Parallel to the outpouring of concern sparked by the US’ exit from Afghanistan has been the hand-wringing over the advanced weapons and military equipment that was seen to have passed into Taliban hands. Reports have talked about helicopters, Humvees, howitzers and billions of dollars’ worth of other military stores now swelling the Taliban arsenal and posing a general threat to Afghan civilians and the neighbourhood at large. But as they left, US military officials said they, in fact, took care to disable, or “demilitarise", all the key materiel that they could not carry back. Here’s how they went about it.
What Is Meant By ‘Demilitarisation’?
In its literal, dictionary sense, to ‘demilitarise’ means to rid any area of military presence. But it was also the term used by US military officials to denote what they had done with the military equipment that has had to be abandoned in Afghanistan, some in haste and others because they were, too, bulky to be brought back at short notice.
Gen. Kenneth F McKenzie, the chief of the US Central Command, said on the last day of US presence in Afghanistan that the troops on their way out of Kabul airport had destroyed scores of military vehicles and aircraft.
“Those aircraft will never fly again. 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," he said.
Photos and videos had started circulating online of Taliban fighters turned out in military camouflage and night vision goggles that they had seized after the collapse of the US-funded and trained Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF). They were also seen inspecting military helicopters at Kabul airport. But US defence officials had not seemed too worried.
“I would tell you that they can inspect all they want. They can look at them, they can walk around, but they can’t fly them. They can’t operate them. We made sure to demilitarise — to make unusable all the gear that is at the airport," Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby had told CNN, adding that “the only thing we left operable are a couple of fire trucks and forklifts so that the airport can remain more operational going forward".
How Was The Gear Rendered Unusable?
Mostly through the use of explosives. The suddenness and speed of the Taliban takeover of the country even before the last US troops and civilians could clear out meant that the final days of American presence in Afghanistan was marked by a scramble during which officials had to juggle the requirements of evacuating people with making sure that the Taliban didn’t get their hands on any heavy duty military ware.
Officials said that even so, US troops did manage to fly away with some of the equipment while others were “demilitarised at the airport, or destroyed in controlled blasts".
A report in USA Today said citing a US defence official that “troops probably used thermate grenades, which burn at temperatures of 4,000 degrees, to destroy key components of the equipment".
Gen. McKenzie said that among the gear destroyed were up to 70 MRAPs and 23 Humvees and 73 aircraft. MRAPS are short for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles while Humvees are the iconic all-terrain vehicles that were among the most visible elements in US’ long occupation of Afghanistan.
What Was The Value Of All The Destroyed Equipment?
Considering that the entire US mission in Afghanistan is being criticised as being a colossal loss, the value of the ‘demilitarised’ goods would surely be small change. Reports suggest that the total cost of the 20 years in Afghanistan worked out to about $2 trillion and change for Washington. The spend on Afghan security itself was about $83 billion since 2002.
But it’s not like all that money had gone into buying weapons and equipment for the Afghan army. A bulk of it was used for maintenance and payment of salaries, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) had said in a recent report.
USA Today said that each MRAP costs around $1 million while a Humvee is worth a more than a quarter of a million dollars. The price of a military helicopter can run into tens of millions of dollars.
But the value in Taliban hands would be much more as they would hold the equipment up as trophies of their ‘victory’ against the biggest superpower. The nuisance value of the haul of US weapons is more represented by the small arms that the Taliban have won. Experts say that the group could hand these arms to associated terror groups or sell these on the black market, comething that could see these weapons ending up in the hands of rogue actors who threaten peace in countries near and far.
What Kind Of Equipment Did Had The US Given Afghanistan?
Providing a break-up of US armaments in Afghanistan, the BCC said that between 2003 and 2016, more than 3.5 lakh rifles, over 64,000 machine guns, 25,000 grenade launchers and 22,000 Humvees were shipped to the country along with more than 160,000 pieces of communication equipment and 16,000 night-vision goggles.
Then there was the almost 200-strong fleet of the Afghan air force comprising helicopters, cargo planes and ground attack aircraft. But a large number of choppers and planes were reportedly flown into neighbouring countries as the Taliban overran the country and what’s left behind is seen as being either to complicated for the Taliban to operate or has been rendered unusable, as US officials claim.
Also, reports say that the US had also begun removing equipment and military gear ahead of the complete drawdown on August 31 with cargo aircraft “running near around-the-clock missions".