In my previous blog article I wrote about the core of my current line of work: Advising the German Federal Foreign Office on aspects of assistance related to systematic control of what is known as Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW). The categorization “Small Arms and Light Weapons” can be somewhat misleading, because of the attributes “small” and “light”. Like, light weapons being weapons requiring not more than three people carrying them. We don’t talk about toy weapons. We talk about everything including pistols, rifles, submachine guns, machine guns, and sorts of equipment capable of destroying tanks, or gunning aircrafts down, as long as this stuff can be moved around easily.
We talk about some of the most lethal gear which can be used in asymmetric warfare, organized crime, insurgency, violent extremism, and terrorism. If you want to binge, go to Youtube and look up those gun nerds who run channels where they use this type of weaponry on firing ranges for smashing just about everything, because it creates huge numbers of people watching it. Some of those people don’t only smash things, but also explain the weapons and ammunition in a very detailed, very professional way. Veterans of various wars, having found a retirement business model.
Just to set the record straight about the type of stuff I am looking at in the following paragraphs.
Since every assessment in my line of work starts with a threat assessment, I began to wonder about what we know about the amount of SALW which we can expect to be in Afghanistan after the takeover by the Taleban, and also, where this gear is from. I have no intention to go into a comprehensive research, but I would like to use some publicly available figures as an example, and some simple logical conclusions, in order to at least point into the direction of a staggering dimension of weapons we are talking about.
Let me begin, therefore, with a few things which we know, and a few things which we do not know much about, at least publicly.
We do know that the Taleban themselves have lots of weaponry. Perhaps we do not really know, or only have confidential knowledge about the numbers, and the type of weaponry. For making my argument this is less relevant. We do know that they have enough weapons, ammunition, and explosives which allowed them to fight an entire army and a set of police organisations in a warfare where the Afghan military and police were only able to hold their ground, still loosing control over significant swaths of Afghan territory as long as the international military campaign provided superior capacities and capabilities, meaning for example air support, reconnaissance, drone firepower, specialised ground forces, and a whole international supply chain enabling the Afghan defense against this insurgency. Yet, the Taleban had enough military capability to conduct their insurgency, carrying out horrible atrocities along the way. They had and have an own supply chain, and they had and have an own financial and logistical structure for this supply chain. BBC’s report “Afghanistan: How do the Taliban make money?” gives you a sense.
How many weapons do we talk about which never were under Afghan governmental control and not under control of the Taleban, meaning, weapons in the hands of ordinary citizens, criminals, and terrorists such as ISIS-K? For future analysis, also this question will be relevant. From every experience in other zones of conflict and war it is self-evident that weapons circulate for all kinds of self-defense purposes, criminal purposes, and as instruments of terror. The situation of Afghanistan being a core area of the world’s poppy cultivation, opium production and trade, and heroin production and trade adds. There is simply no way to discard the amount of weapons which never were under any form of organisational control, be it the previous government, or the insurgency. In itself, this amounts to significant amounts of weapons which should be under control, because they are a threat.
How many weapons were left behind by hastily leaving international forces? We simply do not know. We do know that the international military had huge amounts, of course, and hopefully took as much of this gear out as possible. There is, however, indication that not everything was taken out. Here is an example for large weapons stockpiles which were simply burned to the ground, in order to make them unusable: Taleban video footage which was gained by the New York Times, indicating how the CIA burned down own facilities in Kabul before leaving. Those weapons in that video footage seem to be destroyed, however, we also know, at least in relation to some type of military gear, that the advancing Taleban took control of it. There is a lot of coverage about Taleban posing in military gear obtained from former military bases of the international coalition.
How many weapons, how much ammunition, how many explosives were in the possession of the Afghan military and security apparatus before the Taleban took over? Here we may, at least, come up with some figures about what the international community donated to the security apparatus. Whether we do have oversight about the Afghan security forces own procurement processes, I don’t know. I’m a pessimist, I doubt we know much. And the knowledge about what type of gear came from international aid, it may be kept as sensitive information, may be also because of some shame we may feel. But here are two links to professional investigative research on this topic, and here they only serve as examples, proper work requires much more: (1) “Staggering costs – staggering numbers”, a Forbes magazine attempt to look into military equipment and weapons left behind in Afghanistan because the equipment was donated to Afghan military and security; (2) “Afghanistan: Black Hawks and Humvees – military kit now with the Taliban”, BBC reporting also attempts to identify how much heavy military equipment now is under Taleban control. For starters, they list 43 MD-530 helicopters, 33 C208/AC208 planes, 33 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, 23 A-29 light attack air planes, 32 MI-17 helicopters, and 3 C-130 Hercules military cargo planes known as useable in-country as of 30 June 2021. They go on with staggering numbers of vehicles, including 3012 Humvees, and 31 Mobile Strike Force Vehicles. They also list at least 3598 M4 carbines. Like everyone else, BBC scrambles all qualified guesswork attempting to estimate how much of this equipment is in country, and unter Taleban control. Taken together, it is really not difficult to assume that the amount of Small Arms and Light Weapons which were part of the internationally donated equipment over twenty years will be in the milions.
These questions and examples are enough to make my point. We are talking about a country armed to the teeth.
Importantly, the next question relates to how much control there is over these weapons, and by whom. This leads to an attempted threat assessment, and I put that out in my next article.