While Taliban posing with newly acquired US military hardware has been a searing humiliation for America in recent days, here in Japan the debacle in Afghanistan has led to a different source of embarrassment. A recurring image of coverage from Kabul is of Toyota pick-up trucks ferrying gun-toting fighters around the city. It has given the iconic company’s management a serious PR problem, and not for the first time.
The Taliban have been favouring the sturdy and reliable Japanese ‘Land Cruisers’ since the 1990s, but it is also the vehicle of choice for Al Qaeda and Isis. The appeal seems to be the suitability for rough terrain and the ease with which the trucks can be retrofitted with gun placements, or in other ways customised for combat or intimidation.
The country of origin may also be part of the attraction. Japan, with its pacifist constitution, has played a minimal role in the conflicts of the Middle East. As a Buddhist/Shinto culture, Japan is far removed from the ‘Great Satan’ image of America and its western allies. The optics, as they say, are good, or at least neutral.
It is unclear exactly how the nefarious groups acquired their fleets. Some may have been bought from unscrupulous dealers, though theft from NGOs probably accounts for much of the collection. There are certainly plenty of them about: Toyota has supplied 150,000 vehicles to the United Nations over the last four decades.
Toyota has done its best to try and distance itself from its unsavoury new customers. Carefully worded statements have referred to ‘concern’ about ‘a flow of vehicles overseas’ to ‘certain regions, where security regulations are in place’.