It’s an impressive haul for a group that was once dismissed as a band of rural Luddites when it emerged in the 1990s. But despite its austere interpretations of Islam and rejection of much of modern society, the Taliban has shown flexibility when it comes to technology. It has been active on the Internet and social media. And its fighters are no strangers to U.S. military equipment.
“The Taliban have already been using sophisticated military equipment that they have captured from Afghan national security forces in recent years,” said Robert Crews, an expert on Afghanistan at Stanford University. “They have used everything from night-vision goggles and scopes to sniper rifles and armored vehicles and artillery.”
At minimum, the taking of U.S. technology is a symbolic victory for the Taliban, which has fought for decades with simple weapons and lived under the fear of U.S. air power and technological might. But experts say the captures have practical implications as well.
“The Taliban know the value of highly sophisticated weaponry,” said Ibraheem Bahiss, a consultant for the International Crisis Group and an expert on the Taliban, noting that the group had operated a limited air force during its first reign in Kabul in the 1990s. Mohammad Yaqoob, the head of the Taliban military commission and son of founder Mohammad Omar, has publicly called on the group’s shadow commanders to protect airports, Bahiss said.
“They know already that the airports are an important military asset they need to preserve,” he said.
For the Taliban, the most useful technology could be comparatively low-tech, and not always U.S.-made. The group has already shown the ability to use Soviet-era D-30 howitzer artillery, for example. But the loss of so much U.S. equipment could still provide further embarrassment for Washington.
Joseph Dempsey, a research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the Taliban would probably struggle to maintain or even operate most U.S. aircraft because of their technological complexity. “That said, do not be surprised if we still see some U.S.-supplied types flying with new flags,” he said.
An $18 billion armory
The U.S. equipment is a remnant of a massive project to strengthen Afghan security forces that cost $83 billion, according to the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, known as SIGAR. Between 2005 and this year, the United States disbursed at least $18 billion to the Afghan military for “equipment and transportation,” according to a SIGAR report to Congress released last month, as well as many billions more in training and maintenance.
Before it was captured by the Taliban, the Afghan air force had more than 40 operational U.S.-made MD-530 helicopters, the report said, and more than 30 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. There were also more than 23 usable A-29 Super Tucano attack planes, some of which had been upgraded to drop laser-guided bombs.
In just the most recent quarter, SIGAR reported, the United States had provided the Afghan National Army with more than $212 million in “major equipment items” — including 174 M1151 HMMWVs, better known as Humvees, at a total cost of $41 million. Afghan forces also had equipment supplied by other nations, including a large number of aging Russian aircraft.
At a news briefing on Tuesday, Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, said the United States did not “have a complete picture” of how many weapons had been lost but that “certainly a fair amount of it has fallen into the hands of the Taliban.”
Photographs from Afghanistan clearly show Taliban forces with U.S. weapons such as M4 rifles and driving U.S.-made Humvees. And at least some of U.S.-made aircraft now appear to be in the hands of the Taliban, though their operational status was unclear.
Open-source analysts Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans have tracked videos and images released by forces loyal to the insurgents and recorded over 30 pieces of equipment that now belong to what they dubbed the “Taliban Air Force,” ranging from at least one A-29 Super Tucano to seven Insitu ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — made by Boeing.
Four Black Hawk helicopters, if not more, appeared to be in Taliban control. At a cost of $10 million each, they represent an expensive catch.
Taliban fighters were shown operating aircraft they had commandeered. At Herat airport, footage released over the weekend appeared to show fighters operating a Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter. So far, they have not been shown operating U.S.-made aircraft.
Some of the more expensive U.S. equipment appear to have been disabled or removed by departing Afghan officials and forces.
Mitzer said that video evidence showed that a number of aircraft, including three Blackhawk helicopters, had been taken to Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, where anti-Taliban forces have gathered under the leadership of Vice President Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud, the son of late Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Uzbekistan claimed Monday that around 22 planes and 24 helicopters from Afghanistan had been forced to land after entering Uzbek airspace. Dempsey said satellite imagery supported those claims, which if accurate would represent around a quarter of all Afghan air force aircraft.
Can they use it?
During the start of the Taliban’s reign during the 1990s, Taliban leadership showed little interest in the perks of modern life. The group banned television sets, cassette tapes and cameras and, initially at least, tried to run a government with walkie-talkies and paper notes.
But the group used military equipment when it could. During the 1990s it operated a small air force mostly made up of Russian-made aircraft, including around 20 MiG-21 fighter jets, according to historical accounts. This “Taliban Air Force” was the remnants of a once-mighty fleet first established in 1919 by King Amanullah and largely relied on the expertise of pilots and technicians who came under the Taliban control.
Bahiss said the group would probably build on this experience. He added that it was “highly unlikely that they will try to sell these weaponries for cash. I think they are more likely to try to retain them to expand their military capacities against any potential resistance.”
Dempsey said that the United States had been “mindful about what capabilities and technology it has transferred to Afghanistan air force,” which may limit the interest of buyers, though third-party countries may be interested in U.S. precision-guided munitions.
The Taliban has already shown itself ready and willing to use U.S.-made small arms and other technology. Non-weaponry technology like the Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment, U.S. devices that contain biometric data, could be used to find potential threats that are in hiding. U.S. officials told the Intercept that the devices may have fallen into Taliban hands.
But whether the Taliban can actually use the most advanced technology remains to be seen. U.S. aircraft, for example, often require complicated maintenance that nation states struggle with. Even once-supportive states that might have the know-how, such as neighboring Pakistan, may balk at a technologically advanced Taliban military.
If that military technology were to pass from the Afghan Taliban to regional insurgents like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, “that spells disaster for Pakistan,” said Madiha Afzal, a Brookings Institution scholar.
The Taliban may run into the same problems that the Afghan armed forces did: Without expensive support, often provided by foreign contractors, much of the most impressive U.S. technology will gather dust.
There will be no rush to emulate the Afghan armed forces’ reliance on technology, Bahiss said.
“Their performance wasn’t exactly awe-inspiring.”