Small Arms, Big Problems

The Fallout of the Global Gun Trade

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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 then lifted away. By midday, the U.S. and Afghan soldiers were tied up in a series of rolling gunfights in the cluster of villages on the steppe. This particular rifle company, Kilo Company of the Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, was a single piece in one of the largest offensive operations of the war, a brigade-sized assault to sweep and clear a warren of irrigation canals and farming villages that the Taliban used as a safe haven and then to prepare Marja for the Afghan government to establish a presence and roll back the opium trade.

That was the plan. But even after two Marine Corps battalions settled into the farmland, backed by U.S. air support and the most modern equipment available to any of the world's militaries, the resistance in Marja continued. In the months since, Marja has settled into a grinding small-unit contest that, as the first winter after the offensive began draws near, shows little sign of ending. Its insurgents, like those in much of rural Afghanistan, appear prepared for a protracted fight. The question for U.S. military planners, then, is how these fighters have managed to sustain themselves against highly trained Western forces on what, by any measure, is a tiny patch of ground.

GUNS, GRUNTS, AND STEEL

Part of the answer was clear from the first days of the campaign: the abundance of surplus infantry arms available on the ground. As the marines fought through ambushes and searched Afghan homes, they began to capture -- rifle by rifle and cartridge by cartridge -- some of the weapons used by their adversaries. These arms caches told something essential to understanding how many modern wars are fought and how relatively low-tech, low-budget irregular forces remain viable and effective. The rifles and machine guns seized by U.S. forces fit into two main categories: older bolt-action infantry arms (dominated by the Lee-Enfield line, of British provenance, and, to a lesser extent, Soviet Mosin-Nagants, manufactured before the Cold War) and newer, but still dated, automatic rifles. The automatics were the Kalashnikov assault rifle and its cousin, the Kalashnikov medium machine gun, or PKM.

As the marines learned their new ground in Marja, they soon discovered that among the Afghans firing at them was a set of reasonably well-trained snipers, who would take disciplined, long-range shots from concealment on the other side of irrigation canals. Although not as effective as professional snipers of conventional armies, they were a menace. They pinned down patrols, and at times their bullets struck Afghan soldiers or U.S. marines.

Early on in the campaign, Kilo Company came across a find that shed light on what sort of ammunition these snipers were using. The marines discovered a bandoleer containing rifle ammunition that few of them had ever seen before but that has been part of the Afghan martial culture for decades: a soiled assortment of Mark VII .303 cartridges, formerly the standard rifle cartridge of the British Empire. Each of these cartridges was slightly more than three inches long. Their markings revealed that they had been manufactured in the 1940s, almost certainly making the ammunition much older than anyone directly involved in the Marja fight. Each bullet was wrapped in a steel jacket, a result of the decision in World War II to conserve stocks of British alloys needed for other war materials (before the war, bullets were typically jacketed in copper-nickel alloy). Almost 70 years later, these British cartridges, the refuse of a bygone war, remained in the field. Before long, the marines were capturing the rifles that had fired them: Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles, carried by British troops since the colonial era and replaced after World War II.

Afghanistan and the Lee-Enfield have intertwined histories. These stalwart British rifles were manufactured by the millions in the United Kingdom, Canada, India, and Pakistan. They are well made, powerful, very accurate, simple in construction, and outfitted with a smooth and sturdy trigger appreciated by generations of riflemen. Bolt-action rifles fire a single shot for each trigger squeeze. To prepare the rifle for the next shot, the shooter must reload manually, an action performed by withdrawing the bolt and then returning it to its place, the motion of which slides a fresh cartridge into place from a magazine that protrudes from the rifle's underside. They are, in short, a firearm to be used methodically -- long-barreled killing tools that possess a capacity for medium- and long-range precision. They were one of the standard arms soldiers carried on the battlefield for several decades, including throughout World War I and World War II.

In time, however, the world's militaries decided that the qualities of the Lee-Enfield and its ilk were not quite what they wanted. During the Cold War, they were abruptly displaced by the development of Eastern bloc assault rifles, which can fire either automatically (like a machine gun) or semiautomatically (one shot for each depression of the trigger). The armies of the Warsaw Pact fielded the Kalashnikov line throughout the 1950s and 1960s, prompting the United States in the mid-1960s to produce its own assault rifle, the M-16. Soon, other NATO militaries followed with a suite of European automatics. Bolt-action rifles and their ammunition became surplus as standard arms -- excess weapons no longer needed by the armies that had once carried them. Since then they have moved about Asia and Africa through arms markets and government sales. (The distribution of the rifles often represented a form of Cold War black art -- as when, in the 1980s, the CIA and Pakistani intelligence passed Lee-Enfields to anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan.) And now, two decades later, Lee-Enfields were in Marja, put to service as sniper rifles by local fighters trying to frustrate yet another military campaign to subdue an Afghan insurgency.

The Lee-Enfields were, however, only a small part of the arms story on the ground in Marja. The marines gathered many more rifles of a class more commonly associated with the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan: automatic Kalashnikovs, many of them knockoffs of the original AK-47. The AK-47 was born in the 1940s in the secretive Soviet arms-design system -- the result of the military-industrial might of Stalin's Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War harnessed to make weapons for the Cold War. Shorter and lighter than the Lee-Enfield and its cousins, the Kalashnikov is a compact, versatile, durable, and easy-to-use automatic weapon, assembled in quantities that no firearm before it had ever known.

In Marja -- just as it has been across Afghanistan since at least the mid-1980s -- the Kalashnikov is the principal insurgent firearm. The Kalashnikov is not a miracle gun, as it is often portrayed. But it is very good at what it was designed to do. Unlike the Lee-Enfield, it does not readily lend itself to precision fire. It has a shorter effective range, and in Afghanistan, insurgents commonly fire the Kalashnikov in long, cracking bursts, using it to harass and suppress marine patrols. In Afghanistan, Western troops face its gunfire, and gunfire from the PKM -- the larger machine gun that also bears the Kalashnikov name -- every day. But the Kalashnikov's effect is larger than the damage it inflicts on NATO troops -- the Eastern bloc's excess arms are especially devastating against the Afghan soldiers who the United States hopes will soon take over the fight. With their stocks removed, they are readily concealable arms, and at short ranges, they are ferocious, making them particularly effective against Afghan government troops, who often lack sufficient armor and mingle with little discipline in villages and bazaars, where they are vulnerable to ambushes at short range.

The Afghan security forces carry Kalasnhnikovs, too. And because the Taliban's Kalashnikovs fire the same ammunition as the Afghan government's Kalashnikovs, the country's insurgents have access to a copious local supply of fresh U.S.-procured ammunition, which leaks through many channels from government custody to the Taliban's hands. Thus equipped, Kalashnikov-toting Taliban fighters have proved to be an intractable feature of the Afghan war -- guerrillas and sometimes terrorists armed with the discarded weapons of old governments and cartridges that have escaped the custody of the latest administration in Kabul. These militants are the backbone of the war, the defenders of the booming heroin trade, and the fighting force of a shadow government with influence over much of the countryside.

GUN-BARREL DIPLOMACY

What the marines were seeing in Marja were the artifacts and effects of a phenomenon known as the arms cascade. As a modern military force either accumulates far more small arms than it needs or updates and replaces its obsolete models, its government passes much of its old stock on to the global arms market.

The world's conventional militaries have upgraded their small arms several times in the past century. If there is any lesson about these cycles of replacement, it is this: as one class of weapon unseats another, displacing it from government arsenals, or as excess guns are deemed unnecessary for national security, the supposedly retired weapons often do not retire at all. They are recycled -- sold off or given to new owners -- and find new uses outside of state hands. Sometimes these new uses and users are largely harmless, such as when military rifles are sold to Western collectors.

It is one matter for many thousands of rifles to be legally exported from old arsenals by dealers who market them to lawful collectors, often after modifying the weapons to comply with relevant national laws. In the United States, for example, each license required to import military rifles undergoes a federal review, and imported assault rifles are typically modified so that they cannot be fired automatically. Yet it is entirely another matter for such weapons to be shipped en masse to conflict zones, where they are often hastily handed out with little accountability or control, even when issued by governments -- such as the United States -- that portray themselves as well organized and upstanding.

The workings of international arms transfers can be difficult to trace. Several international agreements have committed nations to monitoring the trade in military small arms and to requiring licenses -- essentially permits -- for the export of arms beyond their borders. But even with legal transfers, governments usually consider the details of their contracts with arms dealers and their reviews of license applications for transfers between third parties to be closed to public view. And illegal dealers use subterfuge -- offshore shell companies, faked end-user certificates, false customs declarations, and shady transport aviation firms -- to operate outside of official view. But the weapons themselves turn up, and sometimes, in particular cases, they can be traced back to their source, or at least to an intermediate handler.

The history of the vz. 58, a Czechoslovak-made assault rifle, provides some examples of how the trade -- both legal and illegal -- works in practice. In the mid-1950s, soon after the formation of the Warsaw Pact, Moscow ordered the armies of its vassal states in Eastern Europe to standardize their military equipment and make their arms compatible with the equipment of the Soviet army. Within a few years, several arms plants in Eastern Europe had begun manufacturing local variants of the Kalashnikov assault rifle; meanwhile, munitions factories had retooled to produce the 7.62 x 39mm ammunition fired by these rifles. Czechoslovakia, however, was the exception: it was the sole Warsaw Pact member that received permission from the Soviet Union to field its own assault rifle, the vz. 58. 

This decision would soon make the vz. 58 an important rifle for tracking how weapons move around the globe. Why? The vz. 58 was manufactured in only one country -- and, in fact, in only one particular factory in the town of Uherský Brod -- which makes it an ideal marker, much like a radioactive isotope in nuclear medicine, for observing how weapons move. The spread of the vz. 58 is largely explained by the shifting size of Czech forces in the twentieth century. During the Cold War, the Czechoslovak military and security agencies had more than 200,000 troops, many of them armed with vz. 58 rifles, with extra guns stored in reserve. After the Warsaw Pact dissolved and Czechoslovakia split in two, the state security apparatus contracted to a fraction of its Cold War size. The vz. 58s that filled armories quickly became surplus. A cascade began. How many rifles ultimately made their way out of state hands is not known. But this much is clear: they moved quickly. As a relatively unknown rifle with little reputation as a combat weapon, the vz. 58 entered the market at remarkably low prices. Some arms dealers say these rifles have been sold in bulk from Prague for less than $25 each; there are credible indications that when these guns are purchased in very large quantities -- 10,000 or more at a time -- they are sold for less than $15 apiece. Before long, the vz. 58 was turning up in African conflicts -- it was a staple of fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire) in the 1990s and is sometimes seen being carried by child soldiers there and elsewhere throughout Africa.

The image of a child soldier with a vz. 58 is especially evocative of the comprehensive effects of military small arms on conflict zones. This is because it is not what these weapons do to the militaries of powerful governments that causes the greatest and longest-lasting harm but rather their impact on the vulnerable and their role in making it possible for militias, militant groups, and criminal gangs to field well-equipped combatants. When readily available to irregular forces, surplus military small arms can make unstable regions more volatile and less economically sound, increase the expenses and dangers of military campaigns or aid and relief missions, enable crime and human rights abuses, dissuade governments from providing services, and increase human suffering. This is true whether the armed bands are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in and near the Horn of Africa, in southern Iraq, or along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Entire regions of the world, flooded with the excess stocks of government arsenals, have become simmering conflict zones and areas out of any government's control. These are places where even the world's best military forces operate with difficulty and local populations suffer from the presence of armed and lawless groups.

At least two full cycles of the arms cascade were evident in the weapons the marines found in Marja. Lee-Enfields became widely available to guerrillas after World War I, when militaries contracted from their wartime size, and then again midway through the Cold War, as Western militaries began using assault rifles instead of bolt-action rifles. Kalashnikovs are a more recent example of the cascade, although they have now been around long enough that rifles from more than one generation of production are found side by side on the battlefield. Some of the date stamps on the assault rifles recovered from the Taliban have shown them to have been made in the 1950s and early 1960s -- a generation of the Kalashnikov line that the Soviet army replaced in the mid-1970s with a new variant that fired a smaller, faster round. The early models continued to be manufactured for stockpile and sale throughout the Cold War years, and these weapons -- many of which were effectively surplus from the moment of their birth -- had also found their way to the Taliban (some of the Taliban's weapons in Marja bore date stamps from the 1970s).

The date stamps point to an essential means of understanding this aspect of the trade in military small arms and the trade's potential for unintended and lingering effects: the weapons' durability. The mainstream military rifles of the twentieth century -- whether Lee-Enfields manufactured in the Long Branch Arsenal in Toronto or reverse-engineered AKMs from the communist Chinese Factory 626 in Bei'an -- were exceptionally well made. An infantry rifle can survive many decades in the field. They can survive so long, in fact, that no one knows how long they take to die, if only because many of the original items are still being used by guerillas. And they show no sign of breaking down. One of the Lee-Enfields captured by the marines in Marja bore a date stamp from 1915. This was a rifle that was manufactured as Kitchener's Army was massing for service on the western front, using ammunition made for service against the Third Reich, and now firing on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

A RIFLE'S SECOND LIFE

In the Cold War, arms transfers were often a way for the superpowers to buy loyalty and prop up proxy regimes or to arm those groups that opposed the proxies of their adversaries. Although the strategic competition of the Cold War era is past, no one should assume that arms cascades have stopped, or will stop anytime soon.

In the conventional narrative, the excess weapons of the Cold War have spread from former Warsaw Pact and Soviet arsenals to conflict zones worldwide through shadowy networks and opaque deals. This realm is dominated by outsized characters such as Leonid Minin -- a Ukranian Israeli weapons trafficker who was arrested by Italian authorities in 2000 -- and his peers, who broker sales between guerrilla leaders in Africa and corrupt officials and merchants in eastern Europe and Russia. As payments arrive in offshore accounts, these dealers move the weapons on small cargo planes willing to fly contraband.

This conception is, of course, all true. But it is only a partial view. The United States and other NATO countries are also busy participants in the trade, often using some of the same middlemen and chartered planes. At times, these tactics for moving weapons have been deliberate, as when, for example, Washington choreographed and underwrote the arming of the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan war.

But official inattention and outright incompetence also play a role in small-arms proliferation. Since 2001, for example, the United States has openly purchased tens of thousands of former Eastern bloc small arms for redistribution to government forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. What has happened to those weapons? Here, too, the vz. 58 can serve as a useful guide. Not long after the government of Hamid Karzai was first established in Kabul, the Czech Republic, looking to prove itself as a reliable partner of the United States and Europe, donated thousands of vz. 58s to equip the Afghan security forces. The Pentagon, unaware that vz. 58s are not Kalashnikovs, accepted and distributed the donated Czech rifles only to find out that the Afghans were dissatisfied with the vz. 58s. (The Czech rifles have parts and magazines incompatible with a Kalashnikov, work differently, and, in the eyes of many Afghans, are both more prone to jamming and difficult to disassemble and clean.) In recent years, these unwanted Czech rifles have mostly been replaced, one for one, through additional purchases and transfers. The Pentagon is now in the process of buying new U.S.-made M-16s for the Afghan army, which is "retiring" many of its Kalashnikovs by passing them on to the Afghan police, who will then shelve more of their vz. 58s. The Afghan police force and the Pentagon have also replaced other vz. 58s with surplus Hungarian Kalashnikovs, either purchased by the Pentagon or donated by Budapest.

If this sounds complicated, it only gets more so. Because the Pentagon issued vz. 58s and older Kalashnikovs to Afghan forces without recording their serial numbers in a database -- and because of the widespread desertion of Afghan troops -- no one knows how many of these weapons remain in government custody. Thousands of vz. 58s have been taken out of service, and those not lost or stolen now are, at least officially, in the hands of the Afghan government -- a worrying state of affairs given the history of arms trafficking and corruption in the region. Had the Czechs not rushed to pass their surplus on to Afghanistan, through a Pentagon bureaucracy that belatedly learned the weapons were not even wanted, these guns would be far more secure today and less likely to circulate in future conflict zones. The vz. 58's travels to the region show that even legal, well-intentioned arms transfers can go awry.

The worldwide spread of excess arms has been furthered by a process that was, at least on paper, intended to lead to greater security and interdependence: the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe after the Soviet collapse. As NATO has taken on new members, its existing member states have encouraged and assisted these new NATO nations, or prospective nations, to adopt NATO-standard weapons. The thinking is rooted not just in profit motives but also in sound logistics: members of the alliance should have weapons and munitions compatible with those of their allies. Such coordination eases logistics and allows troops from varied nations to work alongside one another more readily. But this process has a side effect. It effectively renders entire armories of assault rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers obsolete, and potentially available for sale. Even apart from the question of conversion, the reduction in the size of standing armies from Cold War days to the present has left many states -- Albania and Ukraine are prime examples -- with bunkers crammed with weapons and munitions for which their governments have little use, beyond converting them into cash.

Ukraine alone claims to have several million small arms in storehouses. Several years ago, the United States and other NATO governments signed agreements with Ukraine's Ministry of Defense to destroy a portion of the excess weapons. But these destruction programs largely stalled a few years into the Iraq war: Ukrainian officials realized that the United States was simultaneously shopping for excess small arms for Afghan and Iraqi security forces and thereby driving up market prices. One official involved in the program summed up the prevailing mood: Why should Ukraine destroy weapons for which there was still a legal market, sanctioned by none other than the United States? For governments with large excess arms, destroying the stock was made to feel like burning cash.

FUELING THE FOREVER WAR

Neither the characteristics nor the distribution of automatic arms are the sources of modern war. If there were no military rifles -- or if they were only held by organized armies -- militants and rebels would still find ways to fight. But even if an abundance of highly effective, easy-to-use, and exceptionally durable infantry arms do not cause wars, they are the fuel that keeps wars hot. The mass distribution of modern military arms and the availability of surplus standardized ammunition have made many insurgencies harder to unravel and helped place whole swaths of many countries outside any government's control, at least not without great risk and expense.

The U.S. military and NATO are confronting these hard facts in Afghanistan, a nation that several governments over many decades have helped arm to the point of saturation. Afghanistan today would be less dangerous for almost all involved -- civilians, government officials, nongovernment organizations, journalists, Afghan military and police forces, and Western troops -- if the refuse of former empires and the handouts of current governments were not so widely present in the field. More than two decades after the end of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, there has never been a successful, comprehensive military small-arms disarmament program in the country; instead, more guns keep flowing in.

In many ways, it is too late. The time when the Afghan countryside might be stable and secure is long off, and the day when surplus rifles and machine guns will be less of an influence on the country's social and security fabric is almost unimaginable. As the experience of the marines in Marja has shown, once long-lasting military weapons are loose in the field, they are extraordinarily difficult and expensive to collect. The questions of today, then, are really about the wars of tomorrow. Will policymakers and military planners, who together determine the ultimate fates of surplus arms, take steps to prevent further leakage, transfers, and sales from government armories? If not, many regions will likely remain as they are -- in a state of near-perennial conflict. And when wars erupt and the arms show up, the Marjas of tomorrow may be as intractable and bloody as Marja is today.

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