The United States has spent billions of dollars supplying the Afghan military with the tools to defeat the Taliban, but the rapid capitulation of the armed forces means that the weaponry is now fuelling the insurgents' astonishing battlefield successes.
They grabbed not only political power but also US-supplied firepower — guns, ammunition, helicopters and more.
The Taliban captured an array of modern military equipment when they overran Afghan forces who failed to defend district centres. Bigger gains followed, including combat aircraft, when the Taliban rolled up provincial capitals and military bases with stunning speed, topped by capturing the biggest prize, Kabul, over the weekend.
With the government now in the hands of the Taliban, the insurgent group now has access to the vast array of military resources left behind by America.
"We provided our Afghan partners with all the tools - let me emphasise: all the tools," US president Joe Biden said when defending his decision to withdraw American forces and leave the fight to the locals.
Now, the Taliban has an air force now, 11 military bases. That includes an army of well-trained soldiers equipped with latest weapons and gadgets, well-planned military bases but most importantly —an air force.
Just to give an idea, in just the last three months from April to July 2021, the US handed over to the Afghan National Defense and Security forces (ANDSF) six A-29 light attack aircraft, 174 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (Humvees), about 10,000 2.75 inch high-explosive rockets, 61,000 40-mm high explosive rounds, 9,00,000 rounds of .50 calibre ammo, and 20,15,600 rounds of 7.62 mm bullets.
But Afghan defence forces have shown little appetite for that fight and, in their tens of thousands, have been laying down their arms - only for the Taliban to immediately pick them up.
The Taliban's social media is awash with videos of Taliban fighters seizing weapons caches - the majority supplied by Western powers.
Footage of Afghan soldiers surrendering in the northern city of Kunduz shows army vehicles loaded with heavy weapons and mounted with artillery guns safely in the hands of the insurgent rank and file.
In the western city of Farah, fighters patrolled in a car marked with an eagle swooping on a snake - the official insignia of the country's intelligence service.
While US forces took the "sophisticated" equipment with them when they withdrew, the Taliban blitz has handed the group "vehicles, humvees, small arms and light weapons, as well as ammunition", Justine Fleischner of weapons-tracking group Conflict Armament Research, told AFP.
Of the approximately $145 billion the US government spent trying to rebuild Afghanistan, about $83 billion went to developing and sustaining its army and police forces, according to the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a congressionally created watchdog that has tracked the war since 2008. The $145 billion is in addition to $837 billion the United States spent fighting the war, which began with an invasion in October 2001, reported The Associated Press.
The $83 billion invested in Afghan forces over 20 years is nearly double last year’s budget for the entire US Marine Corps and is slightly more than what Washington budgeted last year for food stamp assistance for about 40 million Americans.
Experts say such hauls - on top of unacknowledged support from regional allies such as Pakistan - have given the Taliban a massive boost.
Also, 11 bases and military complexes were recently handed over to the ANDSF which include — New Antonik, Kandahar airfield, Camp Morehead, New Kabul Complex, Blockhouse, Camp Stevenson, Camp Dwyer, Camp Lincoln (Camp Marmal), Camp Arena, Bagram airfield and the Resolute Support headquarters (RSHQ) — which was handed over to the Afghan government on 6 June, 2021.
SIGAR in its July 2021 report has said that more than $88 billion have been spent on Afghanistan's security. This accounts for 61 percent of all US reconstruction funding for Afghanistan since fiscal year FY-2002. Of the nearly $3.1 billion appropriated for the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF) in FY 2020, over $2.4 billion had been obligated and more than $2.1 billion disbursed, as of 30 June, 2021. About $675.6 million of FY 2021 ASFF has been obligated and $247.4 million disbursed, as of 30 June, 2021.
As of 30 June, 2021, the United States government had appropriated or otherwise made available approximately $144.98 billion in funds for reconstruction and related activities in Afghanistan since FY 2002. Total Afghanistan reconstruction funding has been allocated as follows:
- $88.61 billion for security (including $4.60 billion for counternarcotics initiatives)
- $36.29 billion for governance and development (including $4.37 billion for counternarcotics initiatives)
- $4.18 billion for humanitarian aid
- $15.91 billion for agency operations
Afghan Air Force assets
The Afghan Air Force (AAF) operates three types of helicopters which include the 45 UH-60 Blackhawks, 50 MD-530s, and 56 Mi-17 helicopters besides its A-29 Super Tucano fighters (23 in number), C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, C-208 utility aircraft, and AC-208 fixed-wing aircraft.
As of 30 June, 2021, the United States had obligated nearly $2.13 billion and disbursed about $1.78 billion of ASFF appropriated from FY 2019 through FY 2021 to build, train, equip, and sustain the AAF.
The AAF had 167 available aircraft among the 211 aircraft in its total inventory.
'Massive boon' for Taliban
The weapons will not only help the Taliban's march on Kabul but "strengthen its authority" in the cities it has captured, said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
With US troops all but gone, the Taliban now find themselves flush with American-supplied tools, without having to raise a single penny."It is incredibly serious. It is clearly going to be a massive boon to them," he said.
Some of that weaponry is now being brazenly paraded ahead of the US troops' 9/11 withdrawal deadline by insurgents who have maintained ties with Al Qaeda, the group behind the 2001 terror attacks.
Washington had prepared for the Taliban to claim its weapons, but the rapid fall of cities was its most dire scenario, Jason Amerine, who led US special forces in overthrowing the Taliban in 2001, told AFP.
"The US equipped the ANA with the assumption that weapons and materiel might fall into Taliban hands," he said, referring to the Afghan National Army.
"The current crisis was a worst-case scenario considered when making procurement decisions."
At Kunduz airport, a Taliban fighter on a red motorbike, head-to-toe in insurgent dress, was filmed staring at a military helicopter sitting on the tarmac.
It is a picture of jubilation mirrored across the insurgent-held territory.
While the group will continue to show off these big prizes, the aircraft at least will have no impact on the battlefield without pilots.
"They will be for propaganda purposes only," former CIA counter-terrorism analyst Aki Peritz told AFP.
More useful will be the light arms and vehicles used to navigate the country's rugged terrain.
Coupled with the army's dwindling morale, they will boost the threat the Taliban pose to the Western-backed government.
As the crisis unfolds, Biden's administration says it will still equip an Afghan military that appears on the verge of collapse.
Observers of the Middle East have seen this transfer of arms play out before.
After the US withdrawal from Iraq, the Islamic State (IS) group overran the Iraqi city of Mosul in mid-2014, seizing US-supplied guns and humvees.
The jihadists used their gains to build an Iraqi-Syrian caliphate the size of Belgium.
Like IS fighters in Mosul, joyous Taliban recruits are now posing for photographs with enemy munitions in the newly won cities in all corners of the country.
With inputs from AFP