Highlight 24/2021 – U.S.A. arsenal captured by Taliban, a new market for arms trafficking?
Jérémy Sébastien Aron, 12 October 2021
Summer 2021 will be remembered as a dark chapter in the history of Afghanistan. After 20 years of U.S.A. and NATO presence in the country, Taliban took power back on August 15. The offensive lasted only three months. Afghan National Army did not succeed to enforce security despite massive American investment: the training and assistance program has costed to the U.S.A. $83 billion since 2001, including $2,6 billion for the last two years. Most of the funds were used to supply the local army with weapons and ammunition.
It seems very difficult to clearly define the number of weapons seized by Taliban. Firstly, because no one has a precise idea of stocks held on Afghan ground. Secondly, during the summer offensive, it was reported that soldiers were fleeing the country, bringing their equipment with them or selling it to Taliban to avoid death. It is sure that Taliban seized thousands of pistols, assault rifles (such as M-16, M-4 or Ak-47), grenades, ammunition and night-vision goggles. Their propaganda through social media can give us a clue of their new capacities. It appears that they now possess light and heavy vehicles (Humvee and MRAP), unmanned aerial vehicles (Scan Eagle), helicopters (Black Hawk, Mi-17 and EC-130) and airplanes (A29 Tucano). The variety of the material and the current geopolitical situation offer opportunities for local, regional and international weapons market.
The summer offensive was only a short victory for Taliban regime. It is now dealing with structural issues and security problems. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is not recognized by the international community and the country is facing a dramatic economic crisis. Local tribes are often fighting each other and the need for self-defence remains strong in the country. Selling light arms to combatants and local chiefs is an easy way to make money, even if there is a risk to get caught by the heads of the regime. One of the main dangerous opponents to the regime is the Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP), affiliated to the Islamic State (IS) and composed of about 3 000 fighters in Afghanistan. This organization is responsible for several attacks in Kabul and along the border with Pakistan. Taliban regime will likely keep many weapons and vehicles seized to fight ISKP and enforce security in the country (a strong narrative in their propaganda). According to U.S. statements, most of aircrafts have been demilitarized and are inoperant. Even if Taliban use pilots from the Afghan National Army, it seems improbable that they have the means and competences to repair and conduct maintenances which were supplied by external firms. However, being able to fix these aircrafts and to conduct a show of force would be a strong asset for strategic communication. So, it is not excluded to see private firms coming in Afghanistan to help Taliban to re-build a national air force.
The Taliban regime desperately needs funds to control the country as national assets are frozen. Illicit arms trafficking is a good way to make money. Pakistan has always been an unofficial support of Taliban and is a good market to sell some of the weapons stocks. The country borders in mountainous areas are hard to control and offer opportunities for smugglers and weapons dealers, especially in Kandahar province. Furthermore, some sources reported that Taliban have recently provided vehicles and weaponry to Tajik militants based in northern Afghanistan, due to the growing tensions between the new Kabul regime and the Tajikistan government. In fact, to own a massive number of weapons is a leverage for Taliban to fund and equip local groups or allies in order to maintain security at borders.
The economic crisis in Afghanistan and the need for money may also accelerate arms trafficking on an international level. Some countries use private military and security companies (PMSCs) to conduct proxy war in countries in crisis (Libya, Syria or Central African Republic). Those PMSCs, such as the Wagner Group or Sadat, have a tangible chance to get American military material from Afghanistan. Acquisition of such vehicles, uniforms, assault rifles or even aircrafts is a great opportunity for them to hide the identities of their mercenaries on the battlefield and then to accuse the U.S.A. of destabilizing countries in crisis by providing weapons.
The U.S. arsenal seized by Taliban is probably envied by many actors: local population, fighter groups, arms dealers, neighbour states and international PMSCs. The lack of stocks control and the chaos generated by the transition of power make weapons monitoring an extremely difficult task. Even if it is likely that Taliban regime will keep many of the weapons to preserve their own security, it seems that the situation will lead to, at least, a regional instability, and, in the worst case, to proxy war in some countries in conflict such as Ukraine, Syria, Libya or the Sahel region.
Jérémy Sébastien ARON, U.S.A. arsenal captured by Taliban, a new market for arms trafficking?, Highlight 24/2021, available at www.meig.ch
The views expressed in the MEIG Highlights are personal to the author and neither reflect the positions of the MEIG Programme nor those of the University of Geneva.