While empowering allied militaries to confront insurgents on their own has become the cornerstone of the American approach to counterterrorism, that strategy comes with a drawback: those militaries often lose Western-supplied equipment to American-labeled terrorist organizations.
In 2014, the Islamic State captured weapons from Syrian rebels armed by the United States. In 2015, the Iranian-backed Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah acquired several M1 Abrams tanks sold to the Iraqi Security Forces by the U.S. This problem has spread as far as Afghanistan, where much of the Taliban’s armory comes from American equipment given to the Afghan military and police.
The insurgents’ Western-sourced arsenal includes lasers and night-vision goggles abandoned by Afghan and American soldiers and bought on the black market, doubling the number of nighttime Taliban attacks and tripling the rate of Afghan casualties between 2014 and 2017.
In 2015, the insurgents posted videos of themselves driving Humvees and tanks during the Battle of Kunduz, and, in 2016, they used Humvees to conduct suicide attacks on an Afghan checkpoint in the southern province of Helmand. Last year, the Taliban distributed propaganda purported to depict American assault rifles and radios captured in an operation in Kandahar.
As early as December 2013, well before the extent of the problem had become apparent, the Taliban bragged about taking an American military dog as a prisoner of war.
These developments present a Catch-22 for the United States. On the one hand, the Afghan National Army and Police often depend on their technological superiority over the insurgents; Washington risks jeopardizing that advantage by limiting or withholding equipment from security forces already struggling on the battlefield. On the other, any equipment that the United States provides its Afghan allies may find its way to the Taliban, which will deploy it against Afghan soldiers and their American advisers.
“The Taliban gets its hands on most of the equipment, particularly vehicles, through raids, but there are quite a few reports of the Afghan military selling weapons,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and editor of The Long War Journal. “The insurgents use this equipment tactically — to impersonate Afghan and Western soldiers. Considering how often they’re deploying it, they must have figured out a way to maintain the vehicles and weapons too.”
Other insurgents in Afghanistan have adopted similar tactics. Late last month, the Islamic State launched an assault on the Afghan interior ministry in Kabul by driving to its headquarters in vehicles stolen from Resolute Support Mission, the American-led coalition in Afghanistan.
Update: Resolute Support Public Affairs later clarified that initial reports on the vehicles used in the attack were incorrect: “Initial reports were that the vehicles were HMMVs [Humvees], however these vehicles were regular SUVs and not stolen from Resolute Support.”
Unlike the Taliban, which appears to obtain most of its Western-made equipment from Afghan soldiers on the battlefield or the black market, the Islamic State has gone as far as taking weapons right off American commandos. American special operations forces lost a machine gun and a rocket launcher to the insurgents in a 2016 firefight in the eastern province of Nangarhar.
The United States has struggled to monitor what happens to American equipment once it enters the possession of Afghan policemen and soldiers. Meanwhile, the Islamic State and the Taliban’s proficiency at capturing and deploying it grows by the day. The Defense and State Departments oversee the sale of American weapons to allied militaries, but Afghanistan presents them unique challenges.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul referred questions to the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, the State Department subagency in charge of Afghanistan and neighboring countries.
“The loss of equipment is a concern of the U.S. Government, including the State Department and the Department of Defense,” said a State Department spokesperson. “The Department is aware that battlefield loss of equipment can occur during military operations.” She referred further questions to the Defense Department, whose inspector general sometimes documents those losses.
The Defense Department fulfills that task in Afghanistan through the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction or SIGAR, which evaluates the efficiency of how the Defense Department, the State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development spend funds appropriated by Congress to complete their mandates in the country.
A SIGAR spokesperson told The Diplomat that the watchdog had received no information on how much American-supplied equipment Afghan security forces had lost to insurgents or details on how the security forces had lost it. She referred further inquiries to Resolute Support.
“While the Resolute Support mission includes training, advising, and assisting both the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior on military readiness and logistics, there is no mechanism in place to track American-supplied equipment and weaponry that the Afghan military and police lose to the Taliban,” admitted a Resolute Support spokesperson, who referred questions on whether the Afghan defense and interior ministries monitored the problem to those government agencies.
The Afghanistan National Security Council, an interagency task force that includes the Defense and Interior Ministries, failed to respond to repeated requests for comment.
“All recipient countries, including Afghanistan, sign agreements with the United States Government to protect and control U.S.-supplied items in the same manner the United States Government does,” the Resolute Support spokesperson told The Diplomat. “For example, small arms are secured per this agreement under three levels of protection — weapons are held in locker containers inside locked buildings on military installations with around-the-clock armed guards.”
Though the level of security enforced by American soldiers and their Afghan counterparts often proves effective, it remains far from foolproof. Last year, the Taliban executed a suicide attack inside Bagram Airfield, one of the most important American military bases in Afghanistan. The insurgents have also demonstrated their ability to infiltrate the Afghan Army and Police many times before.
“However, in the event that Afghan military equipment is stolen, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces work quickly to reacquire the equipment or eliminate it from the battlefield altogether so as not to allow the enemy an advantage,” said the Resolute Support spokesperson. “For example, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan aircraft have assisted the Afghans by removing approximately 40 Taliban-stolen Humvees from the battlefield since 1 Jan 2015 via airstrikes.”
This strategy only addresses the symptoms of a wider problem: systemic corruption, which enables Afghan insurgents to buy American-supplied equipment from their theoretical military opponents. Though difficult to document, the phenomenon has likely existed since at least 2009.
“We cannot speak to the Taliban means of supply,” said the Resolute Support spokesperson.
For their part, the insurgents had an answer.
“We receive American weapons through many methods and also seize them from government soldiers in Kabul,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told The Diplomat. “Also, we receive them from personal links, and we don’t want give more details about it.”
As long as the United States continues to arm the Afghan Army and Police and unless it implements more effective failsafes, American policymakers will likely have to accept the possibility that many of those weapons will find their way to the Islamic State and the Taliban.
“If, as it seems, American taxpayers are indirectly arming the Taliban this way,” reflected Roggio, “the U.S. needs to reevaluate its strategy in Afghanistan — which has long been apparent.”
Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the Greater Middle East.