Small Arms, Big Problems

The Fallout of the Global Gun Trade

In late 2001, in the early days of the war in Afghanistan, Western military planners worried about two types of dated weapons that were the legacies of the Soviet-Afghan war: shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles and land mines. The United States had provided anti-Soviet forces with Stinger missiles in the 1980s, and the prospect that the Taliban or al Qaeda might have retained these weapons fueled fears that they would use them against Western military aircraft or, more menacingly, against commercial passenger jets worldwide. Land mines inspired a different but just as persistent unease: even after U.S. and Afghan forces chased the Taliban from Kabul, how could a country said to be littered with millions of mines develop at any kind of hopeful pace?

More than nine years on, there is now a much clearer picture of which equipment from past wars endangers the region's long-term security and threatens both troops on the ground and civilians beyond the Afghan frontier. The largest threat comes not from missiles or mines but from excess stocks of surplus infantry rifles and machine guns. These familiar weapons -- durable, reusable, portable, inexpensive, and effective -- have claimed more lives than the weapons the West once feared most in Afghanistan. They have qualities that make them a greater long-term menace than either Stinger missiles or land mines. And yet their very familiarity has kept them out of many policy discussions about how to alleviate the violence and criminality that undermine not just Afghanistan but also life in many of the world's perennial conflict zones.

For a glimpse of how surplus military arms compromise security in Afghanistan -- as they do elsewhere -- one need look no further than the results of a highly publicized U.S.-led military offensive in 2010. Last February, in Helmand Province, a U.S. Marine Corps rifle company and an Afghan National Army platoon landed in northern Marja, a stronghold of Taliban insurgents and Afghan drug barons. The helicopters set down in darkness and

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