Capturing the enemy’s weapons has been a standard guerrilla tactic for centuries. The American Army could not have succeeded against King George III without seizing the king’s food and armaments. It is one thing to capture weapons and other materiel; it is another to be given the enemy’s gear on a silver platter.
In the images of the Taliban fighters flooding the streets of Kabul, one detail attracts attention: the lack of the ubiquitous Kalashnikov. Few Taliban appearing now carry the signature weapon of insurgent fighters, the AK-47, and its countless variants from the handmade Pakistani versions to the updated Russian AK-19. Most of the Taliban in Kabul’s street seems to prefer American M4 carbines and M16 rifles with their many gadgets attached, from expensive optics to laser sights and flashlights, an uncommon picture in contrast to just a few weeks earlier.
The answer to the question concerning the source of these small arms is straightforward: war looting. Another and more important question needs an answer: The fate of the extensive military materiel that the U.S. left behind during its withdrawal or that which was in the hands of the Afghan forces that melted so quickly away as the Taliban advanced.
As a landlocked country, Afghanistan makes moving military materiel back to the U.S. neither an easy nor an economical endeavor. Much was removed anyway, and much handed over to Afghan government forces. What couldn’t be taken back, was left. Blowing up in situ large quantities of war materiel is cheaper than shipping it out of Afghanistan. Still, that option creates toxic legacies that would affect the local population for a long time, as happened in Iraq.
Nevertheless, lack of time and unreasonable expectations on the survivability of the Afghan security forces caught the Pentagon by surprise. According to Joshua Reno, author of “Military Waste: The Unexpected Consequences of Permanent War Readiness,” recirculating weapons in the places a military force leaves when the battle is over will augment the risks that small arms or other weapons are going to fuel and intensify civil war or instability.
According to a top Pentagon logistics specialist, there is no clear record of the quantity and quality of military equipment left behind. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan stated that the Taliban probably would not give such materiel back to the U.S. at the airport, adding a note of farce to an already disastrous situation. One of the immediate conclusions drawn from the less-than-optimal U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan is how the U.S. can minimize the chances of future disasters stemming out of the Taliban’s use and trade of abandoned U.S. and Afghan military materiel.
U.S. military and intelligence had already walked that path in the 1990s, after the anti-Soviet mujahedeen pushed out the Soviet Union. The task at that time was to recover Stingers, highly sophisticated portable surface to air missiles. In order to have a chance against the Soviet Union’s heavily armed attack helicopter Mil Mi-24, essentially a flying tank, the U.S. had equipped the mujahedeen with Stingers in the 1980s. As soon as the war ended with the Soviet defeat, the possibility of those Stingers being employed for terrorist attacks or falling into hostile government hands ignited a hunt to get the portable missiles back. The U.S. intelligence community scrambled to buy them back, allegedly at $100,000 per unit, or obtain the portable missiles by any means. Steve Coll in his acclaimed book “Ghost Wars,” mentioned that when the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996, an estimated 600 of the 2,300 Stingers provided by the CIA during the Soviet-Afghan war remained unaccounted for. Tehran was competing in the same race to acquire as many of the wayward Stingers as possible.
Providentially, the threat of a terrorist using a Stinger to shoot down an American passenger plane did not materialize, nor did the Taliban develop a successful insurgent anti-aircraft campaign with the leftovers.
And yes, history repeats itself.
Today’s quantity and quality of weapons that the Taliban are hoarding since their lightning advance will arguably have unintended negative consequences far from Afghan borders. Sales to hostile governments and on the black market may provide additional revenue to the Taliban and increase uncertainty and instability not only in Central Asia but beyond. Militant organizations such as the Haqqani network, already in Kabul, possess the capability to smuggle weapons from Afghanistan to the Middle East, the African continent, and even to Southeast Asia.
Possible scenarios range from small arms used to foster instability in the region or night vision goggles and military-grade communication equipment reaching other militant groups, including the Islamic State. More significant items now in the hands of the Taliban, such as helicopters, can neither be maintained nor flown due to a lack of Taliban pilots and trained maintenance crews. The materiel, however, could be handed over to countries interested in sensitive U.S. technology, and that list is not short. The war looting includes armored Humvees, aircraft, and attack helicopters, as well as military scout drones. Most of the Afghan Air Force’s aircraft were used by Afghan pilots to escape into neighboring Central Asian countries as Kabul fell, but the number still parked on Afghan airfields is unknown.
The fall of Kabul, predictably, has been compared with the fall of Saigon. Most of the analogies point to helicopters leaving the roof of the American Embassy. However, another analogy worth referencing is related to the North Vietnamese political commissars’ scrambling to reach the ARVN and South Vietnamese police’s archives to locate the list of intelligence officials and collaborators. In an era of Big Data and databases stored in the cloud, there is a sudden realization that deleting data from the servers and smashing hard drives is not a bulletproof solution. Moreover, there are severe concerns that hundreds of military biometric devices, abandoned in U.S. bases, left a digital breadcrumb trail that the Taliban will use to locate and target former security officials and government supporters. Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment, in short HIIDE, devices are meant to digitally identify friends from foes via a biometric reading, against databases with fingerprints, iris scans and distinctive facial features.
Similarly, social media users in Kabul left a digital trail not only on their mobile phones but also on the internet. It’s now digital proof that can be used against them when the Taliban feels confident of their grip on power and local media control. Discounting the Taliban’s capabilities in accessing actionable digital intelligence could be a mistake. Besides the probable support that the Taliban could receive from foreign intelligence services, it is not wise to disparage the ingenuity of militant groups in harnessing low-tech schemes to counter high-tech weaponry. An example is provided by the case of pro-Iranian militants in Iraq using $26 off-the-shelf software to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, potentially providing them with information they need to monitor the unblinking eyes of U.S. drones.
The threat of insurgents intercepting drone video feeds has been patched with encrypted communication; however, examples of low-tech tactical efficiencies abound. Since a decade ago, the Taliban have been using off-the-shelf commercial drones to shoot propaganda films and provide aerial scouting and to guide kamikaze flying bombs. This is a playbook borrowed by Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The recent Taliban capture of Boeing ScanEagle drones, developed for surveillance, could add a new capability to the fighters’ growing arsenal. Also, their tactical use could evolve into alternative and deadly options.
From a propaganda perspective, the videos of Taliban fighters parading in Afghan cities with their U.S. war trophies increase the criticism of the Biden administration’s withdrawal decision. Although it remains unclear how the Taliban will govern Afghanistan, the propaganda value of their white flags waving in the wind from the top of U.S.-made Humvees inspires other jihadist and radical Islamist groups to imitate the Taliban’s actions. The perception of augmented combat capabilities provided by the war looting could also push Central Asian countries to strengthen their bilateral security ties with Moscow and Beijing, no matter what, in the face of a Taliban with modern equipment.
Sun Tzu, the revered author of the “Art of War,” quoted shoulder to shoulder with von Clausewitz in contemporary Western military PowerPoint presentations, states that the golden rule is to know your enemy. Probably 20 years were not enough.