- Vikas Pandey & Shadab Nazmi*
- BBC News in New Delhi (India)
The four-blade multipurpose aircraft was just taxiing down the runway, but the maneuver sent a message to the world: The Taleban are no longer a group of disorganized soldiers wielding Kalashnikov assault rifles in battered pickup trucks.
Since the takeover of Kabul on Aug. 15, Taliban fighters have been photographed displaying an array of American-made weapons and vehicles.
Some of them were photographed in combat gear identical to that of other special forces around the world. They didn’t sport the traditional long beards or typical clothes, and there were certainly no rusty weapons.
The weapons were won by Islamic militants when they defeated the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (Ands) in several cities.
Some people on social media say this makes the Taliban the only extremist group in the world to have an air force.
How many aircraft does the Taliban own?
The Afghan Air Force was operating 167 aircraft, including attack helicopters and planes, at the end of June, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Reconstruction of Afghanistan (Sigar), a US government agency. Among the aircraft are A-29 Super Tucano light fighter aircraft manufactured by the Brazilian Embraer.
But it’s not clear how many aircraft the Taliban actually captured. Satellite images of the Kandahar city airport, provided to the BBC by the US company Planet Labs, show a series of Afghan military aircraft parked on the runway.
An image taken six days after the city was taken over by the Taleban shows five aircraft — at least two MI-17 helicopters, two Black Hawks (UH-60) and a third helicopter that could also be a UH-60, according to Angad Singh, a military aviation expert at the Observer Research Foundation, based in New Delhi, India.
Another satellite image taken much earlier, on July 16, showed 16 aircraft — nine Black Hawks and two MI-17 helicopters and five fixed-wing planes. This means that some of these aircraft were transported out of the country or transferred to other air bases.
The Taleban also captured the remaining nine Afghan air bases, including those in Herat, Khost, Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif — but it is unclear how many aircraft they seized, as satellite imagery of these airports is not available.
Taleban fighters and the local press have posted images of confiscated aircraft and drones at these airports.
But there is also the possibility that some aircraft were withdrawn from Afghanistan before they could fall into the hands of insurgents. Analysis of satellite imagery taken on Aug. 16 from Uzbekistan’s Termez airport shows more than two dozen helicopters, including MI-17, MI-25, Black Hawks, as well as several A-29 light attack and C-208 aircraft, according to a New Delhi-based aviation expert who declined to be named.
Experts at security consultancy CSIS say these planes and helicopters are likely to be from the Afghan Air Force.
What other military equipment did the Taliban capture?
While there are doubts about the Taleban’s airpower, experts agree they have the experience to handle sophisticated weapons, rifles and vehicles. And there is a lot of such equipment in Afghanistan.
Between 2003 and 2016, the US passed a huge amount of military equipment to the Afghan forces that fought alongside it: 358,530 rifles of different brands, more than 64,000 machine guns, 25,327 grenade launchers and 22,174 Humvees, according to a report by the American government.
After NATO military alliance forces ended their combat role in 2014, the country’s protection was left to the Afghan army. As the latter struggled to contain the Taliban, the US provided more military equipment and replaced older weapons.
The Americans provided about 20,000 M16 rifles in 2017 alone. In subsequent years, the US contributed at least 3,598 M4 rifles and 3,012 Humvees, among other equipment, to Afghan security forces between 2017 and 2021, according to Sigar .
The Afghan Army also had MSFV armored vehicles, which it used for emergency operations. These 4×4 vehicles can be used to transport people or equipment.
Capturing aircraft may have been easy for the Taliban, but operating and maintaining them will be difficult, says Jonathan Schroden, director of the consulting group CNA and former adviser to US forces in Afghanistan. Parts need constant maintenance and replacement, and an air force depends on a team of technicians working to keep each aircraft running.
Most of the aircraft were serviced by US private contractors, who began leaving the country even before the Taliban attacked cities and provinces in August.
Jodi Vittori, a professor of global politics and security at Georgetown University and a US Air Force veteran who served in Afghanistan, agrees that the Taliban lack the experience to make these aircraft operational.
“Therefore, there is no immediate danger of the Taliban using these aircraft,” she says, suggesting the aircraft may have been partially dismantled before Afghan forces surrendered.
However, the Taliban will try to coerce former Afghan pilots into flying those planes, says Jason Campbell, a researcher at the Rand Corporation and former Afghanistan director in the Office of the US Secretary of Defense.
“They’re going to threaten the pilots and their families. So they might be able to get some of these planes into the air, but their long-term prospects look bleak.”
But it is likely that the Taleban will be able to operate Russian-made MI-17s, just as they have done in the country for decades. As for the rest of the aerial arsenal, they can look to supportive countries for maintenance and training.
Other weapons will be much easier for insurgents to use. Even Taliban infantrymen appear to be comfortable with the ground equipment they have seized.
The group’s access to such modern weapons is a “colossal failure,” says Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Wilson Center in Washington.
But the effects will not be limited to Afghanistan. There are fears that small arms could start to appear on the black market and fuel other insurgencies around the world.
That’s not an immediate risk, says Vittori, but a supply chain could appear in the coming months. The responsibility for preventing this lies with neighboring countries like Pakistan, China and Russia.
Campbell says the Taleban seem interested in projecting a more responsible side, though it’s hard to believe they won’t support ideologically similar groups around the world.
Unity within the Taleban is another factor that will play an important role in how these weapons are used.
Vittori says there is a possibility that dissident groups within the Taleban alliance will decide to break off, taking the weapons with them. So much will depend on how the leadership holds the group together once the initial euphoria of taking control of Afghanistan wears off.
Have watched our new videos on YouTube? Subscribe to our channel!