INTOX

American ‘war loot’ seized by the Taliban? They’re actually old Soviet tanks

This man is not filming himself in among an arsenal abandoned by the American army, but surrounded by Russian armoured vehicles from the Soviet era.
This man is not filming himself in among an arsenal abandoned by the American army, but surrounded by Russian armoured vehicles from the Soviet era. © The FRANCE 24 Observers

A video has been circulating online since August 30 showing rows of tanks, which the caption claims are American army vehicles that have fallen into the hands of the Taliban. However, they’re actually old Russian tanks that have been abandoned since the end of the Soviet Union’s military intervention in the country (1979-1989), near the airport in Kandahar in the south of the country. Satellite images prove that these vehicles haven’t been moved in years and are very likely unusable.

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After the final evacuation of American soldiers from Kabul airport on August 30, there has been a lot of speculation online about what they left behind that could be seized by the Taliban.

That arsenal can be divided into the equipment that belongs to the American army and the equipment that belongs to the Afghan army but which was provided by the US. The Pentagon has stated that soldiers either destroyed or demilitarised the vast majority of American military equipment left behind at Kabul airport – but that wasn’t the case with equipment belonging to the Afghan army, which is worth tens of billions of dollars.  

Online, people have been sharing videos of what they call ‘war loot’ now in Taliban hands, often filmed by Taliban soldiers themselves. You can see some of that military equipment in this video, in which a man films himself standing on top of a tank, surrounded by dozens of parked military vehicles.

The video was shared by the French centre-right politician Éric Ciotti in a tweet. He wrote, “It’s scandalous, the US has left hundreds of tanks, helicopters and other war vehicles to terrorists.”

Screen capture of Éric Ciotti’s tweet, posted August 31. © The FRANCE 24 Observers
Screen capture of Éric Ciotti’s tweet, posted August 31. © The FRANCE 24 Observers © Les Observateurs de France 24

The video was first shared on Twitter by users writing in Pashto, the language used predominantly in southern and eastern Afghanistan. This tweet says that the video was filmed in Kandahar airport. We can also hear the man say ‘Kandahar’ in the first three seconds of the video.

Kandahar is situated in southern Afghanistan, close to the border with Pakistan. It fell under Taliban control on August 13. American troops had already evacuated Kandahar airport back in May.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team was able to geolocate the exact location of where the video was filmed. It was filmed south-east of Kandahar airport and confirms the findings of certain factchecking and OSINT Twitter accounts like ‘Coupsure’. On the left we can see the parked tanks lined up in front of a row of trees visible in the background of the video, and the same light-brown earth on the ground.

Screen capture of Google Earth with the following coordinates: 31°29’00”N 65°51’50”E © The FRANCE 24 Observers
Screen capture of Google Earth with the following coordinates: 31°29’00”N 65°51’50”E © The FRANCE 24 Observers © Les Observateurs de France 24

'All of these vehicles are Russian'

While the video does show tanks in Afghanistan, that’s the only thing that Ciotti got right in his tweet. Military experts and aficionados of war paraphernalia were quick to point out to Ciotti that the tanks were Soviet models. Nicholas Drummond, a British army veteran and land warfare specialist, explained that among the tanks seen in the video are T-54s and T-55s – models that were built in the mid-20th century.

The tanks are difficult to identify because of the video’s bad quality, but seem to be a mix of T-54/T-55s and T-62s. The vehicles on the left are BMP-1 infantry combat vehicles. The vehicle with the cone-shaped gun turret is a BRDM. Behind the BRDM, at the end, you can see ZSU 23/4 anti-air artillery.

All of these vehicles are Russian.  

I’d say that these vehicles were left by the Russians after they left Afghanistan at the end of the '80s. The T-54/55 is the most-produced tank in history, with around 100,000 made.

 

We can compare the models seen in the video with the Soviet models that Drummond spoke about.  

This is a photo of a Russian T-62 tank, during the evacuation of Soviet soldiers from Afghanistan in 1987, and the same model visible at 00.04 seconds in the video filmed this week in Kandahar.  

Video capture on the left, photo from 1987 on the right. The FRANCE 24 Observers
Video capture on the left, photo from 1987 on the right. The FRANCE 24 Observers © Les Observateurs de France 24
On the left, tanks from the video in Kandahar; on the right, Russian T-54/55s from the Afghan army. © The FRANCE 24 Observers
On the left, tanks from the video in Kandahar; on the right, Russian T-54/55s from the Afghan army. © The FRANCE 24 Observers © Les Observateurs de France 24

What we see in the video isn’t the ‘war arsenal’ left behind by departing American soldiers, but what’s left after Soviet troops left the country between 1979 and 1989.

But that leaves one question to be answered: in what kind of state are the tanks in the video? Are they in working order?

If we look at satellite images at different moments in time, we can see that the arrangement of the tanks hasn’t moved since at least 2012.

Three screen captures of satellite imagery captured with Yandex, Google Earth and ESRI © The FRANCE 24 Observers
Three screen captures of satellite imagery captured with Yandex, Google Earth and ESRI © The FRANCE 24 Observers © Les Observateurs de France 24

The area filmed in the video could be a sort of tank graveyard, for old, unusable Russian tanks. There are many such graveyards dotted over the country. The most famous one can be found near Kabul airport, but there is one near Kandahar airport, as this article written in Farsi explain.

So what has been described as ‘American war loot’ is actually only a cluster of disused Soviet tanks that have been decaying there for years. It’s in the Taliban’s interests, however, to encourage people to believe that they’ve seized functioning American military equipment for their own propaganda, as this CIA counter-terrorism analyst tells news agency AFP.