wrong kind of surplus

The US has lost tens of thousands of AK-47s in Afghanistan

July 28, 2014
July 28, 2014

After more than a decade of weapons supplies, cumulatively worth some $626 million, to Afghan security forces, US inspectors have discovered a problem: the Afghan National Army and Police have more weapons — up to 100,000 more — than they need. What’s worse? No one is keeping proper track of the surplus weapons, most of which are Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles.

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Global arms-trading rules require dealers to issue a license for weapons use and attempt to monitor it—and this new report (pdf) shows that the Afghan government’s efforts to track US-supplied weapons are, at best, woeful.

This is especially worrisome because of the tendency for surplus arms to find their way into the black market and, from there, into the hands of bad actors. It would not be the first time that happened in Afghanistan: when the Taliban first fought their way to power in the 1990s, it was with weapons left behind by the Soviet Union and arms provided to guerrilla fighters by the US.

The new arms surplus, which dates back to shipments made before 2010, is blamed on two choices made by NATO and the Afghan government. The first was a decision to switch from distributing AK-47s to weapons more commonly issued to NATO forces, such as M16 and M4 rifles. There was no accompanying program to recover the Kalashnikovs already handed out. The second was the decision to reduce the size of the standing Afghan army, once expected to be as large as 352,000 personnel but now slated to fall to 228,500 by 2017.

Afghan security officials also say that 35,606 of the AK-47s are non-functional, but ensuring that the older weapons are destroyed — and not simply sold into the black market — is a challenge, absent rigorous tracking.

There is a high demand for  Kalashnikovs in the region: If the Taliban would love to get their hands on the rifles, so too would Afghans who worry that the departure of US and other NATO troops next year will lead to greater insecurity. An AK-47 cost about $1,049 in Pakistan in 2012, according to the most recent Small Arms Survey (pdf), and reports indicated they cost slightly more, $1,150, in Afghanistan (where per capita income is just $700 a year). By contrast, they cost just $731 in Somalia at the same time period.

Ultimately, this is a tale typical of the US experience in Afghanistan: High expectations led to over-commitment, and as costs piled up and circumstances changed, US forces were unable to manage changing facts on the ground, leading to unintended consequences. US officials say they are working with the Afghans to improve weapons tracking, but lack the leverage to force them to re-inventory their stockpiles.

The US is also trying to limit the heavy weaponry it leaves behind, resisting Afghan calls for more tanks, jets and artillery. When the USSR pulled out of Afghanistan (pdf) in the late eighties (pdf), it left its puppet government with 990 armed vehicles, 142 howitzers and cannons, 82 mortars, 43 multiple rocket launchers, 1,706 single rocket launchers, hundreds of tanks, MIG-27 fighter jets, along with small arms, tons of ammunition, and some 1,300 SCUD missiles. It’s unlikely the US will make the same mistake, but tens of thousands of loose Kalashnikovs are not exactly a small-bore problem.

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