On Weapons, Ammunition and Explosives – An Afghanistan Threat Assessment

20 August 2021, Christoph Heusgen, former permanent representative of Germany to the United Nations, and former longtime foreign and security policy advisor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, found clear words. In an article on the website of the European Council on Foreign Relations headlined “Germany and Afghanistan: Time to ditch bad governments, not good governance“, he draws a comparison of the engagement in Afghanistan with the situation in Mali, West Africa. He begins with stating “After Afghanistan, countries such as Germany should reconsider their presence in Mali, unless the ruling class commits to good governance and democratic principles.”

In the above article he talks about “good governance”, not only about “democratic principles”. He carefully lists both terms connected with an “and”. They stand separate from each other. And he talks about “the ruling class”. I will come back to “good governance”, conditionality, but also moral responsibilities, towards the end.

At the time of this writing the new Emperor is dressing into governmental clothes: The Taleban are in a process of forming and announcing a new government. When the insurgency had reached Kabul’s outer perimeter, the former Afghan government imploded, literally, after the former President fled the country. In an earlier article on Afghanistan developments I wrote that the difference with this implosion of governance is that we were observing it being on the inside, not on the outside. And in my last piece as of September 02, 2021 I wrote about a country being “armed to the teeth”. This because, amongst many other, the implosion has extraordinary consequences for the amount and type of military and police equipment, weapons, ammunition, and explosives.

Roughly, my questions related to future threats are:

  • Is this gear now subject to new governmental control, and to which extent, and how?
  • What will this gear be used for in Afghanistan by those who claim legitimacy for their governing the country, or just do rule it without any process resembling legitimacy?
  • Will the new Emperor (so to speak) undertake a comprehensive effort to secure large stockpiles of weapons and ammunition before even more will disappear into dubious, criminal, and terrorist channels as for sure is the case already right now? And how will this be done, concretely looking at possible new faultlines of terror and organised crime, by creating new generations of people being subjected to cruelties?
  • Which consequences come from the implosion preceeding the victory? Where are soldiers, police officers, commanding officers of any rank, organisational structures? We hear stories of individuals hiding, of entire units fleeing into neighboring countries together with the equipment they were carrying. We don’t know who will partner up with warlords. We don’t know who will end up on the side of terrorist organisations. And by the way, we do hear about the hostility between IS and the Taleban. We do hear about disappointed Taleban joining the ranks of ISIS-K, who are historically hostile to the Taleban, and who are extremely radical in their religious beliefs. What does this mean for weapons being readily available? Which threats come from extremism and terror in the region, for other parts of the world, including, but not only, Europe?

I am not even pretending this list is complete. Neither I would make a comparison in detail about what happened in other country situations where governance imploded, such as in Libya. Except for the numbers of weapons out of control after Libya’s implosion which were ending up fueling the conflict cycles which haunt us in addition to Libya, thereafter. I talk about Mali and what I witnessed there throughout my travels 2013 and the following years. Today, nine years after the initial crisis in Mail, the fire which we try to extinguish is burning in neighbouring countries, and beyond.

What I say is that we have serious reasons for working on a profound threat assessment. In my conversations, I hear all sorts of opinions. Some would be on the cautious side. Others would say “There won’t be much happening”, or they would say “There is not much that will be a threat for Europe, Afghanistan is too far away”, or, “I am not interested”. The last one being something I heard very often when I listened to people on the streets.

If the catastrophic failure of all collective assessments of intelligence, diplomacy and politics led to the circumstances which we witnessed in July and August, with many voices likening it with an embarrassing “defeat of the West”, what more do we need as a wake-up call that we need to wrap our minds around everything which could be a potential threat for humanity, peace, and security? For the citizens in Afghanistan, in Afghanistan’s neighborhood, in countries closer to the European Union, and the EU itself?

There is no time for complacency any longer.

Just a recap: Until recently, we fought a war against the Taleban, considering them insurgents at least, but we would put them close to terrorism, or we would consider them committing acts of terror. We have, until now, all indications for Taleban forces being responsible for atrocities, for countless crimes against humanity. We have not only withdrawn from a war against the Taleban, with international forces fighting against the Taleban. Rather, the Afghan military and the Afghan Police apparatus has been built, trained, staffed, and equipped. With huge amounts of military and police gear.

This has not been an isolated U.S. endeavor. The U.S. was involved on their own, and being part of NATO. NATO, and NATO member States were in this, together with the United States. The European Union was in it, amongst many other topical areas the EU, and EU Member States, provided large financial contributions to what is known as LOTFA, the Law and Order Trust Fund. Throughout two decades, Afghanistan’s military and policing capacities and capabilities were defined through often mainly international decisions, and when the capacities were stood up, they were dependent on everything, including salaries, equipment, and training. We are talking about an entire Army, and an entire Police setup. From everything I know from public sources, there wasn’t much sustainable development at all if the entire security apparatus depends on salaries being paid through international trust funds, capabilities being generated as donations, with huge dependencies on foreign contractors working on maintenance and supply chains, and constant ongoing training.

Even in a “best case” scenario, I have difficulties imagining anything like a smooth transition of what we call a “chain of command” from one government to the next. It feels almost cynical to name it like that. Rather, I anticipate that sheer power of coercion by the Taleban, may be combined with tribal play which we hardly understand, will compete with resistance, dissolution, and the panic of individuals who fear for their life, and that of their families. There are news about the Taleban not living up to what they publicly claim, that they hunt and execute former police and military officials. What does this mean for weapons control, and for the fate of armed people who are desperate, and need a living at the same time?

Within days in August, the Talban took control. A short while later, the last U.S. airplane being part of the international evacuation and rescue effort, now hailed by the U.S. Secretary of State as the biggest air bridge ever, left Kabul 30 August, 23:59 hours. With that, the U.S. declared the war in Afghanistan being over. Already before, we froze all international aid, by far not only the humanitarian side of it. Who is paying salaries for soldiers and police, right now?

International attention, and attention of the general public, often has a short breath. I can already feel that some may say “Alright, we have lost that war, let us move on.” For twenty years, we were with the Afghan people. Like everyone else in Afghanistan, our military and police colleagues grew friends with us. Fought with us, risked their life for their people, and trusting our promise that we would not leave them alone. Afghan police and military were the ones who took unimaginable casualties (the police even more than the military), and won’t forget the civilian casualties from two decades of war, either. After all, the victims were family, or friends.

Thus, further instability may not only depend on how the Taleban act when delivering on what they claim: That they are different now. It also depends on whether we are able to create new trust amongst those who feel they have lost everything. This means that we can not only think about threats from Afghanistan we may have to contain in the closer and larger neighborhood. We have to seek ways how we can establish a dialogue inside Afghanistan as well. Here, conditionality will be critical.

Apart from any moral assessment of this, which has its legitimacy in its own right: From a pure threat assessment perspective we need to think about a situation where former friends may feel that we have handed them over to former enemies. Where does this lead us to? Our own actions decide about whether this points to future enemies, or scenarios of cooperation. I stop there, the humanist in me wants to, of course, think of even more.

It means that, concretely for the topic at hand – large amounts of weapons, ammunition and explosives – we need to look into long term strategies, waiting for opportunities and avenues allowing the support to containment, control, and demolition inside Afghanistan, and immediate strategies allowing to help in establishing conditions for networks addressing SALW control in Afghanistan’s neighborhood.

Weapons – Ammunition – Explosives – On Afghanistan – Numbers first and what we do not know

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.

Weapons – Ammunition – Explosives – A way how to assist in controlling them

I began my day by reading a guest essay in the New York Times by Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. In “Afghanistan Was a Wake-Up Call. Europe Needs to Step Up.” the Union’s Foreign Policy Chief dives into security issues on a strategic level. Because, the situation in Afghanistan and its wider context is confronting us with a gargantuan collection of challenges which we only begin to understand. Of course, security implications require the same attention as the humanitarian suffering already does.

I want to focus on one specific aspect: Weapons, ammunition, explosives.

On Afghanistan I will do that in my next article, but before doing that I want to spend a few sentences on how we support a comprehensive initiative in the field of weapons, ammunition, and explosives, in the Western Balkans. We do this since several years together with France, increasingly with the European Union, and many others. Good news stories often go unnoticed when facing the onslaught of catastrophic news. So, before looking at something strongly appearing to be a big mess, here a positive story first.

My current work revolves around advising the German Federal Foreign Office on German assistance to systematic efforts of governments and societies controlling all aspects of what is known as Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW), their ammunition, and explosives. It is a very holistic approach, and here is a good entry point on global aspects of SALW.

What does our support mean? Here some examples:

  • It means to help partners in improving meeting international and European standards on how to regulate trade and export according to international treaties;
  • It is about how to ensure safe use, storage, and transport of such items both in the military and the civilian realm;
  • It is about prevention of diversion of legally owned weapons, ammunition and explosives into criminal channels;
  • It is about fighting the use of weapons for criminal purposes, about detecting and deterring organised criminals and terrorists trafficking in weapons or using weapons;
  • It is about prevention of crime, about addressing domestic violence, and violence against women, children, and vulnerable groups;
  • It is about strengthening the role of women in policymaking related to how societies and States want to control all legal aspects on SALW, and to fight all illegal aspects.

That’s already a long list, and more often than not the topic only catches the attention of the general public when there is a horrific terror attack, such as the Paris attacks of 2015. Since two weeks, the situation in Afghanistan is drawing increasingly attention to it.

The key principle is assistance to efforts coming from States and societies themselves. In the case of the Western Balkans it concretely means the joint efforts of six jurisdictions (I will refer to Kosovo with reference to UN Security Council Resolution 1244) Albania, Bosnia & Hercegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North-Macedonia and Serbia. With assistance, they have developed a systematic regional roadmap. These jurisdictions have given this roadmap to themselves, their legislators adopted it.

It began as an exercise where the Western Balkans appreciated help, and it developed into an endeavor that now brings partners in the Western Balkans and in the European Union ever closer together. Germany invests a lot of political support, expertise, and a significant financial contribution, into a coordinated support of donors and international implementing organisations who work together under a specific umbrella of coordination. Assistance is implemented by the United Nations Development Programme UNDP, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime UNODC, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe OSCE, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation NATO.

In a very comprehensive and coordinated way this goes beyond, but critically includes, the work of law enforcement and criminal justice within the six juridictions of the Western Balkans, and their cooperation with Interpol, Europol, Frontex, and others. Moreover, we now see partners acting in a joint interest, less and less as neighbors, more and more as being part of something joint. If you are interested in details, you will find an entry point into this whole universe of comprehensive assistance here, any quick web research will give you tons of more resources. And watch out for more news. There is a high-level conference coming up early September, taking stock half-way through the intitiative. I will post public statements here in my blog once I am authorised to do that.

The way how this roadmap has been developed by the governments in the Western Balkans themselves, and the way how donors and partners assist them in it, has found international recognition, including inside the European Union itself, and the United Nations. Recently, the UN explicitly praised the Western Balkans roadmap inititiative as a role model that could be adapted to other situations. And Germany already supports the interest which has been raised in the Carribean, or in West Africa. Both regions make good progress in developing their own tailormade approach.

Making it clear from where I look at select aspects of what can be seen as challenges within the Afghanistan context is meant to indicate two experiences which I support:

The relevance of weapons, ammunition and explosives in a global threat environment at times goes underrated, until a catastrophe is hitting the news again. The threat is constant, and in my experience it is growing;

There are successful models on assisting countries in conflict; countries emerging from conflict; countries being confronted with conflict in their immediate neighborhood; and countries that are well advanced on their long path into building lasting peace. We have alternatives to the failed models of the past. Initiatives like the one I have described above are important examples for something that can be used in many other topical and geographical areas.

They are relevant because of the key principles of assistance, partnership, and coherence of support efforts which I have touched upon above.


Schulfunk – Waffenschmugglern auf der Spur – Tracking weapons traffickers

Schulfunk – An almost forgotten German expression from my childhood: Starting as a radio broadcasting service 70 years ago, meant to contribute to re-educating post-war Germany, Schulfunk developed into effective knowledge transfer, supplementing school education. Contemporary follow-on programs still exist, but the ancient label “Schulfunk” may get forgotten at some point. Today, it is about public broadcasters serving on their obligation to contribute to fact-based educational programs.

In a more sarcastic sense, I labeled any True Crime movie, or fictional reporting about crime, and movies about detectives solving crime cases, “Schulfunk”. Starting my professional career as a detective police officer myself, I was never too much interested in spending my evenings watching True Crime stories, or detective fiction. I found these stories too much detached from reality. Believe it or not, I preferred, and prefer until today, Science Fiction and Fantasy movies. Everyone has a weirdo side, right?

So, starting off a little bit on the funny side this morning, the screenshot below is about a piece of investigative journalism which was broadcasted by the German news channel “ZDF” March 24, 2021. Until March 24, 2023, you can watch this piece using the following link: https://www.zdf.de/dokumentation/zdfzoom/zdfzoom-waffenschmugglern-auf-der-spur-100.html

It pretty much is about my current line of work. It is in German language, but my small complaint sits with another issue, not the language.

Part of why I sarcastically labeled crime stories “Schulfunk”, distancing myself a little bit, has to do with the drama which appears to be a necessary part of broadcasting. Whether TV, movies on the big screen, or Youtube, nothing goes without music, and nothing goes without some sensational takes with which the subject matter at hand is presented in a way causing interest on the side of people looking for something to watch.

I get it, it is part of the human nature. I used it myself, when I was designing media campaigns for my colleagues and friends in Bosnia & Herzegovina during my time as Head of the European Union Police Mission. Just on a personal note, I find the dramatic music in this piece about weapons trafficking from the Western Balkans a little bit too heavy for my personal taste.

But after getting that out the way, I just wanted to reference this piece of journalism in my blog. And I wanted to do this without too much commenting, explaining, or describing my part in the work of my government, together with colleagues from France, and the European Union, in supporting the implementation of a strategic initiative which the six jurisdictions of the Western Balkans have agreed upon themselves. (We talk about jurisdictions, instead of States, in order to include Kosovo under the United Nations Resolution 1244 within a politically sensitive context).


If you want to understand what the Roadmap for a sustainable solution to the illegal possession, misuse and trafficking of SALW and their ammunition in the Western Balkans by 2024, is about, I would invite you to begin with browsing the website of SEESAC (https://www.seesac.org). SEESAC is the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons. It holds an instrumental role in supporting the implementation of this Roadmap, which was jointly developed by the Western Balkans Authorities, under the auspices of Germany and France, in coordination with the European Union, and with SEESAC’s technical assistance.

The Roadmap is the most comprehensive arms control exercise in the region, covering all key aspects from securing the stockpiles of weapons and ammunition to mainstreaming gender in SALW control and countering firearms trafficking. It represents a firm commitment to addressing the threats posed by the misuse and illicit possession of weapons in the Western Balkans and Europe at large and is a result of strong cooperation on SALW control in the region which SEESAC has fostered since 2002.


I especially like the final stretches of the reportage. After some good investigative work attempting to make connections between trafficking of weapons, ammunition and explosives through crime and organised criminal groups on the one side and some disturbing indications about some of these weapons and explosives ending up increasingly in the hands of right-wing extremists in Germany, the documentary ends with explaining the Roadmap which I referenced above. Bojana Balon, the Head of SEESAC, is being interviewed. And some impressive pictures deal with what we prefer to do with these weapons: Seizing them, and destroying them.

So, in the best tradition of the gun with the knot in its barrel which you find on the compound of United Nations Headquarters, here a few pictures. No need to reference any copyright, I took all these pictures myself.