Opinion | National Security

The weapons American forces left behind may not help the Taliban much

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

In his Aug. 30 briefing to the news media, when announcing the completion of America's withdrawal from Afghanistan, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of the Central Command, announced that U.S. forces had rendered some portion of American equipment in that country inoperable. As he put it, they "would never be used again." He listed only three examples of such equipment, however: 70 mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs), 27 high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (Humvees), and 73 aircraft that he said "won't fly again." He did not specify which of the many types of aircraft were included, nor did he say anything about American equipment that Washington had transferred to the Afghan National Defense Forces and the Taliban had taken.

Indeed, McKenzie also did not address the fate of the remaining equipment that the United States had employed in Afghanistan over the course of its 20-year war. Not surprisingly, therefore, ever since the withdrawal was completed, analysts have debated the types, quality, quantity and utility of the equipment that fell into the Taliban's hands - either that which Americans had left behind, or that which the Taliban captured from retreating Afghan forces.

Some analysts have based their estimates on aggregate calculations that reflect several years' worth of equipment that American forces employed or transferred to the Afghan forces during the war and the Taliban captured during the final two months of American presence in Afghanistan. The numbers are nothing short of staggering: The Department of Defense's (DOD) own figures indicate more than 5,000 pieces of communications equipment, more than 1,700 vehicles of different types, and over 80,000 smaller weapons that the United States transferred to the Afghan forces in 2016 and 2017 alone. 

Moreover, as of 2020, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies' authoritative The Military Balance, Afghanistan operated approximately 180 fixed and rotary wing aircraft, as well as 775 artillery pieces of various kinds.  How many of these systems eventually fell into Taliban hands as the group slowly re-conquered the country is simply unknown.

It also is unclear to what extent any of these systems - as well as those that American forces were unable to destroy - remained in working order when the Taliban captured them. While some of these systems probably are too sophisticated for the Taliban to operate, the Taliban certainly could incorporate into its forces many of the smaller, less complex weapons it now owns.

Apart from weapons left behind that have remained intact, there are numerous others, including some of those that American forces rendered unusable, that nevertheless might be recoverable. Moreover, some analysts assert that even if these systems could not be restored to operational use, they might offer insights into how America's forces operate on the battlefield. While the Taliban does not possess the capability to restore disabled American systems, its closest allies, notably China and Pakistan, probably have the ability to do so. On the other hand, it is questionable whether the Chinese or Pakistanis would gain new insights into America's actual employment of these systems. 

To begin with, much of the equipment that America transferred to the Afghan National Defense Forces was relatively unsophisticated. These less-advanced systems hardly would offer China or Pakistan new perspectives into American warfighting. Moreover, Pakistan fields a host of more sophisticated American ground, air and communications systems - notably, the F-16 fighter. No doubt Pakistan already has enabled Chinese military and technical personnel to crawl all over this aircraft and other American equipment that Islamabad has acquired from the United States. 

Ultimately, the mass of weaponry that America left behind or that the Taliban seized from defeated Afghan government forces is but one element of the overall tragedy that was the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. But the impact of those losses should not be exaggerated - even if they do represent yet another example of the gargantuan cost of a war that probably already was lost years ago.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.