The rapid takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban exploded the proliferation of weapons captured from the former ANA (Afghan National Army), ANP (Afghan National Police), NDS (National Directorate of Security), and other former government armed formations.
The US and its western allies exit from Afghanistan and the subsequent collapse of the Afghan Government have drawn consternation and concern from many corners of the globe, and joy from almost as many. Great attention was given to the rapid nature of the Taliban military prowess, paved by a remarkably effective diplomatic and social outreach structure. It is unclear whether concerns as to the “return” of al Qaeda (The group never left, and is intertwined closely with the Taliban) will be fulfilled, although external operations are unlikely in the short term.
Current evidence suggests that beyond the reach of the international news media or mobile networks Taliban behaviour has remained consistent since the last time they were ruling in Kabul, but the information is limited. Rural & provincial divides between Taliban groupings are likely to lead to inconsistent behaviour, and maybe a source of tension in the future; but for now, the Taliban remain a cohesive force.
What the Taliban Captured
Whilst great importance and alarm is given to the weapon systems captured of the Afghan Air Force (Mi-17V-5, UH-60A, A-29, etc) by the Taliban, these platforms are of little use to the Taliban, excepting the Mi-17 (So far, the UH-60A appears to have been of limited utility, although they have been seen operating), which are generally regarded as the most rugged helicopters in-country and can be maintained within Afghanistan. Aircraft of the type captured by the Taliban struggle to operate without western support, as the ANA found to its detriment.
Regardless of the embarrassing nature of these Taliban weapons captures by the United States, they are of little security concern to regional or Western security. Likewise, the thousands of M-1151/M-1152 HMMWV, MRAP, M1117 ASV, Ford Ranger and more that have also fallen into the hands of the Taliban are of little concern to regional states. Although the TTP (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan; Pakistani Taliban) have been seen using Ford Ranger vehicles, these have only been seen within Afghanistan’s Kunar province in recent days.
All these assets are difficult to transfer across national borders.
Small Arms & Light Weapons
The Taliban captured close to the entire weapons inventory of the former Afghan State. This includes hundreds of thousands of NATO-standard weapons.
- M24 SWS precision rifles
- M249 & M240 machine guns
- M2 heavy machine guns
- M16A2/A4 & M4 Carbine rifles
- Beretta M9
- Glock 17/19
- Smith & Wesson SW9VE
Similar quantities of more “traditional” weapons for the area:
- AK variants- AKM and derivatives, Type 56, AK-74
- RPD and PK/PKM
- Heavy Machine Guns such as DShK variants, NSV, M02 Coyote, KPV
- 23mm Autocannon (ZU-23-2)
- RPG-7 rocket launchers, RPG projectiles
- Reccoilless Rifles (B-10 and Chinese variants, SPG-9) with projectiles
In addition to this, very large quantities of:
- 81/82mm, 120mm Mortars
- Communication equipment
- Optics and Night Vision equipment (AN/PVS-7 & AN/PVS-14)
- M203 & GP-25 under-barrel grenade launchers
- Body armour and Uniforms
- Small arms ammunition
Other general military equipment and weapons have also been captured by the Taliban in the past two months. All of this is in addition to the substantial capture by the Taliban across Afghanistan in recent years as the United States and its coalition partners left the country.
Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to accurately determine the quantities of weapons now in the hands of the Taliban, but it can be safely assumed that the great bulk of the former ANA/ANP’s equipment was captured. A 2017 Government Accountability Office report provides a rough guide to the mix of assets supplied to the Afghan authorities until that year, but cannot be assumed to be an accurate count for government assets in 2021, as many weapons (including non-US origin) were both supplied and captured after that date.
A key difference to Taliban capabilities compared to 20 years ago is that they have not captured MANPADS, as these have not been supplied to the ANA by the US or allies. Any MANPADS in Afghanistan are likely to be from old stocks (These are either unusable due to age or expended) or from very limited more recent supply to the Taliban by others.
Proliferation across Afghanistan and Beyond
All of this captured weapons kit is of great use to the Taliban in ensuring that the new regime is well equipped to ensure that Afghanistan’s borders can be defended, and that internal order is maintained (eg; that Taliban security forces can repress opposition, control organised crime, and protect both human and national assets).
In fact, Taliban forces appear to have sensibly began the process of merging their forces into the former security infrastructure, the key to governance. However, there were a lot more weapons captured than is required, as the Taliban already retained substantial stocks of materiel. Despite the Taliban’s keenness to disarm private citizens who “no longer require” personal protection, weapons flow within Afghanistan and beyond, already bolstered by Taliban captures before the offensive started in May 2021, have turned into a torrent.
Whilst I documented the average price of an M16A4 in Central Afghanistan dropping by almost 40% in two months. This increased yet further in the past weeks, with some sources reporting a drop to closer to $1100 dollars each—a price drop of almost 55%. Other figures quoted by an analyst with detailed knowledge of weapons flows into North-West Pakistani border areas, indicate average pricing falls of 50-65% or more in recent weeks. NATO-standard M4 & M16A4 rifles have been reported to be available in bulk for roughly $600 each.
There is no indication that these small arms are intended for extremists or terrorist groups (There is an active and very healthy firearm culture across much of Pakistan). However, their availability is an illustration of the present Taliban’s inability to prevent small arms proliferation. Taliban factions in rural provinces, particularly those on border areas, use illicit materiel flows (amongst other illegal goods, such as narcotics) to fund their operations, pay fighters, and work in collaboration with local criminal power brokers. According to local sources, Taliban commanders in Kandahar and Helmand have already sold “thousands” of rifles onto local black markets.
However, regional states would be correct to be concerned; in a far cry from local weapons enthusiasts, insurgent groups such as the BLA (Baloch Liberation Army), the Taliban-allied TTP, Jaysh al-Udl, and others have already been assessed to have procured captured weapons from former Afghan Government stocks. The author was told by informed sources with visual evidence that the BLA already started the purchase of recently captured weapons from the Taliban. Organised crime is also likely to have a keen interest in Night Vision & NATO-standard long-range communication equipment, with powerful drug smuggling organisations on the Iran-Afghan border already making use of these.
Weapons were already widespread in Afghanistan, but recent events made the country a virtual arms bazaar that has the potential to fuel crime, conflict, and instability in S/E Asia for decades. It is also likely to be a boon to the Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K), which sees Afghanistan as a key area to sustain its efforts across the region. IS-K has a clear interest in being the ideological and violent spoiler to the newfound “Taliban Peace”, as shown in the catastrophic Kabul airport suicide bombing.
Fingers can be rightly pointed towards the United States and its allies for enabling even more weapons of war to flow into Afghanistan in the chaotic withdrawal, but history is still to be written even as the chaos at Hamid Karzai International Airport has subsided. The weapons supplied, left behind, and distributed widely will be an uncomfortable reminder that unchecked weapons supply to an inherently unstable government has consequences.