At Afghanistan's Ghazni military base, Taliban sift through spoils of war

A former US and Afghan army base in Ghazni is a treasure trove of weapons, ammunition, vehicles and supplies for the victorious militants

Taliban fighter Fazal Rahman Malang sat cross-legged outside Ghazni city’s main military base, his small checkpoint decorated with plastic flowers, his gun resting on a metal bed frame next to him.

Just a few months ago, the base was run by the Afghan army, but when the Taliban advanced, its soldiers either fled or surrendered, leaving behind billions of dollars' worth of military equipment – now in the hands of the militants.

Today it is just Malang, 25, and a small squad of Taliban who keep watch over the sprawling military zone. In the early 2000s, it was home to a US-Polish reconstruction team that worked on supporting rebuilding efforts throughout the impoverished rural province.

The base is located strategically, just south of the capital on the Kabul-Kandahar motorway.

But the foreigners have left and most aid funds have dried up. Afghanistan’s future is for now with the Taliban and major reconstruction efforts are needed throughout the country.

“Around two years ago, the base was handed to the Afghan [forces], but now it is ours,” Malang says, smiling proudly.

Surrounded by stacked-up hesco blocks – bulletproof wire mesh containers filled with dirt – the remains of the US presence are everywhere.

Inside the base, about a dozen MRAPs – Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles – sit in a gravel car park. They are in great condition, the Taliban say, their price estimated between $500,000-$1 million each.

The vehicles look like they have been left in a rush; their insides are still fully stocked. The odd phone charger, a pack of chewing gum, some bread – now stale – have been left behind.

Nearby, there are dozens of Humvees – the high-mobility military vehicles often used during patrols. Some are burnt out or otherwise damaged. Others are seemingly new. They usually sell at almost $250,000 with Ghazni residents saying they believed the Taliban would at least sell some of the equipment to neighbouring Pakistan.

In a far corner of the base, a cluster of containers sits in the sand, the insides filled with ammunition, hand grenades and even a rocket launcher. Hundreds of military uniforms and helmets are stuffed into another container, leftovers from the Afghan forces who escaped.

Tayyed Ahmad, 30, keeps count here, adding the stocks to a handwritten list.

How much it is, he does not know exactly. “A lot,” he said.

The fighters seem euphoric and proud as they sort through countless bullets, some hanging the chains around their necks, and posing for photos.

Nearby, a different container, once a refrigerator, is filled with thousands of small packages of Ranch dressing – leftovers from the Americans that even the Afghans who manned the base for about two years did not touch.

Most of the base lies deserted, the soldiers’ sleeping quarters empty and desolate, their offices raided, the furniture scattered, the windows broken. Air conditioning fans hang from the ceiling, broken lockers litter the floor, some of them personalised. “University of Kentucky” reads a sticker glued to a bent locker door.

The Taliban drive down the former airfield proudly, guns propped up as they sit on pickup trucks, passing barracks, satellite dishes and a large military radar.

The US Provincial Reconstruction Team Ghazni opened in March 2004 to deliver “security and dramatically [accelerate] reconstruction, development and long-term stability”, potentially reaching 1.86 million people – including in neighbouring provinces – according to the website Global Security.

From here, soldiers would go into Ghazni’s rural districts, speaking to local communities and listening to their needs.

Little is seen of such achievements throughout the province. Most roads are full of craters, left by roadside IEDs that harried the very foreign forces that set up bases in Ghazni city. Poverty is widespread, with people outside the capital lacking access to clean water, health care or education.

When the US and coalition forces reduced their presence in Afghanistan over the years – packing up for an eventual full withdrawal – many Afghan forces initially took over enthusiastically, but were soon left disillusioned.

Many had not been paid in months, while the numbers of casualties – their colleagues – were routinely hidden by the Afghan government. Their commanders lived lavish lives, while many soldiers barely survived.

When the Taliban took over, many knew they did not want to risk their lives for an army that did not value theirs.

What remains at the Ghazni base are Afghan soldiers’ sleeping quarters, decked out with black, red and green Afghan flags, and slogans of victory.

One of the Taliban, Abdul Wali Usama, 18, said he was glad the Americans and the Afghan soldiers were gone.

“I fought hard in this war,” he said. “My brother died as a martyr. We all made sacrifices. Now I’m happy, because we won victoriously.”

Updated: October 6th 2021, 12:11 PM