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Spoils of war: How Taliban commanders compete to sell and smuggle American weapons

By Kazim Ehsan

According to a 2022 Pentagon report, the US left behind $7 billion worth of military equipment in Afghanistan after withdrawing from the country in August 2021, including dozens of aircraft, air-to-ground munitions, thousands of military vehicles, weapons, advanced spy and communications equipment, and other materials. The Taliban now has access to this equipment, which has raised international concerns. Several reports indicate that insurgent and extremist groups in the region find it easy to access this equipment.

The New York Times reported a few months after the U.S. withdrawal that dozens of shops across Kandahar, a southern province where Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Hibatullah resides, were selling American military equipment, as well as smuggling it to Pakistan where demand is believed to be high.

And in February in 2022, The Print reported that a senior Indian military officer had said that weapons and devices found on terrorists killed at the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir were not commonly seen before, and that they had been in Afghanistan when the US troops withdrew. The officer added that based on their analysis, not only terrorists but also these weapons could make their way to Kashmir. NBC News provided further details, stating that militant groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which the US had designated as terrorist organizations, now have access to the weapons left behind by the US in Afghanistan.

The weapons and military equipment left behind by US forces have not only reached beyond Afghanistan’s borders but have also become a source of conflict among the Taliban. Sources in Kandahar province say the group’s factions are competing over smuggling arms into the country’s southern regions. A source currently working in the Taliban government said that during the first months of Taliban rule, military equipment, especially weapons from NATO forces, particularly the US military, were smuggled to Pakistan and Iran.

According to a source, Maulvi Zubair, a member of the Haqqani Network and the Taliban commander in Kandahar’s Spin Boldak district, accused Kandahar governor, Yusuf Wafa, a close ally of the Taliban’s supreme leader, of smuggling military equipment to Pakistan. Zubair warned that action would be taken against Wafa if he did not stop. Two weeks later, Wafa dismissed Zubair from his post.

A helicopter displaying a Taliban flag flies above Taliban supporters gathered to celebrate the US withdrawal of all its troops out of Afghanistan, in Kandahar on September 1, 2021 following the Talibans military takeover of the country.
A captured helicopter flying the Taliban flag in Kandahar in September 2021. Photo: Javid Tanveer/AFP via Business Insider

The source further added that two Haqqani loyalists, Javad Yaser, a public relations officer for the Kandahar Intelligence Directorate, and Maulvi Sabbour, a spokesperson for the Kandahar security command, protested against the smuggling of military equipment by individuals linked to the governor. When they were called to the governor’s office, Yaser was arrested and imprisoned for two days, and was dismissed from his position on the pretext of collaborating with IS-KP. Sabbour was also accused of collaborating with ISIS and has since disappeared.

In February 2023, the competition for control of equipment left behind by the US army reached a new level when the Taliban’s Interior Ministry, under Sirajuddin Haqqani, announced that they had seized a truck full of weaponsand ammunition bound for Pakistan in the eastern province of Khost.

Two months later, the Ministry of Interior published a video showing its agents preventing the sale of a spy balloon left behind by the US Army to Iranians. The video shows a person named Mustafa from Urozgan province who was arrested for trying to sell these balloons in Kandahar province.

Ahmad Stanikzai (not his real name), a political analyst and former military officer in Nangarhar province, says that both Haqqani and Kandahari Taliban are involved in smuggling and selling military equipment to regional arms dealers and insurgent groups. However, some factors separate or even leave them on opposing sides.

“The Kandahari Taliban has a more ideological approach and believes the group should support and collaborate with Jihadist groups worldwide as part of their global Jihadi missions. However, Haqqani has a pragmatic approach, maintaining a strong connection with the Pakistan army and ISI,” he says. “Haqqani Network supplies arms and equipment only to those Pakistan approves without raising alarms and concerns from the US and International Community,” according to him.

On 24 March , the Taliban announced that the technical team at its Al-Badr Corps had made hundreds of military vehicles operational.

Another factor, Stanikzai believes, is that Haqqani Network is more or less an autonomous group that joined the Taliban movement but never wholly dissolved into the Taliban. After 2001, the group independently operated and carried out some of the deadliest attacks against the US-led coalition and the previous government.

“Haqqani Network grew gradually and entered the Taliban leadership circles. Now they are fighting for a higher or equal status, rather than being a subgroup inside the Taliban apparatus that is obliged to obey and implement Mullah Hibatullah’s decrees,” he added. “When it comes to arms smuggling, the Haqqani Network certainly wants to have their share, or else they will do everything to stop others.”