Taliban national arms management policies and practices

When the Taliban took power, significant caches of US-procured Republic weapons were left behind.[1] One Taliban official publicly claimed that the movement took possession of more than 300,000 light arms, 26,000 heavy weapons, and about 61,000 military vehicles during the takeover of the country,[2] but these figures have yet to be further refined.[3] The movement, in any case, had initially almost no capacity, or system in place, to manage any weapons, including the ones it seized.

Since then, the Taliban have tried to gain greater control over the proliferation and management of weapons but have not revealed any details of their overall approach or guiding principles, or how their efforts have evolved since August 2021. To assess actual policies and practices and their evolution, the Centre on Armed Groups conducted extensive field research in Afghanistan on behalf of the Small Arms Survey.[4]

In fact, the Taliban have not developed any new overarching arms control and management policy or system countrywide. Prior to its takeover of the country, the movement had no centralized system of weapons management during the insurgency: unit commanders were responsible for keeping track of weapons, but their distribution was informal, and not centralized.[5] Once in power, the Taliban continued to rely on pre-existing structures, procedures, and policies, as well as, to some extent, the remaining Republic personnel.

In practice, Taliban policies and positions are driven by several objectives, most notably securing greater control over their ranks. The Taliban are still transforming their insurgency forces into coherent state security forces, an ongoing process that started with the dismantling of the mahaz system.[6] The formal system provides clearer accountability chains—at least in theory—which are roughly similar to those existing during the Republic. For example, in the Ministry of Defence (MoD), squad leaders report to platoon leaders (with platoons consisting of roughly 100 to 150 people), who are in turn under the command of the company leader. In the Ministry of Interior (MoI), each unit has sub-units and sub-sub-units. The MoI also has different provincial-level units as well as special forces under its command.

Another factor influencing arms control efforts is the central authorities’ desire to prevent splits within the movement and to maintain an image of unity. The unregulated control of small arms could lead certain actors with local authority to accumulate stockpiles, which could then be used to support—or mount—a rebellion.[7] Contrary to past practices, the Taliban are distributing weapons in a more restricted way. Arms may be distributed during security forces training (though army and police recruits are often expected to bring their own weapons, which are then registered); when forces are located in or deployed to conflict areas, at which point either the MoI or the MoD may issue weapons; and when commanders issue weapons to their fighters. In this last case, which typically requires a substantial justification, top commanders—such as the provincial chief of police—may distribute a limited number of weapons.[8]

The Taliban are struggling to achieve their objectives, however, for two main reasons. The first is a lack of institutional capacity and know-how. This is exemplified by the fact that many records are kept on paper, instead of being digitized. Taliban officials have also not been trained—at least not in the same way as Republic officials were—to carry out their duties. Some former Republic officials are still involved in weapons management and seem to be largely responsible for ensuring adherence to process, and for completing relevant paperwork.

The second reason lies with the internal divisions and tensions noted above. Many fighters are simply unwilling to register their weapons because they consider them to be personal property, rather than of the state or the Taliban. Additionally, local management only works if local authorities can enforce full compliance. The only unit that appears to have a proper weapons registration system is the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI). Meanwhile, the MoI and MoD are struggling to develop systems and to get their forces to comply, as a result of personal, political, structural, and economic obstacles.

In sum, while general policies exist at the ministerial level, practice varies from province to province, with no centralized policy across the security agencies.


[1] It is estimated that over USD 7 billion worth of Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) equipment was left behind (SIGAR, 2022, p. 33).

[2] See Al Jazeera (2022).

[3] Later in 2023, the Survey will publish a consolidated report on arms transfers to Afghanistan from 2002 to 2021.

[4] The Situation Update draws on a combination of methods, including existing data and background information, particularly regarding the evolution of Taliban policies gathered by the authors. Between October and December 2022, researchers conducted a total of 64 interviews with Afghan key informants, including Taliban government officials, commanders and fighters, customary authorities, and weapons smugglers.

[5] Some exceptions occurred, most notably with the elite units (interview with Taliban officials, Kabul, 6 December 2022).

[6] Mahaz were larger fighting groups prominent during the insurgency, each commanding a set of smaller units known as delgai (with anywhere between 3 and 20 fighters). Some delgai have not been integrated into units within the government system, making it unclear where accountability lies. For more on the history of these structures, see Jackson and Amiri (2019).

[7] This partly drove the decision to dismantle the more powerful mahaz units, some of which, if provoked, could have presented a considerable challenge to the central authorities.

[8] For example, some imams in Kunduz received weapons for their protection following ISKP attacks on mosques (interview with Taliban official, Kunduz, 14 December 2022).