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Leaving the Humvees behind in Afghanistan: “Wouldn’t they just take the keys and sabotage the vehicles?”

Can just anyone climb into a Humvee and just drive it away? They don’t need a key? There is no iris scan, no fingerprint pad, no programmed passcode? Photo: AM General 

I am pretty sure I am not the only person trying to understand how it is possible that the most advanced military force on the globe cannot prevent the Taliban from using the 22,174 Humvees and billions of dollars worth of other equipment left behind in Afghanistan.

I started by calling Humvee manufacturer AM General in Indiana. The nice lady at reception said the person who answered media calls was in Michigan, and she would transfer my call there. The lady in Michigan gasped when I told her I was writing an article on the Humvees left behind in Afghanistan. She actually stuttered and stammered so painfully, I helpfully outlined the question to put her out of her misery, even though I knew she was not the person allowed to answer it: “I’m just looking for the sales sheet on the models used in Afghanistan. Basic information, nothing complicated,” I assured her.

“All I can do is take your name and pass it on,” she finally squeaked out. “Someone will call you.”

No one from AM General has called back yet, but while waiting, I tracked down an Ottawa acquaintance who works in the military (and must remain anonymous). I really appreciate that he talked to me.

“How is it possible,” I asked, “that anyone can climb into an expensive armoured Humvee and just drive it away? They don’t need a key? There is no iris scan, no fingerprint pad, no programmed passcode on this equipment?”

“Yes, there are keys. They need the key to start the vehicle.”

“OK, let’s pretend they don’t even need the keys and they just hotwire the vehicle. Can the US military not shut the thing down remotely? From Washington? I thought remote-controlled, self-driving vehicles were the leading edge of technology. The American military doesn’t have this leading-edge technology?”

“No,” the expert sighed. “These vehicles are not that new. When Canada was in Afghanistan our light armoured vehicles were already old, and these are fifteen years older than THAT. There is no self-driving technology, no remote start or stop, no hacking computer chips to disable the vehicle.”

“That’s a surprise, because I read daily press releases talking about self-driving technology, technology will replace drivers, artificial intelligence is the future  etcetera etcetera etcetera. And yet, the military uses none of this?”

“Probably the biggest problem anyone will have with self-driving vehicles won’t be in deserts or snowstorms. It will be 20-year-old Russian hackers, locking North American soccer moms in their mini-vans and holding them for ransom just because they can. I guarantee it.”

“In future, they may,” he replied. “However, the military also tends to rely on vehicle technology which is mechanical, not digital, because they can’t have trucks breaking down in the middle of nowhere without the capacity to fix them. Also, we tend to need vehicles that can be fixed simply, with tools everybody already has, even in the middle of the desert.”

“That’s what I wonder when I read the press releases on self-driving trucks: what if one skids off the road in the north in the middle of winter?” I asked. “If you need reliable, easy-to-fix vehicles out in the middle of the desert, then wouldn’t the same principle apply to Northern Alberta in winter?”

“Now that you mention it, yes,” he laughed. “But look, probably the biggest problem anyone will have with self-driving vehicles won’t be in deserts or snowstorms. It will be 20-year-old Russian hackers, locking North American soccer moms in their mini-vans and holding them for ransom just because they can. I guarantee it.”

It was an interesting conversation, and I valued his insights. However, perhaps an Australian professional summed it up more succinctly:

“Wouldn’t the Americans just take the keys and sabotage the vehicles?”

September 1, 2021 update: Since this column was published, two items have been pointed out for correction by readers: 1) Humvees have a keypad which requires the driver to enter a code to start the vehicle; and 2) Since the Americans transferred the equipment to the Afghan government, it was technically the Afghan government that left the American equipment behind, not the American goverment. While both of these facts may be true, RWN does not believe either point changes the main point of the article.