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US Arms in Afghanistan

Thalif Deen (Courtesy author's photo)

Thalif Deen (Courtesy author’s photo)

By Thalif Deen - NEW YORK (IDN) — When the last of the US troops pulled out of Kabul on August 31—after a prolonged 20-year military occupation of Afghanistan—they left behind a treasure trove of weapons but most of them abandoned by retreating Afghan forces who were American allies.

These weapons, including combat helicopters, armoured vehicles, battle tanks and transport aircraft, were apparently de-activated by the departing Americans, but some reportedly remain functional and battle-ready.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which monitors weapons sales worldwide, the US delivered a staggering array of arms during 2001-2021, including an estimated 21,924 armoured vehicles, 66 MD-530F armed light helicopters, 34 Cessna-208B armed light transport aircraft, 53 UH-60A transport helicopters, 5 ScanEagle unarmed and unmanned aerial vehicles and an estimated 250 Paveway guided bombs.

The US reportedly spent over $2.2 trillion in military, humanitarian, and development assistance over 20 years. Of this, a hefty $83 billion was spent on the military, at the rate of over $4.0 billion annually, mostly on arms purchases originating from the US defence industry, plus maintenance, servicing and training.

But US officials claim that most of the equipment left behind were disabled even though Cable News Network (CNN) reported that the Taliban threw a parade to publicly display the weapons, with fighters waving flags from US-made Humvees and armoured vehicles and posing for photos in helicopter cockpits.

Responding to a question at a briefing, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said: “They can inspect all they want … They can look at them … but they can’t fly them. They can’t operate them,” he said, because all of them had been de-activated.

Siemon Wezeman, Senior Researcher, Arms Transfers Programme at SIPRI, told IDN it is unclear to what extent the left-behind US weapons have been or could be made non-operational.

Technically, rendering the more complicated systems like helicopters or the Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortars (C-RAM) to a state where they cannot be used, and will be difficult to restore to use, is not very difficult.

Taking away or destroying a few key components (including parts of the helicopter engines or some specialised electronics) will do the trick (while the systems may from the outside still operational or repairable), he said.

If those key components are selected carefully, he said, they cannot be repaired or replaced without US-controlled services or components, or with components from other captured systems (e.g. one would need to destroy all components of a certain type used on any of the weapons that were left in Afghanistan or were captured from Afghan forces to prevent the Taliban using parts captured intact).

Wezeman also pointed out that for ‘simpler’ weapons, of which most were in the hands of the Afghan forces—like the 1000s of light armoured vehicles or the 10,0000s rifles—it would be impossible for the US to make them non-operational: there were too many, they were under control of the Afghan forces and most were not close to the few US forces left by August 2021.

Many would, even if partly made non-operational, probably be fairly easy for the Taliban to restore or to use as a source of spare parts to fix other damaged weapons themselves, he added.

Wezeman said repairing or swapping a damaged engine from one of the many light armoured vehicles with a functioning engine from another vehicle, does not require more expertise than can be found with any car mechanic. However, trying to fix or swap engines for some of the helicopters needs more expertise and is of course more demanding in precision.

The Wall Street Journal reported the US troops destroyed or disabled nearly 100 combat vehicles and dozens of aircraft before vacating the airport in Kabul, in a last-ditch bid to deprive the Taliban of the use of some American military equipment.

But US officials who track the flow of weapons are watching closely to see what becomes of the acres of weaponry, vehicles and aircraft that were left behind, which are still operable and can be of use to the Taliban or to arms smugglers.

Overview of transfers

In terms of volume, according to the SIPRI report, Afghanistan was not a very large recipient of major arms; in 2016–20 Afghanistan ranked as only the 25th largest recipient in the world, accounting for 1.0 per cent of the global total.

Slightly over three-quarters of the major arms delivered, by volume, were newly produced, while the rest were second-hand, but in some cases modified prior to delivery.

The volumes of major arms transfers to the Afghan armed forces grew significantly between 2001–2005 and 2011–2015 (see figure 1). However, volumes decreased by 24 per cent in 2016–2020.

Sixteen states are known to have supplied major arms to Afghanistan in the period 2001–2020 (see figure 2). The major arms were overwhelmingly armoured land vehicles and aircraft (see figure 3), SIPRI says.

Transfers from the US

The US was the largest major arms supplier to Afghanistan in every consecutive five-year period after 2001–2005.

Between 2001 and 2020 the US was the supplier for 74 per cent of Afghanistan’s imports of major arms by volume. The volume of US transfers to Afghanistan increased between 2001–2005 and 2011–2015.

During 2016–2020, the volume of US exports was similar to the previous five years, and it was twice as high as in 2006–2010 and around 65 times higher compared with 2001–2005. Also, by 2016–2020 imports from other states had fallen even more sharply, and the US accounted for almost 90 per cent of Afghanistan’s imports of major arms by volume, according to SIPRI.

Deliveries from the US to Afghanistan from 2001 included an estimated 21, 924 armoured vehicles (e.g. HMMWV-UA, ASV-150/M-1117), 66 MD-530F armed light helicopters, 34 Cessna-208B armed light transport aircraft, and 53 UH-60A transport helicopters. The US also delivered 65 ScanEagle (unarmed) unmanned aerial vehicles and an estimated 250 Paveway guided bombs. Most of the arms were supplied to Afghanistan as aid.

Transfers from Russia

Russia was the second largest supplier of major arms to the Afghan armed forces in the period, accounting for 14 per cent of imports, by volume. All of these deliveries took place between 2002 and 2014.

Deliveries from Russia mainly consisted of 90 second-hand and newly produced Mi-8MTV and Mi-17 transport helicopters between 2002 and 2014. Early deliveries (2002–2005) were in the form of aid, but most of the transport helicopters were bought via and financed by the US in 2009–2014, and 10, which were delivered in 2010, were financed by the United Arab Emirates, according to the SIPRI report.

Transfers from other suppliers

Several other states, mainly North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states, delivered smaller volumes of major arms to Afghanistan directly or supplied major arms through US-run and US-funded programmes, SIPRI says.

Italy accounted for 3.8 per cent of all deliveries of major arms to Afghanistan, by volume, in the period. These consisted of 16 second-hand G-222 transport aircraft in 2009–2012, financed by the USA. The aircraft were modernized in Italy before delivery.

Among other NATO member states and NATO partner states, Czechia supplied six Mi-24 combat helicopters and six Mi-17 transport helicopters in 2007–2009. All were second-hand but were modernized in Czechia before delivery, in a programme paid for by NATO.

The UK supplied two Mi-17 transport helicopters in 2010; Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovakia and Turkey supplied a total of 128 second-hand artillery pieces between 2006 and 2013; and Norway supplied an estimated 159 TOW anti-tank missile in 2009. All these transfers came as direct aid or were financed by the US.

Several non-NATO states also supplied major arms. Brazil was the fourth largest supplier, accounting for 2.7 per cent of all deliveries. These were 26 Super Tucano (A-29B) trainer/combat aircraft, delivered in 2016–2018.

They were bought through a US programme, financed by the US and modified in the US before delivery to Afghanistan. They became the main combat aircraft of the Afghan air force.

Switzerland supplied 18 PC-12 light transport aircraft in 2015. These reached Afghanistan via the US and were probably modified in the US for reconnaissance before final delivery.

India supplied three Cheetah light helicopters and four second-hand Mi-25 combat helicopters in 2015–2016. It also financed the supply of four second-hand Mi-24V combat helicopters from Belarus in 2019, according to SIPRI figures.

In the final analysis, SIPRI’s Wezeman said what the Taliban will do or can do with the captured equipment is less clear.

Generally, few see the major arms (those listed in SIPRI’s topical backgrounder) now in the hands of the Taliban as a serious threat to anyone outside Afghanistan.

However, the small arms and light weapons and related ammunition and equipment are likely to be a much bigger problem: either the Taliban can supply them to like-minded groups in other countries or some of them can leak into the black market, he noted.

As a result, said Wezeman, they can also get picked up by extremist groups or individuals—a situation similar to what happened with Libya’s large stocks of such equipment, which are used by various rebel groups in the Sahel region. Or equipment from past conflicts in South-East Asia that has found its way over the years to users like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, several groups in Central America and others in South-East Asia. [IDN-InDepthNews – 12 September 2021]

Thalif Deen, is a former Director, Foreign Military Markets at Defense Marketing Services; Senior Defense Analyst at Forecast International; and military editor Middle East/Africa at Jane’s Information Group. He is also the author of a newly-released book on the United Nations titled “No Commentand Don’t Quote Me on That.” Published by Amazon, the book is mostly a satire peppered with scores of anecdotesboth serious and hilarious. 

Photo (top) Credit: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

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