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Real threat or hype: Should US weapons in Taliban hands worry us?

Washington has spent $83 billion to modernise, train, equip Afghanistan's military

afghan collage A collage, clockwise, showing an MRAP vehicle (Wikipedia Commons), ScanEagle (Insitu) and MD-530 ( Wikipedia Commons)

In the hands of an anti-American guerrilla... a Stinger missile could turn a US aircraft into a bright orange inferno.

One would be forgiven for thinking whether the aforementioned statement was made over the past two weeks, given the surfeit of ominous predictions after the Taliban took control of Kabul.

But this statement was a line from an opinion piece written in The New York Times on April 30, 1986, by then US senator Dennis Deconcini. Deconcini, a Democrat, had written the opinion piece to warn about the threat of US-made Stinger surface-to-air missiles.

In the mid-1980s, the CIA began supplying the Stinger missiles to the 'Mujahideen' who were fighting the Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan. The US estimated the Stinger—which homed in on the heat signature of its targets—downed around 270 Soviet aircraft and helicopters. This made the Stinger one of the most significant weapons in the Mujahideen's fight to force the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan.

But after the September 11 attacks in 2001, fears of the remaining Stinger missiles in Afghanistan resurfaced. Claims were made that terrorists could get their hands on the Stinger missiles to attack military and civilian aircraft.

Since the beginning of August, similar fears have been expressed about the weapons supplied by the US to the Afghan National Army and Air Force in the past two decades.

How much?

According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a US oversight agency, Washington has spent $83 billion to modernise, train and equip Afghanistan's security forces in the past two decades.

SIGAR was formed in 2008 to audit and oversee the US reconstruction and assistance efforts in Afghanistan and has monitored the state of the Afghan military extensively.

What type of weapons?

  • a) Aerial: According to SIGAR's quarterly report to the US Congress in July, the Afghan Air Force had a total strength of 167 usable aircraft, out of a total inventory of 211 aircraft. The usable aircraft included 43 MD-530 light-attack helicopters, 33 UH-60 Black Hawk transport helicopters and 23 Super Tucano light-attack aircraft.

    SIGAR noted the Afghan Air Force was phasing out its fleet of over 30 serviceable Russian-origin Mi-17 transport helicopters, as part of the US efforts to reduce prevalence of Russian-origin equipment in Afghanistan's military. The US had also pushed the Afghan military to abandon its reliance on the Russian Mi-24 Hind attack helicopter.

  • b) Firearms: In a 2017 report, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) said from 2004 to 2016, the US had supplied about 600,000 ground weapons for Afghanistan's security forces, of which almost 81 per cent were rifles and pistols. These weapons included 358,530 rifles such as the M-16, M-4, AK-47 and Dragunov; 126,295 pistols; 64,363 machine guns and 25,327 grenade launchers.

  • c) Vehicles: From 2003 to 2016, the US supplied approximately 76,000 ground vehicles to the Afghan military. Of these, the majority of vehicles—42,604—were light 'tactical vehicles', mainly Ford pick-up trucks. In addition, 22,174 Humvee troop carriers were also sold. Humvees typically carry light armour, which allows them to withstand fire from 'small arms' like rifles.

    Among the most formidable vehicles provided to the Afghan Army by the US were 928 mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles. MRAP vehicles weigh over 10 tonnes and can carry troops to battle zones safely.

  • d) Sensors: The US also provided Afghanistan with support equipment such as 16,000 night vision goggles and secure communication devices for troops and pilots to communicate with commanders and other units.

  • e) Drones: Since 2015, the US supplied Afghanistan at least 105 ScanEagle UAVs, built by Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing. The ScanEagle is a small, low-cost drone, which weighs around 22kg and can carry out surveillance missions for up to 24 hours. According to SIGAR, the ScanEagle programme in Afghanistan cost the US $174 million.

The state of the US weapons, now

That the Taliban has taken possession of many of these weapon systems is old news. But how effective are they, right now?

The SIGAR report to Congress in July stated the readiness level of the Afghan Air Force had dropped as a result of the Taliban offensive and withdrawal of US military personnel and contractors, who had been assisting in training and employment of the new aircraft. The readiness rate of the Black Hawk fleet fell from 77 per cent in April and May to 39 per cent in June.

Moreover, satellite imagery has shown several Afghan helicopters and Super Tucano aircraft had flown to Uzbekistan as pilots fled the war-torn country. Thus, questions will persist over whether there will be enough mechanics, engineers and pilots and operators left to operate the vehicles and aircraft in a Taliban-run Afghan military.

On Monday as the US completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, Central Command head General Kenneth McKenzie said US forces had disabled aircraft and vehicles to make them 'unusable'. McKenzie said 73 aircraft at the Kabul airport were “demilitarised” by the US, while 70 MRAP vehicles and 27 Humvees were also disabled.

Moreover, the lack of support from US manufacturers is likely to render many of the helicopters and aircraft inoperable due to lack of spares.

Bradley Bowman, a former US Army Black Hawk pilot who is currently the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, was sceptical about the Taliban's capability to keep the Black Hawk helicopters flying.

Bowman told NPR earlier this month. "It's not something that you can do (fly Black Hawk effectively) in a week or a month. Someone could get in there, maybe find some operating manuals and figure out how to get the engine started, the rotors turning and get it up in the air, But they'd probably be more of a danger to themselves than to anyone else at that point." He conceded the Taliban and Al Qaeda would attempt to keep the Black Hawk fleet operational.

Will these weapons threaten other countries?

The vast majority of the aforementioned weapon systems were meant primarily for 'counter-insurgency' roles, rather than full-fledged combat operations against other nations.

For instance, the most 'advanced' aircraft in Afghanistan's air arsenal is the Super Tucano, which is a light propeller-driven aircraft. The Super Tucano was designed for aerial surveillance operations and had light-strike capability, being capable of launching bombs and rockets. The Super Tucano—originally designed by Brazil's Embraer but built under licence in the US—is not designed to engage with supersonic fighters.

A more realistic possibility would be the Taliban using the new vehicles, aircraft and firearms to continue extending its control across the country. This possibility is heightened given the changed geopolitical situation in the region, which has raised doubts about the emergence of a new 'Northern Alliance 2.0'. Countries like Russia and Iran, who supported the original Northern Alliance, have been making overtures to the Taliban.

The China factor

Fears have been expressed that the Taliban could hand over some of the US equipment to China. But most of the US weapons left behind in Afghanistan is classified as 'low-tech' systems, for which China has developed analogues. For example, China's Z-20 transport helicopter, which is entering service now, is thought to be derived from a Black Hawk variant sold by the US to Beijing in the 1980s.

Moreover, with Washington out of Afghanistan, China is widely expected to become a benefactor of the Taliban. Which leaves open the possibility of Beijing selling weapons to Afghanistan in the future. This includes services and support for equipment like the Mi-17, which is also operated by the Chinese military.

Terrorist threat

The most likely threat to the rest of the world from the Taliban's new arsenal of US weapons is terror groups getting their hands on them. This is a threat that even Chinese experts acknowledge.

Chinese military researcher Zhou Chenming told South China Morning Post recently there are fears of US weapons reaching Muslim extremist groups operating in the restive province of Xinjiang.

The presence of US night-vision goggles could turn out to be an asset for terrorist groups in carrying out ambush attacks, given such equipment are small and easier to smuggle.

The ScanEagle drone fleet left behind in Afghanistan is not designed to carry weapons, but the platform could prove lucrative for groups eyeing them as 'suicide' drones, which can fly into and explode on their targets. The 'conversion' of the ScanEagle for such a role has been done before. In 2014, Iran unveiled the Raad, a UAV derived from ScanEagle drones it captured. The ScanEagle has greater endurance and speed than commercially available UAVs that some terrorist groups have used in recent years.

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