Taliban gets access to US-made arms, but needs expertise to operate some gear

Taliban fighters atop a Humvee vewhicle take part in a rally in Kabul on Aug 31, 2021.
Taliban fighters atop a Humvee vewhicle take part in a rally in Kabul on Aug 31, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

To the victor go the spoils, even though they may not be in working condition.

When the Afghan government collapsed last month, the Taliban not only seized power in Kabul, but also inherited a formidable arsenal of US-made weapons that was supplied to the previous army.

A parade on Wednesday (Sept 1) in Kandahar, the spiritual birthplace of the militant group, showed it had taken over aircraft, armoured vehicles and artillery.

Taliban fighters brandishing assault rifles were seen riding Humvees in the city.

A day earlier, videos surfaced on social media showing them examining helicopters, largely used by American and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation forces during the 20-year conflict.

The United States was quick to downplay the loss of equipment.

"They can inspect all they want. They can look at them, they can walk around, but they can't fly them," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told CNN on Tuesday. "They can't operate them. We made sure to demilitarise, to make unusable all the gear at the airport."

Experts said explosives could have been used to destroy key components of the equipment to render them unfit for use.

The US aircraft left behind included Black Hawk tactical transport helicopters and A-29 light-attack planes that satellite images spotted in air hangars in Kabul, according to the BBC.

Dr Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute think-tank, told USA Today that the Taliban's new arsenal may not be very useful if the group does not have the expertise to operate the sophisticated weapons.

"The helicopters are the most expensive item, but the ability of the Taliban to operate and maintain them without outside help is modest," he said.

"The absence of US logistical support will lead to a steady decay in the state of the residual Afghan military arsenal. Even small arms will gradually become unusable if not properly maintained."

Qatar TV channel Al Jazeera reported that the Taliban was "disappointed and felt betrayed" that most of the military equipment was "broken beyond repair".

The exact number of US equipment in the hands of the Taliban is hard to quantify, but a US government report detailed the transfer of 600,000 light weapons, including rifles and machine guns, to Afghanistan in 2017.

Republican congressman Jim Banks, a former US Navy serviceman in Afghanistan, has estimated that US$85 billion (S$114 billion) worth of military gear is at the group's disposal.

Retired US Army General Joseph Votel, who led the US Central Command between 2016 and 2019, noted that it could be the small arms that would give the Taliban the most immediate advantage.

He said machine guns and howitzers - artillery pieces already familiar to the group's soldiers - could be used to quell anti-Taliban strongholds growing in the Panjshir Valley, north-east of Kabul.