By on October 15, 2010

From conflict-torn Afghanistan [via Newsweek] comes this strange tale of Taliban tribute to the “the vehicular equivalent of the AK-47”: the Toyota Hilux (more famous among Western car nuts for its infamous Top Gear adventures).

As the war in Afghanistan escalated several years ago, counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, a member of the team that designed the Iraq surge for Gen. David Petraeus, began to notice a new tattoo on some insurgent Afghan fighters. It wasn’t a Taliban tattoo. It wasn’t even Afghan. It was a Canadian maple leaf.

When a perplexed Kilcullen began to investigate, he says, he discovered that the incongruous flags were linked to what he says is one of the most important, and unnoticed, weapons of guerrilla war in Afghanistan and across the world: the lightweight, virtually indestructible Toyota Hilux truck.

“In Afghanistan in particular,” he says, “[the trucks are] incredibly well respected.” So well respected, in fact, that some enterprising fraudsters thought them worthy of ripping off. The imitations, Kilcullen says, had flooded the market, leaving disappointed fighters in their wake. But then “a shipment of high-quality [real] Hiluxes arrived, courtesy of the Canadian government,” he explains. “They had little Canadian flags on the back. Because they were the real deal, and because of how the Hilux is seen, over time, strangely, the Canadian flag has become a symbol of high quality across the country. Hence the tattoos.”

And yet somehow, we don’t see Toyota incorporating this touching story into its marketing campaign. From Afghanistan to Somalia, and from Nicaragua to Chad, the Hilux has been the ride of choice in conflict-torn hellholes for several decades now. A conflict between Libya and Chad in the 1980s was even dubbed “The Toyota War.” A former British special forces officer explains

The appeal is pretty simple. You can’t underestimate the value of having a vehicle that is fast, will never break down, and is strong enough to mount a heavy weapon in the back.

Which isn’t all that different from the Hilux’s original design concept as

a lightweight truck with big tires on big wheels. It was meant as a recreational truck, a truck people could have fun with. They also have a really high ground clearance, which means they’re ideal for off-road work.

The modern Hilux may “suck to drive” according to TTAC’s lone review of the “insurgent special,” but then the AK-47 isn’t exactly known for its accuracy either. Still, it’s no wonder that the US-market Tacoma ditched the solid-front axle in 1986… American trucks are built for the road, not armed insurgency (although our middle-east correspondent informed us a few years ago that US service men were stripping Hilux manual transmissions, forcing the military to replace them with Silverado Z71s) . Curious as to what makes the Hilux different from the US-market Tacoma? has your answers here. Want to check out some American Hiluxes, soldiering on as Curbside Classics? Check it out.

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30 Comments on “Toyotas, The Taliban And Maple Leaf Tattoos: An Unusual Tribute To The Toyota Hilux...”

  • avatar

    Ahhh…the sweet, melodious staccato sound of an AK-47 chattering in the distance on a bright  autumn morning, bullets gently impacting the ground harmlessly near my wrapped feet among the rocks and dirt of the Afghanistan countryside…

    There’s a good reason the Hilux sells so well around the world – they’re rough and dependable for people (and friendly insurgent groups) that do not have a dealer network to service/repair them. Plus, they do not benefit from the American interstate highway system, although other countries enjoy similar highways and improved (read “paved”) road systems.

    Would a Hilux sell in this nation? That’s assuming it meets all federal regulations on safety and pollution. Many people pine for simpler vehicles, me included, but would they put their money where their wallets are? Or does it come down to cupholders, quietness, smoothness and comfort. Hmmm…no answer from here. My rapidly aging carcass needs a modicum of comfort/support for at least 45 min. duration at any given time.

    Simple and rough seems to have gone out with the CJ-5, sadly.

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      “Would a Hilux sell in this nation?”
      They have before, they were imported virtually unchanged from about 1981 to about 1983. We just wrapped up exporting a couple container loads of of mid-80s Hilux spare parts to Guatemala… Mostly sold in the US as Tacoma or SR5 parts depending on which year you pick. Those things are everywhere.

  • avatar

    That link doesn’t say anything about current generation trucks (both of them).
    The current gen Hilux replaced the torsion bars with a coil-over system similar to the one being used in Ford and Chevy fullsizes.
    In one of my previous jobs, we had a fleet of 4×4 and 4×2 Hilux. The 4×2 were used in the city by the supervisors, and kinda lasted forever. The 4×4 were employed in a landfill. they chewed clutches and U joints regularly. There was some standarization between them (good) save for the one that goes out of the transfer (bad), which was always a [email protected]#$%&ch to source locally
    The frame on the 4×4 was boxed, yes, but not the whole extension as mentioned in the site. And the F-150 we had had a way bigger C section than the Toyota.

    What I still don’t get is why this people cheapened so much the interior on the current ones. The Land Cruiser Prado they sold here suffers from the same.

  • avatar

    I always got a kick out of how the territorial squabble between Libya and Chad was nicknamed “The Toyota War” because of this vehicle

  • avatar

    Wait, what? Apologies if this is a stupid question, but why is the Canadian government exporting Hilux’s to Afghanistan?

    • 0 avatar

      The trucks were probably within a load of “humanitarian aid” from Canada intended to deliver bags of grain and medicine to starving villagers but then got shunted off that track onto the war train as supplies often do in such war torn and bribery ridden hellholes.
      I loved the Maple Leaf tattoo FAIL though of these poor ignorant fighters. Kind of like the Evil Bert ripoff from Sesame Street appearing in pro Osama Binladen posters…

    • 0 avatar

      I hope that my fellow Canadians of the bleeding-heart variety are taking note of what you get when you throw money at a problem to alleviate your own weak-kneed conscience:  A stronger enemy.

    • 0 avatar

      I wouldn’t mind knowing what the Canadian government is doing sending hiluxes to Afghanistan either. That’s my damn tax money they spent. The article makes reference to “several years ago” so I suspect this was yet another wrong headed plan from our former liberal government.
       The son of a guy I grew up with had his leg blown off over there. The idea that the “improvised explosive device” that caused the damage was transported in a vehicle that I helped pay for p##ses me off greatly.

  • avatar

    It’s not just rebels in Afghanistan that love the Hilux. “The Toyota Hilux is everywhere,” says Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger and now a fellow of the Center for a New American Security. “It’s the vehicular equivalent of the AK-47. It’s ubiquitous to insurgent warfare. And actually, recently, also counterinsurgent warfare. It kicks the hell out of the Humvee.”
    Well it certainly outlasted it anyway!

    • 0 avatar

      “It kicks the **** out of the Humvee”

      The U.S. military was warned. Should have kept the Jeep (not the “MUTT”), so look what happened! Trying to drive a battleship-sized vehicle (MRAP, Humvee, etc.) on mountain goat terrain. Unfortunately, the bigger thay are, the harder they fall at the cost of human and animal lives.

      Apparently, U.S. forces utilize these vehicles, too. One whale of a reliability test! They should join Michael’s TrueDelta! I’d like to read all the data. It would most likely blow everything else away! The modern Model T, for sure.

  • avatar

    Don’t US forces also use the Toyota Hilux in Afghanistan and Iraq? Jon Krakauer’s biography of Pat Tillman, Where Men Win Glory, made it seem like US forces rely on Hilux pickups for the same reasons everyone else does.

  • avatar

    Ok, I think I just misinterpreted the article, thinking it said the Taliban was using Canadian-imported Hilux’s. Upon a second read, it does not say that – my bad.

    • 0 avatar

      It seems to imply that.  Clarification?

    • 0 avatar

      The Canadian government imported the Hiluxes, but not from Canada.  We don’t have them here to export.
      They were not brought over for use by the Taliban, but the atricle suggests “Some of the Canadian-flagged Hiluxes, says Kilcullen, have almost certainly ended up in Taliban hands this time around.”

      They are tough trucks, so everybody wants them.  I’ve also noticed that most of the cars on the road are Corollas (as seen in news reports).  From what I can see, 90% of the vehicles on the road are Corollas and Hiluxes.

  • avatar

    Note to the CIA:  Here’s what you do, you corner the market for Hi-Lux parts in Afghanistan.  You embed gps devices, listening gear and radio transponders in select parts.  You wait until Bin Laden takes his Hi-Lux to get his weekly pedicure, then you either hit him with a UAV, or have special agent Mel Farr disable his vehicle remotely.

  • avatar

    A Hilux, a Members’ Only jacket, and an AK47 and you’ve got the whole outfit.

  • avatar

    Or you could give them a Chrysler with Qualcomm tv service and wait for them to call and complain when the service cuts off.

  • avatar

    circa a hundred yrs ago TE Lawrence bestowed the RR Silver Ghost as ” Above rubies”
    Now the Hi Lux got bestowed with AK 47 on wheels.
    Hear say some US soldiers back in Naam days like to use AK47 instead of M16.
    Some say they’re not as refine as M16 but low maintenance u no need to service/clean the M16 as often.
    Could be heard from a classmate who used to serve the Engineering Corps in Naam, nr got GI bill for school. But sadly he just didnt cut it.

  • avatar

    Curious these Hi Lux are equipped with the 4 cyl 22R? or something more power to make dashing escape.
    Also heard of the Land cruisers were popular in Central America too.

  • avatar

    Simple, straightfoward vehicles are great. I have a Suzuki Jimny used for the farm and mudding. But it is a car for developing countries, like the Isuzu Alterra I plan to buy next year. The US market seems to be people who do not want the problem of doing anything but point and steer in a car that has several cupholders, TV screens so kids don’t have to practice social skills anywhere…and don’t forget the interior “touch point” factor that reviewers have become infatuated with.

  • avatar

    Hilux, my butt.  Check this out…would a Hilux survive this?

  • avatar

    Given that Canadians have been dying in Afghanistan since the begining of the war, and since the Hi Lux isn’t sold in Canada currently (or recently) I’m thinking any Toyotas sent there by the Canadian Government, were sent a long while ago.

  • avatar

    The Dominican the Hilux is one of the most popular trucks. A lot of them Diesel it seemed. Still many people buy similar looking and perhaps tough trucks from Mitsubishi and Nissan (Patrol), also China. Its really cool to see all manner of vehicles running together on the roads, from Peugeots to Chargers, and JDM Accords (alongside US Accords).  If the Hilux is the off road vehicle of choice the Corolla is the onroad equivalent also. Its not uncommon to stop at a light next to 6 or 7 Corolla besides the one I was driving. That is capitalism.

  • avatar

    Almost all of the Hiluxes here in Afghanistan come from India; in fact the ANP (Afghan National Police) drive green versions that are badged as Ford Rangers through some JV that allowed the US Gov’t to purchase these vehicles under FAR regulations to distribute to the Afghan government.  They can frequently be seen driving around the country loaded with armed men, RPG-7s and the occasional Dushka (Soviet version of our .50 caliber M2 BMG) which, if fired, would likely cause the vehicle to tip over.
    I was privileged to spend several days with the Canadians at Kajaki Damn in Helmand two years ago while we endured frequent Katusha attacks (107mm rockets) and I thank them heartily for their service to the Coalition.  Anybody criticizing the Canadians for their contribution to this effort can STFU.  Now the Belgians and Germans?  Well….
    The AK-47 is an old, inaccurate antique that is purchased in vast quantities by our government for issue to our friendly partners in the Iraq and Afghan militaries simply because the US Department of State refuses to process end-user certificates for the sale of weapons from US arms manufacturers.  Consequently it is cheaper and faster to buy tons of small arms and ammunition from the Eastern Europeans (much of which comes through Serbia and the Russian Mafia) than to try and navigate US export regulations and a government agency that is clearly biased against US arms manufacturers.  The M4 is a superior weapon in ALL respects, including reliability in the field.  The Kalashnikov is a good value though, given its cheap cost (I can buy a 20-foot container of Kalashnikovs for $15K and make at least 500-550 operating weapons out of the junk that I ultimately get) and the fact that you can drag the muzzle on the ground and use it as a door stop.  Most PSDs here like to order replacement furniture from South Africa and pimp their weapons up with rails, bipods, red dots, etc. 

  • avatar

    I think I can shed some light on the Canadian flag Toyota question.  I’m currently stationed at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan.  Kandahar is a NATO base that has been run for the last several years by the Canadians.  All of the vehicles here are acquired locally.  The usual route is for vehicles to be trucked or driven up from Pakistan by local contractors / leasing agents.  The various militaries then lease the vehicles from the contractors / leasing agents.  Once the vehicle is sufficiently torn up it is returned to the leasing agent.  All of the Canadian leased vehicles have a maple leaf sticker on the back window for identification.  My guess is that when they were returned they never removed the sticker.  If you guys are interested I can get some photos.

  • avatar

    Speaking of modern day insurgent-mobiles, can TTAC readership look forward to a review of the Kia Bongo?

  • avatar

    Years back when we were seeing TV shots of the Taliban in Afghanistan, I saw all those Toyota pickups and Hilux models, some with machine guns mounted on the pickup bed, and well, that was it for me —- if those vehicles hold up over there, I thought, they certainly will do ok on US roads, without the machine guns and an occasional oil change.

  • avatar

    The Toyota pickup is THE third world vehicle, no contest. I was in the caribbean many years ago and they seemed to be the national car of the country, banged up like crazy but still driving nonetheless. These cars are so tough they should be on someone’s flag, like the AK-47 is. A marvel of engineering. You can almost tell how poor a country is by the amount of Toyota pickups there.
    To give you an example, look at the Battle of Fada, an attack by forces with Toyota pickups against a superior armoured force:
    “784 Libyans died, 92 T-55 tanks and 33 BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles were destroyed, and 13 T-55s and 18 BMP-1s captured, together with 81 Libyan soldiers. Chadian losses were mininimal: only 18 soldiers died and three Toyotas were destroyed.”
    Yes, thats THREE pickup trucks lost against 92 tanks.
    If I would have to drive in a war zone, I’d choose a Toyota. It will outlast you AND anyone shooting at you…
    And yes you can put a huge gun in the back. Recoil is irrelevant…just shoot the bloody gun, have it wheel you back 30 feet, and put on the brakes. Been that way for 60+ years, I’ve heard those stories since WWII and in Vietnam (Sheridan anyone?). It doesn’t matter how big the gun is, if the frame can stand the shock you can use the gun. Yes it’s not pretty but it will kill your enemy. The technical can hold any recoil-less rifle/gun, all anti-tank missiles, mortars, and quite a lot of medium-sized anti-aircraft guns like .50s or even zsu-23s.
    Haven’t seen any with full-sized howitzers yet or with 40mm Bofors, but I’m knocking on wood right now. They certainly can tow them.
    It is well-known you have to clean the M4 AR twice a day in desert conditions to prevent it from fouling up, so there’s no contest between the M4 and the AK-47 either. The m16/m4 design is inherently fouling; it deposits the gases straight back into the mechanism, and has tighter tolerancies than the AK-47. You can drop an AK-47 into a swamp, have a tank drive over it, and fire it from that position. (Its even on youtube)
    Unless you got a souped-up service train behind your army, reliability and sturdiness beats everything else hands down. Americans and all other western armies HAVE that service train behind them, so they never experienced the true reliability of their weaponry, and they get to pick the highest performers with great accuracy and lowest weight. Everybody that doesn’t have that luxury has an AK-47. Period.

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