from the U.S., the Afghan air force struggled to maintain its aircraft and suffered shortages of qualified personnel.
Rather than aircraft or MRAPs, arguably the biggest international threat will come from 600,000 small arms and other infantry equipment, like night-vision goggles and body armor, some of which are now in Taliban hands. Some of these arms will disseminate through smuggling networks, potentially fueling violent conflict in neighboring Central Asian states.
The Taliban will surely sell some captured military equipment abroad, as well. But the big question remains whether the Afghan Taliban will actively foment insurgency abroad and host would-be revolutionaries, as it did with Al Qaeda. Unlike the Islamic State terrorist group, better known as ISIS, the Taliban today are at least ostensibly focused on governing Afghanistan, not global jihadism. And aiding and abetting these external terrorist organizations is what led to their overthrow by the U.S. in the first place.
If America’s failed war against the Taliban teaches us anything, it’s a reminder that piles of military hardware can be rendered impotent by human factors.
It’s also a mistake to characterize these spoils as a technological windfall for China, Iran and Russia, even though they are, indeed, likely to seek to acquire some of the abandoned U.S. equipment, such as aircraft-mounted sensors and communication systems. These aren’t truly valuable secrets, however, as China, Iran and Russia have mostly developed such technologies domestically or had acquired them already during the U.S. occupation. Iran, for one, is likely to already have had access to Humvees via Shia militias in Iraq.
If America’s failed war against the Taliban teaches us anything, it’s a reminder that piles of military hardware can be rendered impotent by human factors, such as lacking the will to fight, familiarity with local culture and politics and belief in the legitimacy of one’s cause. Rather than bemoan the loss of Humvees and old helicopters, we should ponder why the U.S. failed so utterly to address the human factors that led many Afghans to lose faith in the U.S.-backed government, paving the way for the Taliban to take over their territory and arms.