Who Owns the Night? Setting Straight Exaggerated Reports About the Taliban's (IEA) Night Vision Capabilities

Executive Summary

Image: 17 February 2019 Taliban / Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA): Fighter with M4 rifle equipped PULSAR Thermal Imaging Sight Trail  in Paktia, Afghanistan.

Executive Summary
PULSAR & ATN ThOR-HD night or thermal scopes

Evidence shows that the Taliban / Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) – while possessing some night vision goggles that were presumably captured from Afghan government forces – predominantly use rifle-mounted night or thermal vision devices. More specifically, said evidence suggests that they are almost exclusively using versions of PULSAR and ATN ThOR-HD night or thermal scopes that are mainly intended for hunters. These devices are – despite numerous general reports to the contrary – neither military-grade, nor very sophisticated, nor superior to the night vision goggles of Afghan government forces. Such devices seem to be limited in numbers and to certain areas of Afghanistan.

Unlikely From Russia or Iran

The night or thermal vision scopes predominantly used by the Taliban are all commercially available and openly sold in several countries. While export restrictions are meant to prevent such scopes from falling into the wrong hands, such restrictions can be circumvented. Although the origins of the scopes employed by the Taliban could – with one exception – not be definitively determined, allegations of a Russian or Iranian source are highly doubtful and can virtually be ruled out at least for the scopes that come from the US manufacturer ATN, which appear to be used in considerable numbers by the Taliban. There are also several indications that suggest that the most likely source of this equipment is not a state sponsor, but that such devices are openly bought in one or several countries and then smuggled into Afghanistan. It remains unclear, whether the Taliban control the supply line themselves or acquire such gear at some stage of the route from non-state middlemen.

Some, But Limited Advantage for the Taliban

In any event, and in spite of footage of successful Taliban hits with such scopes, it is in general doubtful that the Taliban are able to effectively use such night and thermal vision devices. However, even if not used effectively, those devices give them some advantages, in particular when engaging Afghan government forces without night vision, as they allow them to see at least something at night instead of literally being in the dark. The most important impact of the Taliban’s limited night vision capability is arguably a psychological one though, as government forces incorrectly perceive the insurgents’ night vision as superior and, accordingly, are likely to more swiftly abandon their positions when attacked at night.

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