Last week, the Department of Defense Inspector General (DODIG) published the latest results of the ongoing investigation of American operations in Afghanistan. According to the report, the DOD left approximately $7.1 billion in U.S.-funded equipment behind in the country. The Office of the Secretary of Defense asserted that the military had removed or destroyed all equipment used by American troops but acknowledged the Taliban had seized items from the American-backed regime after its collapse. The repeated epilogue of "abandoned equipment" ending up in the hands of the enemy underscores the absurdity and waste inherent to failed American interventions.
In November 2020, Senator Marco Rubio published an article warning that a withdrawal from Afghanistan without proper planning would risk the capture of American weaponry by the Taliban and other forces hostile to the United States. One year later, Senator Rubio's fears came to pass when the American-created Afghan National Security Forces disintegrated within days of an aggressive Taliban onslaught. The Taliban celebrated by parading captured American equipment. Subsequent video footage showed fighters riding Humvees, carrying M16s, and even flying a Black Hawk.
According to Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reporting at that time, equipment transferred to the American-backed regime included over 3,000 Humvees, 7,000 machine guns, 1,000 grenade launchers, 20,000 grenades, and 30 Black Hawk helicopters, plus gunship helicopters and light attack planes.
In April 2022, CNN exclusively reported that, in an unreleased report sent to Congress, the Department of Defense confirmed that nearly $7 billion worth of equipment remained in Afghanistan.
The CNN report augmented initial SIGAR reporting. The communications equipment included base-station, mobile, man-portable, and hand-held commercial and military radio systems, and associated transmitters and encryption devices; specialized equipment encompassing not only night-vision but also biometric equipment; and explosive-detection, electronic-countermeasure, disposal, and personal-protective equipment.
According to CNN, the department had no plans to “retrieve or destroy” the equipment. This new DODIG report now confirms these details.
Multiple experts commented that the captured equipment is likely to be sold locally or transferred to other anti-American militants, exacerbating the security challenges in the region. Indian generals worried the weapons would end up in Pakistan, shared with terrorists targeting their forces. Various online reports featured images of captured vehicles in Iran.
Abandoned equipment as a postscript to disastrous military interventions is a too-often-recurring consequence.
Eight years ago, it was the Islamic State showing off American weapons in victory parades.
In June 2014, ISIS, the Islamic State, captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul as well as the sizable cache of military weapons the United States had left behind for local allied forces. The seized arsenal was substantial: ten M1A1 Abrams tanks, 2,300 Humvees, 52 mobile gun systems, and 74,000 machine guns—approximately $650 million worth of equipment.
Over the next twelve months, the U.S. Air Force had to undertake air strikes to destroy the abandoned equipment—“a surreal state of affairs in which American weaponry is being sent into Iraq to destroy American weaponry previously sent into Iraq," as Peter Van Buren put it. One two-day operation destroyed five tanks, two armored personnel carriers, and two armored vehicles.
In spring 2018, various news reports asserted Iranian-backed militias had acquired some of the captured Abrams tanks. The militias were supporting operations to defeat the Islamic State, but they were also moving against American-backed Kurdish rebels. After initial dissembling, the Department of State eventually conceded the tanks were in the militias’ possession.
Four decades before the global war on terrorism, the U.S. left behind an entire military’s worth of equipment during its humiliating retreat from Vietnam.
When the United States withdrew its forces in 1973, it relinquished nearly $5 billion worth of equipment: hundreds of tanks, 500 fighter bomber aircraft, over 600 helicopters, and "enough arms for a 700,000 man army."
Two years later, America's South Vietnamese allies surrendered an enormous catalog of weapons to the triumphant Communist North. The list of weapons foreshadowed the enemy haul in Afghanistan: ground‐support fighter‐bombers; main battle tanks; hundreds of artillery pieces; 15,000 tons of ammunition; 100 tons of bombs; and multi-million-dollar signals equipment.
At least Vietnam-era officials did not sugarcoat the episode the way their present-day successors would. Various sources plainly characterized the losses as "catastrophic," "staggering," and "devastating.” One defense official estimated the dollar loss was approximately two billion.
After unification, Vietnam incorporated the weapons into its arsenal, using them in its 1978 invasion of Cambodia. Vietnam also handed over captured aircraft to the Soviet Union for reverse engineering. American officials alleged that Vietnam distributed the weapons to other communist insurgencies after finding the weapons in other war zones.
Fifteen years later, a journalist came across Vietnamese entrepreneurs making a lucrative living selling abandoned equipment.
The military term describing operations that move equipment and materiel away from an enemy is retrograde. Between 2008 and 2018, Congress's investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, issued multiple reports documenting how poorly DOD had executed such operations. The agency’s findings anticipated the chaos in Kabul last year.
In 2008, GAO reported that “DOD and the military services have not clearly established roles and responsibilities for managing and executing the retrograde of materiel and equipment from Iraq.”
Ten years later, GAO reported, again, “DOD has not established a strategic policy for the retrograde of equipment.… DOD has not yet determined which DOD organization will lead the effort to establish a strategic policy.… We found that there was no consensus among the officials we spoke with regarding which organization should lead the effort.”
Delete the word retrograde and the principal reason for the Afghanistan-Iraq catastrophe reveals itself: the lack of a sound strategy. And retrograde aside, too much consensus was evident—too many elected and appointed officials agreed to perpetuate this mess.
One such decision-maker, former Afghanistan commander General David Petraeus, still clings to the myopia that haunted this undertaking. Writing in the Atlantic this past month, Petraeus argued that America’s “foundational mistake was our lack of commitment.” Twenty years was not enough; it should have been “generational.”
Supposedly, perennial calls to withdraw “damaged the psyche” of Afghan leaders, essentially sabotaging any willingness to “invest in the solutions we promoted” since we were going to leave soon. The “promise of freedom and democracy” alone was not enough.
Evidently, the abandoned equipment was misguidedly transferred because America gave them “what we thought they needed and, under pressure from the U.S. Congress, we sought to buy American, even when U.S. systems, such as our helicopters, were too complex for the Afghans to maintain.”
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For the unvarnished truth, see the confidential admissions by General Douglas Lute, who served as Afghanistan war czar from 2007 to 2010, in the Afghanistan Papers. As Lute stated, “Many years into the war, the United States still did not understand Afghanistan.” He confessed as well, “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing.”
The phenomenon of abandoned equipment pales in comparison to the lives lost over the past two decades, including the 13 servicemembers killed by a suicide bomber in the final scramble to withdraw. Nevertheless, the postscript exposes DOD’s lax stewardship of the American taxpayer's dollar. In the every-penny-counts arithmetic of household budgets, billions invested domestically would be transformational. In the cavalier calculus of defense economics, billions are a rounding error.
If America wants to avoid losing billions of dollars in abandoned equipment or having to destroy equipment seized by America's enemies, the solution is to stop intervening everywhere.