In August 2021, shortly after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan following the United States military’s withdrawal, photographs and videos started circulating online that showed Taliban forces holding American-made weapons. While it is true that American-made vehicles, weapons, and other supplies have fallen into the Taliban’s hands, the value of this equipment has been wildly exaggerated as rumors and memes circulated on social media.
Did the Taliban Acquire $80 Billion Worth of Military Equipment?
One persistent claim is that the Taliban captured more than $80 billion worth of American military equipment. This is not true.
The $80 billion figure does not reflect the amount of equipment acquired by the Taliban after America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Rather, this number reflects the amount of money the United States spent to train and equip military forces in Afghanistan over the previous two decades.
“The U.S. provided an estimated $83 billion worth of training and equipment to Afghan security forces since 2001. This year, alone, the U.S. military aid to Afghan forces was $3 billion.
Putting price tags on American military equipment still in Afghanistan isn’t an easy task. In the fog of war – or withdrawal – Afghanistan has always been a black box with little sunshine.”
The majority of this money was spent on items other than military equipment (such as salaries and training) so it’s simply not possible for the value of the equipment that Taliban received to be worth more than $80 billion. According to a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), about $18 billion was spent on equipment and transportation between 2005 and 2021.
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, told Politifact that the Taliban likely obtained less than $10 billion worth of equipment.
The Taliban’s New Arsenal?
Many of the claims about how much equipment the Taliban took over after America’s withdrawal center on a graphic entitled “Taliban’s New Arsenal.” This misleadingly titled graphic was created by the the UK newspaper The Times. This graphic does not show the amount of equipment acquired by the Taliban. Rather, it shows the sum total equipment that was provided to Afghan military forces over the last 20 years. This graphic does not account for equipment that has been used or fallen into disrepair. It also doesn’t account for the equipment that was removed from the country, disabled, or destroyed.
Let’s look at the first item on the list: 22,174 Humvees.
The 22,174 Humvees listed in this graphic comes from a US Government Accountability Report detailing the amount of hardware giving to Afghan forces between 2003 and 2016. The BBC reported:
Between 2003 and 2016, the US unloaded a huge amount of military hardware on the Afghan forces it fought alongside: 358,530 rifles of different makes, more than 64,000 machine guns, 25,327 grenade launchers and 22,174 Humvees (all-terrain vehicles), according to the US Government Accountability Report.
However, not all of these Humvees found their way into the hands of the Taliban. While it’s unclear how many of these Humvees are now in the hands of the Taliban, it’s not 20,000. Reuters, citing a U.S. official, reported that the “Taliban are believed to control more than 2,000 armored vehicles, including U.S. Humvees.”
The U.S. Military Did Not Leave Everything Behind
Two incorrect assumptions have led to the claim that the U.S. left more than $80 billion worth of equipment behind. The first, as noted above, is that this $80 billion figure deals solely with military equipment. That’s not the case. Only about $20 billion of this money went to military equipment.
The second false assumption is that every piece of equipment that was provided to Afghan military forces was left behind as the United States withdrew from the area. But that’s also not the case. The U.S. military took a lot of equipment out of country before the withdrawal. In May 2021, for example, the U.S. military took “70 plane loads” of equipment out of Afghanistan. In 2015, $7 billion worth of equipment was destroyed.
For equipment that couldn’t be moved out of country, they tried to destroy or disable it. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, said during a press conference on Aug. 30, 2021:
It’s a complex procedure — it’s a complex and time-intensive procedure to break down those systems. So we demilitarized those systems so that they’ll never be used again. And they were just a — we felt it was more important to protect our forces than to bring those systems back.
We have also demilitarized equipment that we did not bring out at of the airport that included a number of MRAPs — up to 70 MRAPs that we demilitarized that will never be used again by anyone; 27 Humvees, that little tactical vehicle, that will never be driven again.
And additionally, on the ramp at — at HKIA are a total of 73 aircraft. Those aircraft will never fly again when we left. They’ll never be able to be operated by anyone. Most of them were non-mission capable, to begin with, but certainly they’ll never be able to be flown again.
What About Black Hawk Helicopters?
Another common claim is that the Taliban is now in control of 33 Black Hawk helicopters. Again, this claim is based on the assumption that all of the Black Hawk helicopters in possession of the Afghan military were taken over by the Taliban. But that’s not the case.
The BBC reported that Afghan forces had 167 operational aircraft — including 33 Black Hawk helicopters — in June 2021. It appears that many of these aircrafts were moved out of country, however, and are not currently in the hands of the Taliban.
The BBC reported:
The Afghan Air Force was operating 167 aircraft, including attack helicopters and planes, at the end of June, according to a report by the US-based Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar).
But it’s unclear how many of those 167 the Taliban have actually captured. Satellite images of Kandahar airport, given to the BBC by Planet Labs, show a number of Afghan military aircraft parked on the tarmac.
An image from six days after the city was taken over by the Taliban shows five aircraft – at least two MI-17 helicopters, two Black Hawks (UH-60) and a third helicopter which could also be a UH-60, according to Angad Singh, a military aviation expert at Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.
In contrast, 16 aircraft – including nine Black Hawks and two MI-17 helicopters and five fixed-wing planes – could be seen in another satellite image taken on 16 July.
It means that some of these aircraft were either flown out of the country or moved to other airbases.
Joost Oliemans and Stijn Mitzer, military analysts and authors of The Armed Forces of North Korea, write that the Taliban likely acquired 10 Black Hawk helicopters, all of which were reportedly disabled U.S. forces:
Current list of aircraft and helicopters visually confirmed to have taken over by Taliban forces at Kabul International Airport. All reportedly disabled by U.S. forces (73 reported):
— Oryx (@oryxspioenkop) August 31, 2021
So What Equipment Did the Taliban Acquire?
The Taliban truly did get their hands on plenty of American weapons and vehicles, but a precise accounting of this equipment is not currently available. What we can say is that many of the rumors circulating about the Taliban’s haul deal with sum totals over the course of 20 years, not the amount that was actually left behind.
The Taliban’s new arsenal does not include $80 billion in military equipment, 22,000 Humvees, and 33 Black Hawk helicopters. At the moment, it appears that the Taliban actually acquired 10 inoperable Black Hawk helicopters, about 2,000 vehicles (many of which were demilitarized), and a number of other weapons totaling less than $10 billion.
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“Afghanistan: Black Hawks and Humvees – Military Kit Now with the Taliban.” BBC News, 28 Aug. 2021. www.bbc.com, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58356045.
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“Sikorsky BLACK HAWK Helicopter.” Lockheed Martin, 24 Aug. 2021, https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/products/sikorsky-black-hawk-helicopter.html.
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