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One would think that if the US military were to leave Afghanistan, they would surely take any equipment that might fall into the wrong hands, especially since there were reports that the "wrong hands" would take over after the fall of the Afghan military and government.

What caused them to leave in such a hurry that they would even risk leaving dangerous equipment behind?

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  • 14
    Keep in mind there's also all the equipment given to the ANA which was outside US control to secure. There's no real way to avoid these effects - Iran is still flying F14s (article probably overplays their "fearsomeness" in 2020 though). The good news is that it's probably not tip-top useful-against-US-forces gear like Stingers this time around, with night-vision gear probably topping the risk list. Aug 25 at 16:39
  • 11
    I’m curious about this: was there any US military equipment left behind, or are we just talking about ANA equipment that was captured? Those seem like very different things, but so far I’ve only heard of the latter
    – divibisan
    Aug 25 at 21:21
  • 6
    Whether or not it would have been the Machiavellian correct course of action, confiscating all the ANA's equipment before leaving them to fend for themselves would have been a Bad Look. Aug 26 at 13:52
  • 1
    @divibisan see my related question here where I try and find out how much was ANA equipment vs USA. (I am still searching for a clearer way to ask the question).
    – BruceWayne
    Aug 27 at 17:52
50

Some of the equipment was a bit more sophisticated than the "small arms" mentioned in the William Walker III's answer. I think that's also what the article in the question is referring to. Much of that equipment wasn't left by accident, it was given by the Americans to the Afghan forces, for them to work with.

For example, one article in the Guardian quotes a Russian arms exporter claiming over 100 military helicopters have been captured by the Taliban. Per the Guardian article:

As the Taliban overran the Afghan army and took control of large stores of arms and vehicles, it also captured at least 100 Mi-17 Hip helicopters, a Russian-made transport aircraft procured by the US for the Afghan armed forces because it was comparatively cheaper and easier to fly than US-made UH-60 Black Hawks.

The US had shifted to providing Black Hawks to Afghanistan in recent years, in part because of restrictions on working with Russian weapons manufacturers and exporters of the Mi-17. But far fewer Afghan crews had been trained to maintain the aircraft. According to Sigar, the readiness of the Black Hawk fleet fell by half to just 39% in the period from April to June as aircraft maintenance contractors were pulled out.

The main problem with more complicated equipment like aircraft is that they require regular servicing and crews familiar with operating them. As US contractors have withdrawn from Afghanistan in July of 2021, most of the complicated US equipment will be useless soon. According to NBC News:

The Afghan security forces rely heavily on U.S.-funded contractors to repair and maintain their fleet of aircraft and armored vehicles and a whole array of other equipment. But the roughly 18,000 contractors are due to depart within weeks, along with most of the U.S. military contingent, as part of Washington's agreement with the Taliban to withdraw all "foreign" troops.

Without the contractors' help, Afghan forces will no longer be able to keep dozens of fighter planes, cargo aircraft, U.S.-made helicopters and drones flying for more than a few more months, according to military experts and a recent Defense Department inspector general's report.

Of course, that reasoning goes for the Taliban too. They cannot use much of the equipment without training and servicing (which includes parts and technical knowledge). The reasoning from the US perspective may have been that US contractors could go back to Afghanistan if the Afghan armed forces were able to keep control of the equipment. Or they could guide Afghans trying to service them over Zoom. Now that last part may sound funny, but that's an actual suggestion from US defense officials as reported by Politico in July of 2021:

As the withdrawal continues, more of that wrench turning will be done by Afghan crews, with U.S. contractors looking over their shoulders via Zoom or coaching them over the phone, defense officials say.

And it was also the US plan for the gifted equipment to be used (of course not by the Taliban), as the Politico article goes on to quote Pentagon spokesman Kirby about the Afghan Air Force:

“They've got capacity. They've got capability. They have an air force — an air force, by the way, that we're continuing to fund and support,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Friday on CNN. “They've got modern weaponry. They've had training and the ability to be in the field with American forces much over the last 20 years. ... Now it's time to have that will."

Over the past decade, the U.S. has built an Afghan air force modeled on its own strengths and preferences, spending $8 billion to deploy strike aircraft such as the A-29 Super Tucano and AC-208 Combat Caravan, both of which are propeller-driven planes that can fire laser-guided munitions at ground targets. The U.S. has also sent new Black Hawk helicopters.

The maintenance problems are less of a problem for simpler equipment like armored vehicles and guns. As an expert is quoted in an NPR article about the equipment left behind or given to Afghan forces says:

For vehicles like the up-armored Humvees, known as MRAPS, "they've captured so many of them that they could cannibalize the ones they have for spare parts to keep the others running," he says.

Clearly, some of the more complicated equipment was not supposed to fall into the hands of the Taliban. While they may not be able to use it themselves, they may be able to sell it to US adversaries who can then study US equipment. As the NPR article continues:

And the Taliban can always just sell off anything they can't learn to use or maintain themselves.

On the Black Hawks and A-29s, for instance, "presumably there is some avionics, communications equipment, other things on those aircraft that they could sell," Bowman says.

Iran might be interested, as might China or Russia, if for no other reason than to "humiliate America," he says. Despite the sectarian divide between the Sunni Taliban and Iran's Shiite government, there are some signs of cooperation

Schroden agrees, pointing to high-tech "sensor balls" on the front of some aircraft.

"They have sophisticated electro-optics, optical equipment, as well as signals intelligence type stuff in them," he says. "Those things might be of interest to other countries as well."

Based on the above, my hypothesis is that the US didn't expect for much of the equipment to fall into the hands of the Taliban so quickly.

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  • 10
    Just for general context. 160 helicopters is a huge amount for a country with the size and GDP of Afghanistan. Just for comparision, the German air force seems to have a grand total of around 200 helicopters. And that is a first world army with an annual budget around twice the entire GDP of Afghanistan.
    – quarague
    Aug 26 at 7:30
  • 8
    @quarague 200 German helicopters of which probably less than 100 are even fit to fly.
    – smcs
    Aug 26 at 9:02
  • 6
    @quarague that's comparing apples to carrots. #1 Germany, like Canada, is known as cheap when it comes to military funding. ANA got a lot those from the US, free, as aid. #2 Germany funds multiple types of weapons systems, from frigates to tanks to jets. Choppers compete with all of those. #3 Germany is at peace. Afghanistan is not. #4 Due to terrain and tactical circumstances helicopters are the critical weapon in the Afghanistan theater, besides boots on the ground: transport and medevac, attack. Aug 26 at 17:14
  • 8
    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica All the things you say are true. But that doesn't change the fact that 160 helicopters is a massive amount for a country like Afghanistan. Even if Afghanistan were to spend 10% of their GDP on their armed forces they would not be able to maintain much less buy that many helicopters.
    – quarague
    Aug 26 at 17:17
  • 3
    speaking of German maintenance.... I think you'd best pick another point of comparison Aug 26 at 17:25
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Because they were ordered to. Having been deployed I can tell you it takes time to pack everything up and ship it out, especially when there is no sea port to move massive amounts of equipment. It's not just throwing it into a container, you have to pack and secure it properly to prevent damage, you have to abide by environmental laws and regulations, safety regulations, do inventory, mark hazardous material, and move it to its point of debarkation. As I mentioned there is no sea port so only so much stuff can be shipped at once while trying to move personnel, and the Taliban take over made it impossible to plan to ship everything overland to Kabul (which by the way would be almost impossible for some sites as they were brought in by helicopter over a period of months to years because of location in the mountains). Also, keep in mind not everything the Taliban took over was left behind by the U.S. military. Some of it was sold or issued to the Afghanistan military and subsequently abandoned.

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  • 77
    This is Politics.SE. Of course the military do as they are ordered to, but the implied question here should be: why were they ordered to leave in such a hurry?
    – gerrit
    Aug 26 at 8:30
  • 2
    Also: it is expensive to ship a lot of equipment. Some of it wasnt left behind due to hectic, but rather because it just isnt cost effective to ship it anywhere else
    – Hobbamok
    Aug 26 at 8:52
  • 5
    Better options would have been: (1) throw equipment into containers and ship regardless of potential for damage; (2) destroy equipment or render it useless. Aug 26 at 12:51
  • 11
    @PhilFreedenberg Poorly packed equipment doesn't just risk the equipment. Poorly packed explosives have obvious risks, but even a cargo shift can cause trouble for a plane. Aug 26 at 13:45
  • 2
    @fredsbend But did that actually happen? There have been a few questions on this, but no one has actually shown any evidence of the US military abandoning equipment to the Taliban, only of the Taliban seizing ANA equipment after their surrender.
    – divibisan
    Aug 28 at 17:34
21

One would think that if the US military were to leave Afghanistan, they would surely take any equipment that might fall into the wrong hands...

One would be naive to think this.

Nearly every time the United States has withdraw from a military deployment, large amounts of weapons and other materiel are left behind - some captured, much of it US issue. This happens because the replacement cost for things like small arms can often be less than the cost of hauling it all the way back home at the end of the mission. Oftentimes this equipment is abandoned, at times outright sold, by our allies in the theatre.

Some examples:

  1. Vietnam
  2. First Iraq War (Desert Storm)
  3. Syria

The list goes on. The only military equipment the United States goes out of its way to prevent falling into enemy hands is stuff that has current-generation technology in it, and even then they tend to destroy rather than recover.

You can debate whether or not this is wise, but that it is happening is neither unique to Afghanistan, nor solely a function of excess haste.

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  • 1
    For a fictionalized, but well researched glimpse at this, I recommend the Nicholas Cage movie "Lord of War." Aug 25 at 15:47
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    this is naive. The cost of haul equipment back is not relevant, you can always destroy equipment you don't want to fall in the "wrong" hands. Explosives are relatively cheap
    – lurscher
    Aug 26 at 0:02
  • 3
    Sold by your allies or bought by your allies?
    – Vladimir F
    Aug 26 at 4:47
  • 3
    @lurscher If your troops have left the area, do you really care? There's no point doing anything with small arms, because there are so many of them out there anyway. Vehicles can mostly be repaired, whatever you do with them. And you can't take away stuff you've issued to your allies either, which is more of the issue here.
    – Graham
    Aug 26 at 8:11
  • 3
    @lurscher But how do blow up equipment controlled by your allies? Destroying your own equipment to keep it from falling into enemy hands is easy, bombing your own allies is another matter altogether
    – divibisan
    Aug 26 at 15:59
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The US wished to give and be seen to be giving the Afghans every chance of standing up to the Taliban. Removing the equipment that has been provided to the Afghans defence force because the US think the Afghans defence force has no willingness to fight would have resulted in an instant win for the Taliban.

Hopefully there is already a plan being put into action to destroy any equipment that the Taliban may sell/give to other country or use agaist the US.

However remember the Taliban has been most dangerous to Western countries using the most basic equipment.

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  • Fight Islam or fight the Taliban's interpretation of Islam? Aug 26 at 16:47
  • 1
    Re "Hopefully there is already a plan being put into action to destroy any equipment...": If the equipment is complex, then perhaps a live software update that flatlines the hardware; with software that depends on data updates, cancelling the login credentials for the decommissioned equipment; or the software might be designed with a timeout, as with a consumer subscription model.
    – agc
    Aug 27 at 1:18
2

It's often the case that equipment is not cost effective to be retrieved.

For example equipment that would need to be dissembled and then reassembled after air transport will often need to be refurbished and re-certified before it can be used again.

The facilities required to do this are limited, and equipment would need to be stored and may be in storage for a couple of years while it waited for a slot. By which time it would be both obsolete or simply cheaper to buy a new model.

Plus equipment may be contaminated with things such as dust from depleted uranium rounds or chemicals, and while these things can be allowed on the battleground or in open air environments, they would not be acceptable in a warehouse stateside.

After the first gulf many vehicles that fired DU rounds needed to be stripped back to the chassis and rebuilt. This is affordable for a main battle tank costing millions, but not an artillery piece.

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    Do you have any sources to support that these were actually concern? So far as I’ve seen, no one has provided any evidence of US military equipment being abandoned, only ANA equipment seized by the Taliban after their surrender.
    – divibisan
    Aug 28 at 17:37
  • I'm offering an explanation as to "why" equipment might be left behind, based on experience of past conflicts. Not offering evidence as to "whether" it was left behind in this conflict. It's likely that some or all of the same factors are in play. Aug 28 at 18:11
  • 1
    I would think that it's more cost effective to remove their equipment than to let the enemy use their own weapons against them, no?
    – prata
    Aug 29 at 11:57
  • I'm hypothesizing based on past events. Think of it in terms of opportunity cost. You have a set number of tokens to allocate. These tokens might represent time, or space on a transport aircraft, a dollar value, or some combination of all of the above. If you allocate these tokens to shifting equipment then you will have fewer tokens to allocate to evacuating people, or more important equipment. You then weigh this against how many tokens it would cost you if the Taliban got a hold of the equipment. How much damage could the Taliban do with it a hummver, VS a crate of blank ipads, etc? Aug 29 at 18:21

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