The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taliban show off U.S.-made weapons and gear in a bid to intimidate, project authority

The protective detail for Khalil al-Rahman Haqqani, a leader of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network, after visiting the Pul-i-Khishti Mosque in Kabul last week. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

On his tour through the fallen city of Kabul last week, Taliban-aligned militant Khalil Haqqani rose to address a crowd at the capital’s largest place of worship, Pul-i-Khishti Mosque. As he clutched a U.S.-made M4 rifle, his security guards, similarly armed, were draped in the U.S. combat aesthetics that have come to symbolize the last 20 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sporting high-cut helmets with night-vision goggle mounts, plate carriers and U.S. camouflage patterns, the guards looked like caricatures of the elite troops who have hunted insurgents in nightly raids and firefights.

The bounty of U.S.-provided weapons and vehicles, long paraded by Taliban insurgents after capturing or stealing them from Afghan forces, has grown to alarming proportions, well beyond the ability of U.S. officials to casually dismiss. And while throughout the war, militants prized rifles and other sophisticated personal equipment as individual trophies, the sudden and stunning collapse of the Afghan military has allowed for armored vehicles, helicopters and a glut of heavy weapons to be commandeered by militants now running the country.

“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,” President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told reporters last week.

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Since 2005, the United States provided at least $18 billion to the Afghan military for “equipment and transportation,” according to a report to Congress last month from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, with billions more spent on training and maintenance.

Coalition forces running the massive effort to evacuate U.S. citizens and allies at the Kabul airport will focus on dismantling and extracting equipment brought in for the mission, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday. Transporting evacuees remains the priority, he said, leaving it unclear if some of the military hardware there now will be destroyed in place to save room for people.

As for the U.S.-provided materiel seized by the Taliban elsewhere in Afghanistan, it appears for now that Washington has little recourse.

The Biden administration said the Afghan government fell faster than U.S. intelligence predicted in the days after its collapse. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Among the concerns is a trove of biometric data used by coalition forces to identify and document interpreters and others who aided the war effort. It is unclear if those records were destroyed — or if they’ve fallen into the hands of militants who, U.S. officials fear, could use the data to exact revenge.

Some of the captured equipment, like helicopters and attack planes, may be more useful for propaganda imagery than for everyday use. The more-advanced U.S.-supplied aircraft rely on costly maintenance regimens and parts inventories that Taliban militants are unlikely to maintain, much less operate.

But rifles, plate carrier vests and other infantry gear provide legitimate tactical value to the group’s foot soldiers while also underscoring the defeat of U.S.-backed Afghan forces and the Taliban’s desire to present itself, internally and externally, as a legitimate governing entity and battlefield victor.

“They want to convey not just authority, but intimidating authority,” said Katherine L. Kuzminski, a military policy expert at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, noting the similarities between images of Haqqani and his guard detail, and those of some far-right groups in the United States who participated in the U.S. Capitol assault in January.

Both groups, Kuzminski said, appear to recognize that displaying military gear and attire projects the threat of violence, and a desire to be seen as competent and serious.

While many of the Taliban militants photographed entering Kabul carried AK47s or M16s and wore traditional clothing seen on fighters throughout the war, Haqqani’s guards, by contrast, appeared as though they explicitly sought to copy the style of elite U.S. troops and their Afghan commando counterparts. Haqqani’s rifle included an infrared laser used for night targeting, while others on his security team wore night-vision goggles and tactical gloves along with their M4s. One wore an arching green patch in the style of Ranger and Special Forces tabs.

It’s a distorted reflection of what became a defining image of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: U.S. special operators, said Phil Klay, a Marine Corps veteran and author of “Missionaries,” a novel about the globalization of war violence.

The mimicking of such an elite status, both celebrated and derided as “tacticool,” has spread globally, starting on battlefields but stretching now to blockbuster films, video games and even diaper bags.

“The style has been omnipresent in pop culture as the image of war that we like to admire and be in awe of,” Klay said. “The stories are dramatically satisfying. … A hardy American warrior killing a bad guy.”

In Kabul, the simulacra of tacticool has come full circle. U.S. and other Western special operators who pursued Taliban fighters occasionally wore baseball caps rather than helmets and grew beards to facilitate a cultural connection with Muslim men, whereas now at least one bearded body guard for a man wanted by the U.S. government wears a cap with the logo of 5.11 Tactical — a U.S. company that produces commercial tactical gear.

It’s unclear if the body guard wore his own hat or if it was stolen from an abandoned Afghan or U.S. military position, where militants often win their weapons and equipment.

Kristen Gooding, a spokeswoman for 5.11 Tactical, said the hat was not authentic, suggesting there is demand for such items on the counterfeit market.

“There is very little we can do,” she said, “to protect our brand from these types of occurrences.”

Adam Taylor contributed to this report.