Journalist Hollie McKay was in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif when Afghan security forces fled ahead of advancing Taliban fighters last weekend. In the aftermath, the road out of town was littered with U.S.-made armored vehicles that the Afghan military had left behind.
"On that road there is a lot of equipment that has been abandoned," McKay said by phone from neighboring Uzbekistan. "It was sort of unclear to me whether (the vehicles) were already destroyed by the soldiers, or that they were functioning and that the Taliban hadn't quite figured out how to use them. But there was certainly a good bunch of them along that single road into Uzbekistan."
Similar scenes have been repeated across the country: In the weeks before the Taliban seized Kabul, retreating Afghan forces ditched billions of dollars' worth of U.S.-supplied military hardware — from assault rifles to Black Hawk helicopters.
The Taliban wasted no time in gloating over their new war booty. Photos and video posted to social media show Taliban posing with captured aircraft, trucks, Humvees, artillery guns and night-vision goggles. Such equipment could be used to suppress internal dissent or fight off their rivals.
The U.S. military removed planes, heavy weapons and sophisticated military equipment as it began winding down its operations in Afghanistan in the spring. But it couldn't take home 20 years of accumulated hardware and instead left much of it to the Afghan military.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan acknowledged as much earlier this week.
"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," he said.
A report last month by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) indicates that the U.S.-backed Afghan military possessed more than 150 aircraft.
This includes four C-130 transport aircraft, 23 Brazilian-made A-29 "Super Tucano" turboprop ground-attack aircraft, 45 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, and 50 smaller MD-530 choppers. In addition, Afghan forces were given more than 30 military versions of Cessna single-engine fixed-wing aircraft.
It's not clear how many of those aircraft are still in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan says that hundreds of Afghan troops fled there last weekend with 22 military planes and 24 helicopters.
There's a challenge in flying a Black Hawk
There's a big difference between having a Black Hawk helicopter and learning to use it effectively.
"It's not something that you can do in a week or a month," says Bradley Bowman, a former Black Hawk pilot in the Army who is currently the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
"Someone could get in there, maybe find some operating manuals and figure out how to get the engine started, the rotors turning and get it up in the air," he tells NPR. "But they'd probably be more of a danger to themselves than to anyone else at that point."
Even so, Bowman says, "I don't think this is an insurmountable problem for the Taliban and their al-Qaida partners."
A lot of other items in the Taliban's new arsenal could easily be put to use, says Jonathan Schroden, the director of the Countering Threats and Challenges Program at the Center for Naval Analyses.
They "don't need a lot of skill or training to use" small arms and night-vision devices, he tells NPR.
Then there's the question of maintenance and spare parts. U.S. contractors maintained the Afghan military's Black Hawks. In the hands of the Taliban, they "would break and they would not be able to fix them," Schroden says. Same goes for the C-130s, he says, which, like the Black Hawks, have "fairly sophisticated maintenance requirements."
By contrast, if the Taliban could find somebody who knows anything about airplane engines, they could probably keep the A-29s flying, Schroden 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.
Made back in the U.S.S.R.
Asked what weapon he thinks is the most lethal in the Taliban's new arsenal, Schroden doesn't name an American system, but a Russian one — the D-30 howitzer, a 122-mm towed artillery piece.
He says the weapons are lethal and "it's clear the Taliban know how to use them."
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."
SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
When the Taliban overran Afghan military outposts, bases and entire cities, the group seized all sorts of weapons - U.S.-made weapons that had been abandoned by the Afghan military. While the full tally is unknown, it's believed to be substantial. To give us a sense of what was lost and what it might be worth to the Taliban, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hey, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Susan.
DAVIS: So if we don't know the quantity, do we at least know what kind of weapons were lost?
MYRE: We do have a general idea. Now, we should be clear, for starters, that the U.S. military took out its planes, its heavy weapons, sophisticated military equipment as it began the drawdown back in April and May. But the U.S. couldn't take home 20 years of accumulated hardware, and they left a lot behind for the Afghan military. And that's on top of the billions of dollars in support the U.S. has provided over the past two decades. So we're talking about things like M16 rifles, night vision goggles, communications equipment, armored vehicles and some aircraft, both helicopters and fixed-wing planes. So this substantially upgrades the quantity and quality of the weaponry for the Taliban, a group that had to rely, in the past, on rifles and roadside bombs.
DAVIS: Do you have any understanding of what this looks like in the field right now?
MYRE: So I spoke with Hollie McKay. She's a freelance journalist. She was in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif a week ago when the government forces fled for the nearby border with Uzbekistan, and the Taliban then took over the city. Now, she remained in the city for a few days but then took the same route herself. She said the roadside was littered with U.S. equipment.
HOLLIE MCKAY: So on that road, there is a lot of equipment that has been abandoned. And it was sort of unclear to me whether they were already destroyed by the soldiers or that they were functioning and that the Taliban hadn't quite figured out how to use them yet, but there was certainly a good bunch of them along that single road into Uzbekistan.
MYRE: And she even did a double-take when she saw Taliban fighters wearing Afghan military uniforms. The Afghans apparently left the uniforms behind. And the Taliban, who traditionally just fight in civilian clothes, picked them up and started wearing them.
DAVIS: When it comes to more high-tech equipment, thinking about things like aircraft, will the Taliban be able to even operate them?
MYRE: So this is a really key question. The basic equipment will be useful right away - the rifles and some of the heavier weapons. But when we get to aircraft like Black Hawk helicopters, it gets a lot more complicated. Now, Bradley Bowman, who used to fly Black Hawks for the Army and is now with The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says it's not easy to fly those helicopters.
BRADLEY BOWMAN: It's not something you do overnight. It's not something that you can do in a week or a month. It takes a long time. I mean, someone could get in there, maybe find some operating manuals and figure out how to get the engine started and the rotors turning and get it up in the air, but they'd probably be more of a danger to themselves than to anyone else at that point.
MYRE: So even if the Taliban can manage to fly them, he says, maintenance, repair, spare parts will all make this very, very challenging. And we don't have hard numbers on how many aircraft the Taliban might have acquired, but to give a general sense, the U.S. gave the Afghan military around 200 or so aircraft over the years. The Pentagon did say that Afghan pilots flew out some of those aircraft to neighboring states like Uzbekistan.
DAVIS: This is not a new story in Afghanistan. We've seen the winning side in long wars there capture weapons in the past, haven't we?
MYRE: Yeah, Susan, just consider the history of Bagram Air Base. That's this huge military airfield that's north of Kabul. The U.S. built it for the Afghans way back in the 1950s, part of the Cold War effort to woo the Afghan government. But when the Soviets occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s, they used Bagram as a big hub. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and made a big upgrade and then left just last month. And today, it belongs to the Taliban.
DAVIS: NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre, thanks so much.
MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.