Republicans Inflate Cost of Taliban-Seized U.S. Military Equipment
By Robert Farley
Posted on September 3, 2021
The Taliban seized an arsenal of U.S.-made military equipment when it overran the Afghan army, but not nearly as much as numerous Republicans have claimed.
Several Republican members of Congress and former President Donald Trump have cited a grossly exaggerated figure of $85 billion worth of equipment they say has now fallen into the hands of the Taliban. But that figure — actually $82.9 billion — is the total amount spent on the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund since the war began in 2001.
Only a portion of that is equipment. And military experts say much of the equipment has been used up or is otherwise inoperable; the military has moved or destroyed some of it as well.
For those reasons, and others, Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told us, “The figure is statistically rubbish.”
Nonetheless, numerous Republicans have cited it, including Trump, who has done so repeatedly.
“They’ve left $83 billion worth of equipment behind, including brand new Apache helicopters, thousands of Humvee vehicles with armor guard, equipment that nobody has ever even seen before, it was so sophisticated,” Trump said at a rally in Alabama on Aug. 22.
In a statement released on Aug. 30, Trump said, “In addition to the obvious, ALL EQUIPMENT should be demanded to be immediately returned to the United States, and that includes every penny of the $85 billion dollars in cost. If it is not handed back, we should either go in with unequivocal Military force and get it, or at least bomb the hell out of it.”
“Never would I have believed then or up until this point where we are today that not just a little bit, not just some, but all of the $85 billion dollar’s worth of American equipment that we turned over to the Afghan police and the Afghan Army would fall in the hands of our enemy,” Bank said on Aug. 30. “That’s where we are at this point because of the negligence, the hasty and incompetent withdrawal led by this commander in chief, all of the $85 billion dollar’s worth of equipment has been left behind and fallen into the hands of the Taliban, without any plan, there was never a plan by this administration or the Pentagon to destroy or evacuate any of that equipment. … Leaving $85 billion of equipment. Vehicles, weapons and ammunition, night vision goggles, medical supplies, biometric devices and data of our allies. All of it falling into the hands of the Taliban.”
Other Republicans, including Reps. Lauren Boebert, Pat Fallon, Jason Smith and Lee Zeldin, have cited the inflated figure as well.
Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. even tweeted a message that broke out the cost per American.
“For perspective… $85,000,000,000 worth of military being left to Taliban Terrorists means that each and every man, woman, and child in American contributed about $265 to their terrorist cause assuming +/-320 mil citizens,” Trump Jr. stated.
Despite its ubiquitousness as a talking point, it isn’t accurate.
It is certainly true that a lot of military equipment provided to Afghan troops was seized by the Taliban. After American troops pulled out, the Taliban paraded in U.S.-made Humvees and armored SUVs, and even flew a recently seized Black Hawk pulling a Taliban flag. And numerous press photos circulated of Taliban fighters sporting U.S.-made rifles and machine guns.
“We don’t have a complete picture, obviously, of where every article of defense materials has gone, but certainly a fair amount of it has fallen into the hands of the Taliban,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan acknowledged on Aug. 17, a couple days after the fall of the capital, Kabul.
According to a Government Accountability Office report, between 2003 and 2016, the U.S. supplied Afghan defense and security forces with an arsenal that included 208 aircraft; more than 42,000 pickup trucks; more than 22,000 Humvees; nearly 9,000 MTV cargo and transport trucks; nearly 1,000 mine resistant ambush protected vehicles; nearly 200 armored personnel carriers; and hundreds of thousands of rifles, pistols, machine guns, grenade launchers, rocket propelled weapons and night vision goggles. More has been provided since then.
However, the $83 billion figure cited by Republicans — more precisely $82.9 billion — is far too high. It comes from a July 30 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction and represents the total appropriated funding for the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund going back to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. As of June 30, about $75 billion was actually disbursed.
That fund includes money spent to provide military equipment to the Afghans. But equipment costs are only a piece of the fund.
The largest piece of that funding, about half, is for what is called “sustainment.” The lion’s share of that is for salaries for members of the Afghan army and national police. The sustainment category also includes money for ammunition, but only about 5% of the sustainment funds was for ammunition in 2020 and 2021.
About a quarter of the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund since 2001 — more than $18 billion — has been specifically for equipment and transportation, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report.
The rest has been for training and infrastructure.
Military experts say there is reason to believe the cost of military equipment seized by the Taliban is smaller than what was purchased for the Afghans because some of the equipment has become inoperable, and some has either been moved out of the country or “decommisioned” or destroyed.
How Much Is Inoperable?
For starters, most of the equipment provided to the Afghans was used in fighting over the last 20 years, and “we junked most of it,” Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told us in a phone interview. “War tends to use stuff up in a hurry.”
Nor should anyone assume the Taliban will have the expertise or wherewithal to operate all of the equipment.
“U.S. military equipment tends to require extensive support from technical specialists,” Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant and military analyst at the Lexington Institute, told us via email. “In the absence of such specialists, much of it will run down due to wear and a lack of spare parts.”
“This applies in particular to aircraft, many of which will likely be grounded in short order,” Thompson said. “Vehicles will also tend to wear out fairly quickly because of inadequate maintenance. MRAPs [mine resistant ambush protected vehicles] will be especially hard to keep operating because they consume copious amounts of fuel which will likely be in scarce supply.”
“In thinking about the price-tag of equipment left behind, it is worth remembering that much of it has been in country for some time,” Thompson said. “Its value will likely have depreciated from the original purchase price. Some of the equipment brought home from Iraq could not be restored to a useful state and ended up being retired.”
Over the years, the U.S. has also simply lost track of a lot of the military equipment it supplied to Afghanistan forces. In 2016, the Pentagon acknowledged to the New York Times that it could account for only about half of the weapons that a nonprofit called Action on Armed Violence calculated had been supplied to partner forces in Afghanistan and Iraq over the years. The report said many of the weapons ended up on the black market.
How Much Was Moved or Destroyed?
Although Banks said there was “never a plan by this administration or the Pentagon to destroy or evacuate any of that equipment,” there is evidence that some of both occurred (though it is certainly fair to debate whether there was enough planning for either).
During a news briefing on Aug. 30, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command, said of the equipment at the airport in Kabul, “We brought some of it out, and we demilitarized some of it.” By demilitarized, he means disabled — and likely means key components were blown up. There were reports of explosions at the airport, which Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, the joint staff deputy director for regional operations, described as “controlled detonations.”
McKenzie said American forces had “demilitarized” up to 70 MRAPs “that will never be used again by anyone” and 27 Humvees, “that will never be driven again.”
In addition, he said, there were 73 aircraft on the ramp at the Kabul airport.
“Those aircraft will never fly again when we left,” McKenzie said. “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.”
Just before leaving, the military also destroyed a weapon system used to intercept rockets, artillery and mortars, known as C-RAM, McKenzie said. The New York Times reported that C-RAMs and several armored vehicles left behind at the U.S. Embassy were also destroyed or rendered inoperable.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the military has been relocating and destroying equipment in Afghanistan for several years now.
“An awful lot of equipment, weapons, resources were drawn down even in the last years and months of the previous administration, as President Trump decided to move down to a — a force of 2,500,” Kirby said at a press conference on Aug. 23. “So there was a lot of retrograde of things up to that point.”
That continued under Biden, he said.
“After the president’s decision in mid-April to complete this drown down, albeit on an extended timeline …the very big part of the retrograde was the disposition of weapons and equipment and systems and vehicles. Some of them were destroyed, some of them were brought back home, some of them were deployed — redeployed into the region.”
And on Aug. 16, the New York Times reported that at least five military aircraft that were part of the U.S.-supplied Afghan Air Force flew to Tajikistan and landed safely. A sixth aircraft, believed to be a Super Tucano propeller attack plane, was shot down in Uzbekistan after it entered the country’s airspace without permission. (Its two pilots parachuted to safety.)
A Reuters report said fleeing Afghan soldiers flew 22 military planes and 24 helicopters into Uzbekistan in mid-August.
Although Trump said the U.S.-made military stockpile seized by the Taliban was “equipment that nobody has ever even seen before, it was so sophisticated,” military experts contradicted that.
Gen. Mark Kelly, who leads Air Combat Command, told Defense News in an interview on Aug. 16 that aircraft seized by the Taliban didn’t amount to anything that would threaten U.S. military in potential future clashes.
“It’s understandable for people to be concerned about any capability falling into the hands of folks where we don’t know exactly how they’re going to use it, who are going to use it against, whether that’s an M16 [rifle] or whether that’s an A-29,” Kelly said. “But suffice to say that the technology that’s in the A-29 is not cutting-edge technology. When you look at the airplane’s range and speed and computer power and lifting capability … it’s not something that, frankly, concerns us.”
Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group, also told Defense News that even if the Taliban sold seized aircraft from the Afghan Air Force, the aircraft do not contain sensitive technologies that would be useful to U.S. adversaries.
“Truth be told, if the Russians or Chinese wanted to get their hands on a Super Tucano or early model Black Hawk it wouldn’t be that hard,” he said. “They were equipped in a pretty low-tech way.”
Very little of the equipment left in Afghanistan could be considered sophisticated, Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told us.
“We’re not giving the most advanced intelligence equipment to anyone,” he said.
Nonetheless, there is still a large cache of U.S.-made weaponry that has found its way into the Taliban’s hands. While most of that would be considered “primitive,” by U.S. military standards, Cordesman told us, “that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective.”
In a press conference on Aug. 23, Kirby said the U.S. does not have an “exact inventory of what equipment that the Afghans had at their disposal that now might be at risk. Obviously we don’t want to see any weapons or systems that, to fall into hands of people that would use them in such a way to harm our interests or those of our partners and allies. I mean, we have a vested interest obviously in not wanting that to happen.”
But while an exact accounting is not possible, the $83 billion figure being used by some Republicans is wildly inflated.
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