7 September 2021

It’s not just people we’ve abandoned in Afghanistan

By Robert Tyler

The debate about what has been lost in Afghanistan has, quite rightly, focused on the people that remain stranded. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans who supported allied forces, from high-level liaison officers, to interpreters, right down to cleaners and gardeners, have been abandoned in a country now governed by the people that they were determined to keep from power. And while it is right to focus on how to help them, it is also worth thinking about what else has been left behind – both the physical capabilities that have now fallen into the hands of the Taliban, and the more abstract strategic position that has been left vacant.

As far as weapons are concerned, tens of thousands of small arms have been left in military bases across the country. The Times estimated somewhere around 350,000 assault rifles, 126,000 pistols, and 64,000 machine guns have fallen into enemy hands. Some analysts have claimed that this isn’t as big a threat as first thought, as maintenance will become an issue and ammunition will be hard to come by.

But the reality is that it’s not the Taliban who will be using these weapons. The vast majority will likely find their way on to the black market, a reliable source of revenue for a budding regime that will soon need to raise some cash. The same thing happened after the end of the Soviet occupation, when weapons by the Mujahideen found their way into the arsenals of Chechen separatist groups. The Talibans’ would-be arms dealers also have the advantage that American small arms will be easy to both conceal and transport all over the world.

Larger equipment is harder to move, but just as easy to sell. Already we have seen images of large, armoured vehicles crossing from Afghanistan to Iran. Whilst cars such as Humvees are a lower risk, the fact that the American’s left more advanced vehicles such as M113 Personnel Carriers, and MxxPro mine-proof vehicles, opens up a greater risk. Iran, Russia, and China, as well as many smaller hostile powers, will be lining up to buy these, not to use but to study. 

It is almost guaranteed that the vehicles obtained by Iranian regime will now be sent to a warehouse, where military analysts attached to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will be stripping them back and looking at how they can replicate their work. The Iranian military has form on this, both militarily and for civilian purposes. In the early 2010’s when sanctions hit the country, French auto manufacturers had to pull out. Within six months their car plants were open again and producing the same models of car, just with a different badge. We can expect something similar to happen with these military vehicles.

Likewise, China has a record of reproducing ‘borrowed’ military hardware. Following the Sino-Soviet Split in the 1970’s, The People’s Liberation Army was cut off from a reliable supply of AK-47 assault rifles. Their response was to produce their own, based on the same calibre of ammunition – thus the Type-81 was born. More recently, the Chengdu J-20 fighter jet is believed to have been copied from the US F-35. Afghanistan has created a technological gold-mine of abandoned equipment for the West’s allies to sift through. And the Taliban will no doubt be more than willing to oblige. 

Beyond the mountain of small arms and hardware lies something arguably much more important – an abandoned strategic position. Afghanistan has provided the West with an important geographical base for the last 20 years. Thanks to its position between, Iran, China, and Russia’s allies in Central Asia, if offers an effective position from which to keep an eye on the West’s enemies. How many listening posts have been abandoned with the withdrawal? How much intelligence could have been gathered? How many future terror attacks could have been thwarted by monitoring communications in the region? These are difficult questions to answer with precision, but it is almost guaranteed that Western intelligence will be set back by the lack of a sustained presence in Afghanistan. 

There’s a profound economic cost too Not in what we have spent and lost, but in what the Taliban have gained. Afghanistan sits on a wealth of minerals that the militants could never truly hope to exploit on their own. However, with the help of their new Chinese friends, the regime in Kabul can expect to pocket a significant amount from selling off the rights. For China, Afghanistan will just become the latest link in a chain of overseas resource exploiting operations. Cobalt, gold, aluminium, and lithium, all elements in high demand to feed China’s growing technology sector. And as opposed to previous operations in Africa, Afghanistan sits conveniently on the doorstep. No wonder senior Chinese ministers have already made very public overtures to the Taliban.

Finally, there is the future cost. The cost that comes from allowing Afghanistan to once again become a hub for global terror. All of the above-mentioned issues feed into the wider problem, which is that the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, ISIS-K and many other terror groups once again have a land of their own to plan and launch attacks on the West. An uncensored tide of Islamist propaganda, that had been held back by the Western presence in the country, will now be unleashed.

Likewise, weapons and money now in the hands of the regime will be transported to Islamist allies around the world. Whilst Europe might not be the first target, North Africa, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia are far more vulnerable. Groups such as Boko Haram, Daesh, and Jamaah Ansharut Daulah will enjoy a ready flow of arms and support. 

The question now remains how to reverse the damage. There’s no simple answer here. There are some practical steps we can take to rein in the Taliban, by making aid funding conditional on their behaviour – though who is to say they won’t simply appeal for help to their new Chinese or Russian allies? 

In the longer term, dealing with this renewed threat requires a rediscovery of Western self-confidence in foreign policy. It requires the will power to reassert the dominance of liberal democratic values around the world. And it requires the type of strong leadership that understands that nation-building takes more than a generation. 

In the meantime, the West must remain vigilant, following every move that the Taliban makes. Tracking the movement of every vehicle, man, and rifle. Watching how the new regime conducts itself at home, and who it allies itself with abroad. Prepared for whatever might come next. 

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Robert Tyler is the Senior Policy Advisor at New Direction Foundation for European Reform based in Brussels. Prior to that he worked in the European Parliament on Counter Terrorism and Foreign Policy.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.