In the chaos of the U.S. military withdrawal and the Taliban’s takeover this summer, thousands of U.S.-made weapons and tons of military equipment were seized by militants as government military bases surrendered or were overrun.
With the Taliban in power, several US arms and military accessories are now openly sold in stores by Afghan arms dealers, who paid government soldiers and Taliban fighters for weapons, ammunition and other equipment, according to arms dealers in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan.
In interviews, three arms dealers in Kandahar said dozens of Afghans have set up arms shops in southern Afghanistan, selling American-made pistols, rifles, grenades, binoculars and night-vision goggles. The equipment was originally delivered to the Afghan security forces under a U.S. training and assistance program that cost U.S. taxpayers more than $ 83 billion over two decades of war.
During the uprising, the Taliban eagerly searched for US-supplied weapons and equipment. But now much of that weapon is being sold to Afghan entrepreneurs because Taliban demand has waned by the end of the fight, arms dealers said. They say many arms dealers have smuggled the weapons to Pakistan, where the demand for US-made weapons is high.
The loss of tens of thousands of millions of dollars in US-made weapons and equipment is another costly consequence of the failed 20-year mission to Afghanistan. It ended in chaos and upheaval when the Taliban captured Kabul on August 15 after crushing an Afghan military built, trained and funded by the United States.
Over the years, the United States has provided the Afghan military with a wide range of weapons and vehicles, including M4 carbines, rockets, A-29 light attack aircraft, Humvees and ample ammunition for combat rifles and machine guns, according to a recent report by the Special Inspector General of Afghanistan’s Reconstruction. For the two previous fiscal years ending in June, the amount spent on the Afghan military totaled $ 2.6 billion.
The Pentagon acknowledged on Monday that a large number of US-supplied weapons remained in Afghanistan.
“Since 2005, the U.S. military has provided the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces with many thousands of small arms, ranging from pistols to medium-sized machine guns,” May said. Rob Lodewick, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, in a statement to The Times.
Following the collapse of the Afghan government in August, Major Lodewick said: “We recognize that a large number of these weapons are probably now in the hands of the Taliban.”
In congressional testimony last week, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin said more sophisticated weapons used by U.S. troops in Afghanistan were removed when the last forces left in late August. Advanced weapons supplied to Afghan security forces, such as helicopters and planes, were deactivated before the Americans left, Pentagon officials said.
But the Taliban denied that any of these weapons hit the market.
In an interview with The New York Times, a Taliban spokesman, Bilal Karimi, said weapons were not for sale. “I totally deny it; our fighters can not be so careless, ”he said. “Even a single person cannot sell a bullet in the market or smuggle it.”
He added that US-made weapons previously captured during the war “are all listed, verified and are all stored and secured under the Islamic Emirate for the future army.” (The Taliban refer to their government as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.)
Other Taliban figures, however, have confirmed that a large wave of US weapons has hit the market.
Afghanistan under Taliban rule
With the departure of the U.S. military on August 30, Afghanistan quickly fell back under Taliban control. There is widespread fear of the future across the country.
This summer, piles of U.S.-supplied weapons were either stolen and sold by Afghan security forces or seized by the Taliban as they negotiated wholesale surrenders, with soldiers and police handing over such weapons and equipment in return for the Taliban’s promises to spare their lives. Other times, uniforms, weapons and equipment were simply abandoned by Afghan soldiers and police as they deserted.
Some soldiers and police sold their weapons and ammunition before negotiating their surrender. Arms dealers would pay about $ 1,200 for a single U.S.-service Beretta M9 handgun, the arms dealers said – far more than a soldier’s monthly salary, at a time when many police officers and soldiers were not paid or provided with ammunition, food or water.
U.S. M4 carbines sell for about $ 4,000, dealers said, especially if equipped with a laser sight or grenade launcher during races. In contrast, a Kalashnikov rifle sells for about $ 900, dealers said, and a Russian-made rocket-propelled grenade launcher for about $ 1,100. Guns supplied by NATO forces to Afghan police officers sell for about $ 350. Almost all of their transactions are in Pakistani rupees and in cash, the dealers said.
An arms dealer, Esmatullah, said he opened a store in Kandahar province about eight months ago after the Taliban took control of the immediate area. Before that, he said, he worked as a roving arms dealer and visited government bases to buy weapons and ammunition from soldiers and police who were desperate for cash and tired of a government in Kabul that they thought had left them.
“We used to work as a mobile team,” he said. “We would meet many government soldiers and officers to buy weapons from them. Then we would take these weapons to the Taliban and sell them to them or to anyone who would give us a good price.”
Separately, the Taliban allowed their fighters to sell some of the handguns they seized when bases surrendered or were exceeded, arms dealers said. The rest of the confiscated weapons were handed over to Taliban commanders, whose fighter jets fired US-made M4 attack carbines and ran into US Humvees as they marched across the country this summer.
Today, merchants say their customers are Afghan entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens. These Afghans buy coveted American-made weapons either to resell them in Pakistan, for self-defense, or to settle long-lasting personal or tribal feuds.
“American-made weapons are in great demand as they work very well and people know how to use them,” said another arms dealer in Kandahar, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared the Taliban would close his store.
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The grocery store said it had sold dozens of American-made pistols, rifles, ammunition and two-way radios since opening its store about three months ago.
A third arms dealer in Kandahar, who asked not to be identified because the Taliban had warned him not to speak to the news media, said dealers had sold weapons as large as anti-aircraft guns to the Taliban this summer. Now, he said, he was selling US-made M4s and .50-caliber machine guns as well as weapons made by other nations, including rocket launchers and Kalashnikov assault rifles.
“The first choice is American made, though a little more expensive than the Russian one,” the grocer said. “Light weapons such as guns and pistols are in high demand as they are easy to carry and carry.”
Mullah Basir Akhund, a former Taliban commander living in Kandahar, said he helped the militants negotiate the surrender of security forces in the province. The Taliban often sent village elders or other trusted people to negotiate surrender. The collapse of government bases left the area flooded with US-made weapons, Mr Akhund said.
“There are a lot of shops and arms smugglers roaming in Kandahar these days,” he said. “These people have always been there to buy weapons, especially in this kind of transition period where it’s easy to buy new weapons.”
He said he recently introduced a Pakistani arms dealer to an arms dealer in Kandahar. He said the dealer told him he was looking for guns, rifles, night-vision goggles, ammunition and other military equipment from the United States.
Mr. Akhund said the Pakistani dealer sells cars from a showroom in Pakistan. But the man’s most lucrative business, he said, is about selling US-made weapons bought in Afghanistan.
Erik Schmitt contributed with reporting.