In May 2021, the Taliban began their annual spring offensive into Afghan Government-controlled territory. In previous annual campaigns—despite regularly inflicting a significant number of casualties against Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and achieving some territorial gains—the Taliban were unable to topple the Afghan Government. The 2021 campaign was different. Following an agreement with the Afghan Taliban in late 2020, the United States and other NATO countries removed most of their military forces from Afghanistan in April 2021. These withdrawals stripped the ANSF of western advisors and other vital support infrastructure, including the contractors who maintained Afghan Air Force aircraft. Without western support, the ANSF’s poor morale, ineffective leadership, and supply chain issues handed the Taliban the advantage.
The Taliban campaign enjoyed success from the beginning; the Taliban captured more than 80 districts by June 2021—effectively doubling the number of Taliban-held districts in only two months. Although the Taliban controlled a considerable portion of Afghanistan before the offensive, their rapid territorial gains during the 2021 offensive were nonetheless remarkable. By mid-August, they had encircled Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. On 15 August, following a single day of largely insignificant resistance by Afghan Government forces, the Taliban captured Kabul—marking the end of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. During their rapid conquest of Afghanistan, the Taliban captured vast quantities of weaponry, equipment, and vehicles.
This article examines some of the weapons seized by the Taliban between May 2021 and August 2021. This is a ‘first look’ at the seizures, relying primarily on open-source material, especially public posts by Taliban sources. Much of the surrendered material was not posted online, and many arms and munitions—and other important equipment, such as body armour, communications devices, night vision devices, and vehicles—quietly fell into the hands of the Taliban. As such, this analysis should not be considered to provide an exhaustive list of the vast quantities of material lost during Afghanistan’s fall. Instead, it focuses on identifying the specific types and models of weapons that were captured.
An important additional note: despite the Taliban’s success, it is untrue to claim that the entire arsenal of weapons and equipment supplied to the ANSF was captured by the Taliban. Much of the equipment was destroyed or stolen by third-parties during the preceding months of fighting. Much had been lost in preceding years, whether damaged, destroyed, or previously captured. Other equipment was taken into the Panjshir province following the Taliban’s successes in 2021, in an effort to continue resistance against the Taliban, and some aircraft were flown into Uzbekistan by escaping pilots. As such, metrics measuring total expenditure by western powers on military aid to the ANSF provide a misleading picture when used to measure the extent of Taliban captures of arms. Future research should attempt to develop a more in-depth appreciation for the quantity and variety of military equipment that survived the conflict and was captured by the Taliban during its conquest of Afghanistan.
Captured Arms & Munitions
The Taliban obtained weapons from the ANSF through several mechanisms. Battlefield capture—the seizure of arms and munitions from enemies that have surrendered or been killed—was the most common of these. The Taliban also benefited from the capture of intact ANSF bases, which were often home to warehouses storing weapons and munitions by the ton. Taliban arsenals were supplemented by the many defectors that brought their own issued equipment and additional weapons stolen from their bases to the Taliban upon defection. Finally, official Taliban social-media accounts have claimed that Iran supplied the Taliban with weapons that were surrendered by ANSF forces fleeing into Iran.
Although small arms and light weapons (SALW) constitute the majority of captured arms, several heavy weapons were also documented. Interestingly, despite the large number of captured SALW, ARES only documented a limited number of handguns amongst those weapons captured. Most of these can be attributed to a single large seizure of several hundred M9 pistols. Whilst handguns were acquired by the ANSF on a more limited basis than rifles and other long guns, Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan Border Patrol forces are known to have received 22,500 Smith & Wesson SW9VE self-loading pistols in 2006. The ANSF is known to have received an additional 15,778 Beretta M9 pistols and an unknown number of Glock 19 pistols from the U.S. Army in 2011. Given the total defeat of these forces, it is plausible that many of these weapons have since fallen into the hands of the Taliban.
ARES has documented the Taliban’s successful capture of thousands of long guns—the majority of which were M16-series rifles. In addition to M16A2 and M16A4 rifles, the Taliban also captured M4-series weapons, AKM-type rifles, Type 3 AK rifles, AMD-65 rifles, PM md. 63 rifles, Type 56-series rifles, Zastava M70B1 rifles, and SMLE No.4 Mk.1 manually-operated rifles. Mossberg 500-series shotguns were also recorded. The Taliban has captured a number of different hand-held machine guns. ARES has documented RPK-, PK-, and PKM-types, as well as Zastava M84 and FN Herstal M249 (standard and PIP versions), M240B, and M240L machine guns. Precision rifle systems captured by the Taliban include PSL self-loading rifles and M24 SWS manually operated rifles.
There exists a long history of Western forces supplying Warsaw Pact and other non-Western rifles to local forces in Afghanistan. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, both the USSR and the CIA supplied AK-family rifles and PK-series hand-held machine guns to their preferred belligerents. Many of these weapons continue to be used by Afghans today. This trend continued as the United States became involved in the nation; from 2004 to 2016, the US supplied a total of 358,530 rifles, 12,692 shotguns, and 64,363 machine guns (including heavy machine guns) to Afghan forces.
ARES has also documented the capture of several different types of light weapons, including grenade launchers, mortars, shoulder-fired rocket launchers, and recoilless guns. Captured grenade launchers include American M203 and Soviet GP-25 under-barrel grenade launchers (UBGLs), and American M79 and Chinese QLZ 87 hand-held grenade launchers. Whilst the M203 and GP-25 launchers were likely captured from the same general sources as the aforementioned small arms, the source of the QLZ 87 remains unknown. The M79 launcher may have been seized from US stockpiles. The captured mortars include the Chinese Type 63-1 60 mm mortar, the American M224 60 mm mortar, and the Soviet M-37 82 mm mortar. Eastern European-pattern RPG-7 and Chinese Type 69 shoulder-fired recoilless launchers, Soviet SPG-9-pattern recoilless guns, and Chinese Type 65 recoilless guns were also documented in the possession of the Taliban. Other documented light weapons include 12.7 mm DShKM and .50 BGM (12.7 × 99 mm) M2 heavy machine guns (HMGs), including examples mounted to light tactical vehicles.
The heaviest captured weapon identified by ARES during this brief review was the 122 mm D-30 artillery gun. The US supplied 85 of these weapons to the ANSG during the period of American involvement in Afghanistan.
The Taliban also captured substantial quantities of ammunition and ordnance. ARES documented the capture of 5.56 × 45 mm, 7.62 × 39 mm, 7.62 × 51 mm, and 7.62 × 54R mm, 12.7 × 99 mm, and 12.7 × 108 mm small-calibre ammunition. Documented munitions include PG-7V, PG-7VM, OG-7V, and PG-9V recoilless ammunition and 60 mm mortar rounds. The majority of the RPG-7 and SPG-9 ammunition is likely to be of Eastern European origin, with the finish and markings frequently consistent with Bulgarian and Romanian munitions. The majority of the small-calibre ammunition, along with many of the other munitions, were likely supplied by the US from 2003 until its withdrawal.
ARES. n.d. Conflict Materiel (CONMAT) Database. Confidential. Perth: Armament Research Services ARES).
Beretta. 2011. ‘Latest Press Releases: Beretta USA U.S. Army Purchases Additional Beretta 9mm Pistols’. Press release: 30 September. Available via: <https://web.archive.org/web/20111219111057/http://www.berettausa.com/usarmypurchasesadditionalberetta9mmpistols/>.
DW (Deutsche Welle). 2021. ‘NATO allies agree to leave Afghanistan following US move’. Digital edition: 14 April. <https://www.dw.com/en/nato-allies-agree-to-leave-afghanistan-following-us-move/a-57206514>.
Ferguson, Jonathan & N.R. Jenzen-Jones. 2018. ‘Weapons Identification: Other Small Arms and Light Weapons’ in An Introductory Guide to the Identification of Small Arms, Light Weapons, and Associated Ammunition (Jenzen-Jones & Schroeder, eds.). Geneva: Small Arms Survey. <http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/resources/publications/by-type/handbooks/weapons-id-handbook.html>.
Findlay, S., & Parkin, B. 2021. ‘Afghan resistance leader warns of uprising if no Taliban peace deal’. Financial Times. Digital edition: 21 August. <https://www.ft.com/content/194e34a4-9a93-4095-825f-4572156e301b>.
Gibbons-Neff, T., Cooper, H., & Schmitt, E. 2021. ‘Departure of U.S. Contractors Poses Myriad Problems for Afghan Military’. New York Times. Digital edition: 19 June. <https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/19/world/asia/Afghanistan-withdrawal-contractors.html>.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). 2020. The Military Balance 2020. London: Routledge.
Jenzen-Jones, N.R. (ed.). 2020. The ARES Arms & Munitions Classification System (ARCS). Perth: Armament Research Services (ARES).
Latifi, A. 2021. “‘At the gates’: Taliban ready to take Afghan capital”. Al Jazeera. Digital edition: 15 August. <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/15/taliban-enter-kabul-from-all-sides>.
Pirseyedi, B. 2000. The Small Arms Problem in Central Asia. Geneva: United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.
Reinhard, S., & Zucchino, D. 2021. ‘20 Years of Defense, Erased by the Taliban in a Few Months’. New York Times. Digital edition: 14 August. <https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/08/14/world/asia/afghanistan-maps-taliban.html>.
Roggio, B. 2021. ‘Taliban doubles number of controlled Afghan districts since May 1’. Long War Journal. 29 June. <https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2021/06/taliban-doubles-number-of-controlled-afghan-districts-since-may-1.php>.
Roggio, B. 2021. ‘Taliban encircling Afghan capital Kabul, prepping final assault through east’. Long War Journal. 14 August. <https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2021/08/taliban-encircling-afghan-capital-kabul-prepping-final-assault-through-east.php>.
Schmitt, E. & Ngo, M. 2021. ‘Afghan Pilots Who Sought Safety in Uzbekistan Transfer to U.S. Base’. New York Times. Digital edition: 12 September. <https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/12/world/asia/afghan-pilots-united-states.html>.
Shalizi, H. & Sediqi, A. 2020. ‘Afghan government, Taliban reach breakthrough deal as calls grow for a ceasefire’. Reuters. Digital edition: 2 December. <https://www.reuters.com/article/afghanistan-taliban-agreement-int-idUSKBN28C1NS>.
Smith & Wesson. 2006. ‘Smith & Wesson Receives Fourth Military Contract’. Press release: 16 February. <https://ir.smith-wesson.com/news-releases/news-release-details/smith-wesson-receives-fourth-military-contract/>.
US Government Accountability Office. 2017. Afghanistan Security: U.S.-Funded Equipment for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. 10 August. <https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-17-667r.pdf>.
Remember, all arms and munitions are dangerous. Treat all firearms as if they are loaded, and all munitions as if they are live, until you have personally confirmed otherwise. If you do not have specialist knowledge, never assume that arms or munitions are safe to handle until they have been inspected by a subject matter specialist. You should not approach, handle, move, operate, or modify arms and munitions unless explicitly trained to do so. If you encounter any unexploded ordnance (UXO) or explosive remnants of war (ERW), always remember the ‘ARMS’ acronym:
AVOID the area
RECORD all relevant information
MARK the area from a safe distance to warn others
SEEK assistance from the relevant authorities