Afghan Arms Dealers are Now Selling Abandoned American Guns

Experts are worried about who might be buying them.
October 6, 2021, 7:12am
taliban rifle
Gun dealers and merchants are peddling American-made firearms in provinces throughout Afghanistan, and in some cases smuggling them across the border to Pakistan, where demand is high. Photo by 
picture alliance
 / Contributor, via Getty Images

In Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, the going price for a U.S. M4 carbine assault rifle is about $4,000 – especially if it comes fitted with an under-barrel grenade launcher or laser sight.

This is according to gun merchants in Kandahar, who are now openly selling caches of American-made pistols, rifles, grenades, binoculars, night-vision goggles, radios and other military accessories, as reported by The New York Times. The various pieces of equipment were issued to the Afghan military during the United States’ failed 20-year occupation, and left behind following their evacuation. 

Advertisement

There was a time when the merchants’ primary customers were Taliban militants; fighters engaged in open combat with Western forces who were all too willing to pay the price for American-supplied weapons and gear. But the war is over. Now the bulk of their buyers are Afghan entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens.

“American-made weapons are in great demand,” one merchant told the paper, “as they work very well and people know how to use them.”

In the two previous fiscal years ending in June, the U.S. spent more than $2.6 billion on the Afghan military, outfitting them with pistols, rifles, machine guns, rockets, Humvees and light attack aircraft, as well as huge amounts of ammunition – much of which was left in Afghanistan when the West completed its withdrawal on August 30. More sophisticated weaponry was shipped out with the evacuating U.S. forces, who also disabled the remaining helicopters and airplanes before departure. 

“Everything that hasn't been destroyed is the Taliban's now,” a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, previously told Reuters.

Taliban fighters have, in many cases, sold these weapons on to gun dealers and merchants, who are now peddling them in provinces across the country and in some cases smuggling them across the border to Pakistan, where demand is high. As one dealer told France24: “We bought all these things from the Taliban after they conquered the Afghan army base. Now we bring them to the market to sell.”

But not all of the weapons that have fallen into Taliban hands were simply left behind or surrendered. Many of them were in fact sold directly to the militants by allies of the West – corrupt members of the Afghan security forces, the police and army, who handed their guns over to Taliban insurgents in exchange for cash long before the fall of Kabul.

Advertisement

Nonetheless, the collapse of the Afghan army and the swift evacuation of Western forces has provided a lucrative windfall for local weapons dealers. The U.S. alone left behind $83 billion worth of weapons, including some 600,000 small arms, 32,000 grenades, mortars, rockets and bombs and 30 million rounds of ammunition – all of which is now fuelling the country’s arms trade.

At least one Taliban spokesperson, Bilal Karimi, denied that American weapons were flooding the market, telling The Times “I totally deny this; our fighters cannot be that careless. Even a single person cannot sell a bullet in the market or smuggle it.” Other Taliban figures, however, reportedly confirmed that the number of American guns up for grabs has seen an uptick.

There are concerns that these weapons, which now seem to be in such high supply as well as demand, could fall into the possession of other militant groups such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, al-Qaida or Islamic State. Current and former U.S. officials have previously raised fears that the acquired arms could be used to kill civilians, attack U.S. interests in the region or be handed over to America’s global adversaries, including China and Russia.

Advertisement

Experts have also highlighted the possibility that the Taliban may hand over parts of the abandoned U.S. arsenal to China, who will subsequently reap insights into how America builds and uses its military technology, and create “a new generation of weapons and tactics tailored to U.S. vulnerabilities.” Peter Christensen, a former director of the U.S. Army’s National Cyber Range, cited leftover electronic countermeasures gear (ECMs) as a case in point.

“Imagine the research and development effort that went into develop those ECM devices that were designed to counter IEDs [improvised explosive devices],” Christensen told DefenseOne. “Now, our adversaries have them. They’re going to have the software and the hardware that goes with that system. But also develop capabilities to defeat or mitigate the effectiveness of those ECM devices.”

Others, meanwhile, have flagged Pakistan – whose prime minister, Imran Khan, has openly congratulated the Taliban for “breaking the chains of slavery” – as an underestimated threat. Struan Stevenson, international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association, warned in a piece for United Press International last month that “the ongoing sale of arms to Pakistan in particular should cause grave concern in the West.”

Stevenson pointed out that thousands of Pakistani fighters have joined the Taliban, and suggested that if the group continued to exert influence in the country and ultimately oust Khan as prime minister, then “Western allies may face, for the first time, an Islamic fundamentalist enemy armed with nuclear weapons and a deadly arsenal of modern U.S.- and U.K.-built military equipment.”

Follow Gavin on Twitter.