Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

The U.S. Left Billions Worth of Weapons in Afghanistan

Some officials are worried that the Taliban could use U.S. drones and small arms.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Soldiers stand on an armored vehicle in the middle of the road.
Soldiers stand on an armored vehicle in the middle of the road.
Taliban fighters in armored vehicles take part in a military street parade in Herat, Afghanistan, on April 19. Mohsen Karimi/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! U.S. President Joe Biden is asking Congress for a whopping $33 billion more in Ukraine aid—half of that for the military’s fight against Russia. Stay tuned; we’ll have more on this. And U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres got a rude awakening on his trip to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, today: a Russian cruise missile attack.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap: The Taliban are parading U.S. weapons left in Afghanistan on Kabul’s streets, Biden’s National Security Council has a new strategy guru, and an American prisoner is freed in Russia.

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! U.S. President Joe Biden is asking Congress for a whopping $33 billion more in Ukraine aid—half of that for the military’s fight against Russia. Stay tuned; we’ll have more on this. And U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres got a rude awakening on his trip to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, today: a Russian cruise missile attack.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap: The Taliban are parading U.S. weapons left in Afghanistan on Kabul’s streets, Biden’s National Security Council has a new strategy guru, and an American prisoner is freed in Russia.

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


No Gun Left Behind?

Almost 80 U.S. aircraft—with control panels smashed out—were left abandoned at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport when the United States pulled out last August. The United States left behind nearly 42,000 pieces of night vision, surveillance, biometric, and positioning equipment in the Taliban-controlled country.

By the time the last U.S. transport aircraft left Afghan airspace on Aug. 30, 2021, 70 percent of U.S. weapons given to the Afghan forces over the past 16 years were left in the country as well as nearly $48 million worth of ammunition. 

In all, the United States left behind more than $7 billion worth of weapons and equipment when it left Afghanistan last year, according to a congressional-mandated Defense Department report first seen by CNN. The equipment was transferred to the Afghan government, which collapsed even before the U.S. withdrawal last year.

The detritus is another hidden cost of the U.S. and NATO military withdrawal that ended two decades of Western involvement in the war-torn country. 

The news comes as the Taliban have been on a killing spree against perceived opponents of the regime in recent weeks, and a spate of terrorist groups that the United States promised to monitor from “over the horizon” in bases in the Persian Gulf have also made a resurgence. The Taliban have also cracked down on human rights in the war-torn country, recently moving to ensure girls don’t go to school. 

“With these weapons, the Taliban are feeling power to implement their barbaric rules on the people of Afghanistan,” said Zelgai Sajad, the former Afghan consul general in New York. “They are holding many military shows with these weapons in the cities and trying to convince people to obey them.” 

In recent weeks, the Taliban have been seen parading through the streets of Afghanistan in U.S. armored vehicles that were first provided to the Afghan army. The United States left 23,825 Humvees in Afghanistan, including armored gun truck variants, and nearly 900 combat vehicles, officials familiar with the report said. “These weapons are potentially in the service of crushing human rights,” said Aref Dostyar, Afghanistan’s former consul general in Los Angeles.

The Defense Department insists that it’s unlikely the Taliban could use the American weapons left behind because they require specialized maintenance and technical support that was once provided by U.S. contractors.

But officials familiar with the report are concerned that the Taliban could use the small arms, at least. There are more than 250,000 automatic rifles, 95 drones, and more than a million mortar rounds that require little training to use. And if the Taliban don’t use the systems, the cash-starved militant group could pass them on to American adversaries or they could find their way into the hands of terror groups. 

The Pentagon insists that U.S. forces were able to destroy or render inoperable much of the equipment and weapons provided to Afghanistan before the troop withdrawal, a figure that amounted to $18.6 billion.

“It is important to remember that the $7.12 billion figure cited in the department’s recent report to Congress corresponds to [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] equipment and not U.S. military equipment used by our forces,” said Maj. Rob Lodewick, a Defense Department spokesperson. “Nearly all equipment used by U.S. military forces in Afghanistan was either retrograded or destroyed prior to our withdrawal and is not part of the $7.12 billion figure cited in the report.”

And the Pentagon has tried to get some of the money back. In April, the Pentagon told the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction that it had tried to get back money previously provided to the Afghan government to build up its military but had failed due to the collapse of the Afghan banking system. 

Sajad, the Afghan diplomat, doesn’t believe that the Taliban can use the weapons for long. “In the long term, I am not sure that the Taliban have the capacity to protect and repair these weapons,” he said. 


The Surge

Keep up each week with who’s rising and falling (and falling, and falling) in the struggle for political relevance. Sign up for the Surge from Slate, written by senior politics writer Jim Newell.


Let’s Get Personnel

After three years of the post sitting empty, the United States may soon have an ambassador to Ukraine, as FP reported this week. Biden nominated career diplomat Bridget Brink to be the next U.S. envoy to Ukraine (confirming our reporting from December 2021). 

Thomas Wright has started at the National Security Council as the senior director for strategy, SitRep has learned. Jack and Robbie first reported in March that Wright, a former Brookings Institution expert, was being eyed for the influential job. 

A scholar on disinformation at the Wilson Center think tank, Nina Jankowicz, is joining the Department of Homeland Security’s new Disinformation Governance Board.

Kevin Whitaker, the former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, is joining the Atlantic Council think tank as a nonresident senior fellow.

Arizona State University’s McCain Institute has brought on Evelyn Farkas as its new executive director.


On the Button 

What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.

Reed freed. Trevor Reed, a 30-year-old U.S. Marine veteran, was freed from Russian prison in a dramatic prisoner exchange between Washington and Moscow despite soaring tensions between the former Cold War rivals. Reed, who was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2020 on groundless charges, was swapped with a Russian drug dealer convicted in the United States in a Bridge of Spies exchange at a Turkish airport.

It represents a surprising diplomatic coup for the Biden administration as it grapples with historically high tensions with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. Now, the White House will turn its efforts back to freeing other Americans detained in Russia, including Paul Whelan and women’s basketball star Brittney Griner. 

Naval gazing. The naval battles over Ukraine may not be over despite Russia losing the flagship of its Black Sea fleet, the Moskva, in a Ukrainian strike this month. Around 20 Russian naval vessels, including submarines, remain in the Black Sea with potential capabilities to strike Ukraine’s coast, according to new assessments from the British defense ministry. 

Filling vacuums. While Russia shuttles its forces from the Middle East back to fight in Ukraine, it has left a gap in Syria that the Iranians seem all too happy to fill. Iranian forces have taken over some parts of Syria where Russians were previously stationed, as Breaking Defense reports. This could make it easier for Iran to smuggle arms to its proxy forces in Lebanon to target Israel, Israeli defense sources told Breaking Defense. 


Snapshot 

A serviceman stands near a missile's booster stage in a field.
A serviceman stands near a missile's booster stage in a field.

A Ukrainian serviceman looks at a Russian ballistic missile’s booster stage that fell in a field in Bohodarove, eastern Ukraine, on April 25.Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images


Put On Your Radar

Today: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres met in Kyiv today, the U.N. chief’s first trip to Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion two months ago. 

Wednesday, May 4: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hears from Biden’s nominees to be U.S. ambassadors to the United Kingdom, Denmark, Malta, and the Conference on Disarmament.

Thursday, May 19: The United States plans to hold a meeting on food security at the U.N. Security Council amid Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, FP’s Colum Lynch has learned. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to chair the meeting, diplomatic sources say.


Quote of the Week

“She really could press—leg press—400 pounds.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of the late U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright at Albright’s funeral in Washington on Wednesday.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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