Economic statistics rarely add to the sense of drama that lurks beneath the headlines. The Taliban’s new stash of American weapons could be an exception. Each of the Taliban’s new American-made M4 assault rifles costs more than a year’s worth of Afghanistan’s per capita output. The Taliban are now cruising in some of the 4,700 Humvees transferred to Afghanistan by the US between 2017 and 2019. A fleet of 20,000 Humvees would cost the entire country’s annual GDP. The arms transfer that occurred as the United States withdrew and American-aligned Afghan forces surrendered in haste is as massive as it appears. It is the largest transfer of weapons the world has seen in decades, in relation to the size of the local economy.
In the 1980s, for example, data for Afghanistan show weapons transfers to the Mujahadeen, the Taliban’s predecessor, as well as the Northern Alliance (the anti-Taliban opposition with which the US allied in 2001). For each country in a given year, the total value of all arms transferred to any group operating within its borders is totaled, resulting in a single value for arms transferred to armed groups in that country. The total value of all weapons received in a given year is then divided by the country’s annual GDP, which is available from the World Bank. For this metric of weapon receipts as a percentage of GDP. World War II and its aftermath would almost certainly have produced higher values than anything seen since 1960.
Though data from the Stockholm database on the value of weapons transferred within Afghanistan as a result of the US withdrawal are not yet available, estimates range from $10 billion to $90 billion. However, even the most conservative estimate of $10 billion implies a value of 50.4 percent, making it the largest weapons transfer since 1973 rather than 1960. Afghanistan’s GDP in 2021 is also calculated using data from 2019, the most recent year for which data is now available from the World Bank. The economic collapse that is expected to occur as a result of America’s withdrawal will almost certainly reduce GDP significantly. Statistically, then, it is safe to say that the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan has just received the world’s largest arms transfer in decades, in terms of its economy.
If the subsequent histories of the cases that dot the chart are any indication, the question now is where the American-made arms will be used rather than whether they will be used at all. India’s concerns about regional violence may be justified: Some cases foreshadowed eras of regional violence that crossed international borders. Syria, the post-1960 record holder, was involved in the start of the Yom Kippur War that same year. Eritrea, the data’s “runner-up,” began a brutal war with Ethiopia in 1998, which lasted until 2018. Others are conflicts that herald the start of civil wars, which, like demons trapped within a set of borders, haunt countries for decades. Arms shipments to the Houthi rebels, who continue to dominate Yemen’s civil war, propelled Yemen to the top of the list as early as 1995.
However, even this bleak history likely understates the dangers posed by the American weapons cache left in Afghanistan. Historically, for a government like the Taliban to receive a significant amount of weapons, it must be given to them on purpose by a supporting country. However, the Taliban amassed their arsenal as if by lottery during Afghanistan’s unexpectedly quick collapse, a scenario that no one but the Taliban could have predicted. Economists frequently use cases of lottery-like luck as “natural experiments” to identify the causal effects of something, such as the “resource curse,” which can haunt places where a natural resource, such as oil, happens to be present.