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PANDORA’S BOX

BY THE LATE 1970s, the Soviet Union was ramping up for what its leaders mistakenly thought would be a quick war in Afghanistan. At first the AK seemed to be one of the superpower’s main military assets, but the rifle later proved to be in part responsible for its defeat. The catastrophic Soviet defeat following a ten-year guerrilla war eventually led to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the proliferation of cheap AKs throughout the Middle East.

The Vietnam War gave the AK its credibility, and the Afghanistan war would spread it around the region, placing it in the hands of terrorists and insurgents who embraced it as the budding icon of anti-imperialism.

The war that Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev later called “our country’s Vietnam” had roots as far back as the 1920s, when Afghanistan became the first nation to recognize the newly minted Soviet Communist regime after the Bolshevik Revolution. The two nations shared a common border and maintained friendly relations. Soviet aid and advisors were a constant feature in Afghanistan for the next fifty years. During the cold war, both East and West curried favor with the Afghans. The Soviets, for example, built a large irrigation project south of Jalalabad, and the United States constructed roads and an airfield at Kandahar.

By the 1970s, Communism was growing worldwide, boosted by the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. Other countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia turned Communist. In Cuba, the Communist revolution under Fidel Castro was stronger than ever despite CIA efforts to shake his hold. The Soviet Union was spreading its Marxist doctrine to the Congo, Egypt, Syria, and Latin America.

In April 1978, members of the Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (DRA) assassinated Prime Minister Sardar Mohammed Daoud Khan during a coup supported by the Soviet Union. Although the new government enjoyed popular support, it was poorly organized and run. The following year, unknown assassins (presumably encouraged by Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin) smothered President Nur Muhammad Taraki in his sleep and Amin became president. Amin was warm to Soviet help but not as willing as his predecessor to be the superpower’s puppet.

By the fall of 1979, the Soviet Union had set its sights on taking over Afghanistan by military force. Although many reasons have been suggested for an invasion, ranging from helping a neighboring Communist regime to a closer military presence in the Persian Gulf area where the world’s oil tankers traveled, the situation in nearby Iran was also a factor. The country was in the midst of an Islamic revolution, throwing out the corrupt U.S.-backed government of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, and installing the Islamic hard-liner Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Although the new regime was an enemy of the United States, it was not friendly to the Soviet Union either and presented another loss of influence to the Soviets and little hope of Communist inroads.

On Christmas Eve 1979, the Soviet army, with planning help from the DRA, rolled three divisions across the border and quickly took control of airfields around Kabul as well as the telecommunications infrastructure. In a set of clever ploys, Soviet advisors hosted a party for Afghan government leaders at the InterContinental Hotel in Kabul, and Soviet military advisors held a similar fete for upper-level Afghan military officers. At the conclusion of both galas, all the Afghan guests were taken prisoner. That same day, Soviet soldiers dressed as Afghan soldiers stormed the presidential palace, killing President Amin. Within days, more than fifty thousand Soviet troops were in Afghanistan, with all the major cities under their control.

Strategically, the invasion had been brilliant, with only sixty-six Soviet soldiers killed, most of them due to non-combat-related accidents. The Soviet strategy was to maintain control of major cities with their own forces and have the Afghan army seek out and destroy rural-based opposition groups, known as mujahideen, who were scattered throughout the countryside, mainly in the mountains. Soviet planners, elated by a quick victory and little resistance, anticipated a stay of no more than three years.

The mujahideen, which literally means “strugglers” in Arabic but also translates as “holy warriors,” sought U.S. assistance against the Soviet invaders. They opposed the Soviets largely on nationalistic grounds; they were not willing to be taken over by any outside force. They also garnered strong support from influential local imams for whom the Marxist ideology of atheism was abhorrent. Hundreds of small bands were formed. Even some DRA soldiers joined the mujahideen fighters.

President Jimmy Carter authorized the CIA to supply the mujahideen with weapons and funds for their fight against the Soviets. The weapons would be funneled through Pakistan, which was uneasy about having the Soviets next door in Afghanistan. Moreover, as the war continued and the Soviets bombed and destroyed rural villages, millions of Afghans found themselves living in refugee camps bordering Pakistan and Iran, which made it difficult if not impossible to maintain the borders’ integrity. Both nations supported the mujahideen movement.

The Soviets with their tanks, airpower, and AKs vastly outgunned the mujahideen, who were relegated in the early years to whatever weapons they could scrounge or take from captured Soviet convoys and army caches. Their situation changed for the better when one of the first CIA shipments arrived, less than two weeks after the Soviet invasion, containing thousands of bolt-action .303 Lee-Enfield rifles, the British counterpart of the venerable but outmoded M1. Howard Hart, who was the CIA’s chief in Pakistan, believed that the old Enfield rifles were superior to the Soviet AK. Orders went out to sources in Greece, India, and wherever else they could be found for delivery to Karachi. The CIA also shipped rocket-propelled grenade launchers, portable enough for guerrillas to carry in the field, and capable of stopping a Soviet tank.

The Soviets fought using the methods expected of any large army of the day. In many respects, they mimicked the U.S. program in Vietnam. They delivered massive firepower from bombers, helicopters, fixed artillery, and tanks upon a town, completely dominating the area, and then dispatched ground troops who fired their AKs at anything that moved until the town fell under their control. Mopping up was largely unnecessary because the massive shellings took care of any resistance save a few stragglers. The Soviets’ scorched-earth strategy was considered a form of “migratory genocide.” By destroying villages and forcing people into exile, they hoped to sap the rural support that fed the mujahideen.

Initially, the outgunned mujahideen were shaken by the Soviet tactics and the firepower delivered by a new version of the AK that was making its way onto the battlefield. The mujahideen so feared this mysterious this new rifle and its odd-sized cartridge that they called it “poison bullet” because of its almost supernatural destructive power. The new bullet was not only smaller than previous AK rounds, many of which the mujahideen had captured during raids, but it was also more deadly—even more so than the M-16 round that had prompted its development.

Soviet weapons designers had taken note of the small, high-velocity 5.56mm bullet used in the M-16 when they saw firsthand in Vietnam its destructive bone-cracking power. The truth was that Soviet military officials were not completely happy with the AK, and they were looking for a change. Although the intermediate round was a major step forward, many troops could not keep the rifle on target during full automatic fire because of the strong recoil.

Kalashnikov, well aware of the move by the United States to a smaller bullet, was ready to embrace the new order. Later, he wrote, “Our foreign colleagues [U.S. arms designers] had already been working along this line, so the Russian command decided to do so in this country. Of course, I could not stand idle in this situation and rest on my laurels. In a way, the earned reputation won’t allow you to stop working. On the contrary, it makes you take up new projects as long as you have the strength.”

Through the passing of time, Kalashnikov now characterizes himself as gung-ho on the new, smaller bullet, but at the time, he, like many of his Western counterparts, was still not convinced that smaller was better. Despite the forensic and anecdotal data, many conventional arms designers had trouble believing that a smaller bullet could produce greater destruction. However, Kalashnikov was a team player and threw himself into modifying his AK to accommodate the smaller round. Moreover, he wanted to make certain that the legacy of the AK design would continue.

Making a smaller-caliber weapon did not mean simply using a narrower barrel, he learned. As in the AR-15, small-diameter barrels tended to retain water, but this was overcome. Other changes were necessary, too, for the basic AK design to be used. This included changing the bolt head, improving the extractor, and changing the magazine to a steel-and-fiberglass composite.

These changes were all doable. Kalashnikov’s main challenge was not technical but political. He had to convince the other teams working on the small-bullet project that the AK design, once modified, was still viable and could handle the new bullet. After all, the United States had changed to a radically new gun design in order to accommodate the 5.56mm cartridge, and the AK itself was born to shoot the new intermediate round. Maybe a change was in order now that the AK was going on twenty years old. Some Kalashnikov competitors had likened the AK design to a lemon that had been squeezed dry with nothing left to offer, and this riled the arms designer.

Kalashnikov’s main challengers were engineers from another design group known as TsNIITochmash, the Central Institute for Precision Machine Building, who were also modifying an AKM to shoot the small bullet. They went a step further, however. By the mid-1960s, they had developed a way to virtually eliminate recoil in the AKM, which used the intermediate round. The AL-7, as it was called, employed a counter-recoil system that almost perfectly matched the recoil from each round with a spring balanced in the opposite direction, thereby eliminating any backward motion. The two forces nearly canceled each other.

Unfortunately, the AL-7, completed in 1972, required substantial changes to existing factory lines, and was rejected as too expensive to produce. With this group out of the running, a newly named AK-74 (again, for the year it was accepted), which fired a 5.45 × 39mm bullet, closer in size to the M-16 round, was put into service and began replacing the older intermediate-cartridge-firing rifle. Unlike previous rifles, it used all polymer in the buttstock and grip, components known as “furniture,” which had previously been made of wood. This change offered a much lighter weapon.

The Soviets had another winning rifle. It was light like the M-16, used the smaller more lethal bullet, yet maintained the legendary Kalashnikov reliability. The new AK-74 with muzzle brake had about half the recoil of an M-16 and about two-thirds that of the previous AK. Reduced recoil offered less skillful soldiers the ability to keep their weapons fixed closer on target during rapid fire. The new firearm and lighter bullets also allowed soldiers to carry twice as much ammunition into battle.

Again, Western intelligence underestimated the Soviet weapon’s importance. When reports about the new rifle filtered in during the late 1970s, analysts believed the new rifles (and a light machine gun known as the RPK-74) would be issued only to special squads because of the logistical headache of issuing new weapons and ammunition to all Soviet troops. This underestimation of the weapon’s importance may have been due to the belief that Soviet production capacity was still low or their technical ability poor. Nevertheless, the Soviets were committed to the new weapon and the timing was fortuitous. Phased in during the Afghanistan war, this new rifle became a fixture in the conflict as stories of its destructiveness spread throughout the rebel ranks.

The new bullet consisted of a thin-jacketed point with an airspace in the middle. As the bullet entered the human body, the impact bent and deformed the tip because the airspace offered no structural strength to keep it intact. As it penetrated, the bullet usually came apart, fragmenting and inflicting extreme damage to tissues and organs. Western intelligence knew few details about the new bullet until Galen L. Geer, a correspondent for Soldier of Fortune magazine in Afghanistan, wrote about it in a two-part series for the September and October 1980 issues. Not only did he obtain the new rounds, but he and Soldier of Fortune editor and publisher Robert K. Brown delivered two rounds to an unnamed U.S. government agency (“not the CIA,” noted Brown) and beat the CIA. Geer also visited many hospitals in Pakistan and reported seeing extraordinarily large wounds. He believed the injuries were the result of rounds shattering entire bone sections. He was correct. In addition, he reported wounded fighters with limb wounds only, because those with more extensive body wounds rarely survived the trip to a hospital.

Realizing that they could not win by fighting the Soviets’ type of war, the mujahideen altered their tactics. At the first signs of bombing, they would leave the area and hide in the mountains, often in caves. They would return hours, days, or even weeks later to surprise the unprepared Soviet soldiers now complacent in the belief that they had complete control of the town. The mujahideen could not engage the Soviets in head-to-head combat, because their old, long-range, single-shot Enfields and even some semiautomatic M-14s they had obtained were no match for the rapid-firing AK, but they could fight them as guerrillas.

The old way of war was officially dead.

Another tactic of the mujahideen was to exploit the Afghan topography. The country is crisscrossed by roads that wind through mountain passes, and the Soviets were bound by their vehicles to stay on these routes. In one particular instance, in October 1980, the mujahideen heard of a convoy heading north from Bagram Air Base and crossing the Panjshir valley bridge. The convoy was to return that evening. About two hundred mujahideen armed with RPGs, mortars, and heavy machine guns set up an ambush. In the late afternoon, as the sun was setting, they waited until half of the convoy had passed over the bridge. Then they attacked the entire length of the convoy. Startled Soviet soldiers abandoned their vehicles and, realizing they were close to the air base, rushed to the river to escape home. Almost at their leisure, the mujahideen fighters were able to pick the convoy clean, taking weapons and other supplies under the cover of darkness.

The mujahideen received food and other supplies from local villages despite the Soviets’ continued scorched-earth policies that leveled towns believed friendly to the guerrillas. The Soviets’ plan to have the Afghan army root out the mujahideen failed as these soldiers often supported the rebels. This support grew as the Soviets’ treatment of villagers and those in larger towns grew more brutal.

Nevertheless, by the early 1980s, the Soviets appeared to be winning. At least it looked as if they could outlast the mujahideen, who were still short of modern weapons, especially assault rifles, save for those taken during ambushes and weapons caches raids. But the CIA began to funnel massive aid to the mujahideen through Pakistan. In 1981, the guerrilla movement received only about $30 million, but by 1984 the amount had soared to $200 million, according to later congressional testimony. President Reagan also negotiated a deal with the Saudi royal family to match the CIA’s funding.

The mujahideen were still terrified of the new AK and its “poison bullet,” and pleaded for these arms from the United States to achieve parity with the Soviet invaders. The CIA’s Hart finally relented and ordered hundreds of thousands of AKs, mainly from China, where production of the Soviet weapon was booming. China and the Soviet Union had had an ideological falling-out during the 1960s, and the Chinese were eager to use the Soviets’ own weapon against them in the Afghan conflict. (China and Afghanistan also share a forty-seven-mile border.) Not only did they sell the 7.62mm AK called the Type 56, but they had introduced in 1981 the 5.56mm Type 81, an AK model that used the same 5.56mm round as the M-16, another poke in the eye to the Soviets. A year later, China brought on the market their 5.45mm Type 81, which was a direct competitor to the new Soviet assault rifle. AKs and their variants also poured in from Poland, where dissident army officers sold Soviet weapons to the CIA. Other nations such as Egypt and Turkey sold older Soviet and other weapons to the CIA for delivery to Afghan guerrillas.

The CIA favored Soviet weapons because of their reliability, low cost, and availability. In addition, Soviet weapons in the hands of the mujahideen would not appear to be U.S.-supplied, thus giving the CIA deniability. As history would later show, Hart’s decision to buy AKs for the mujahideen may have been the most important single contribution to the spread of the weapon.

So many weapons, millions by some estimates, were passing through Pakistan that no one could keep an accurate count. The same with money; nobody could keep track of all the secret deals, payoffs, and bribes that surrounded the CIA’s covert operation. Years later, in congressional testimony, CIA officials estimated that by 1984, $200 million had been sent to the mujahideen and that by 1988 the amount reached $2 billion through CIA channels alone. It had turned into the largest covert shipment of arms, and supplies, and money by the CIA since the Vietnam War.

The covert pipeline managed by the CIA usually entered Pakistan through Islamabad or Karachi. From there, arms went to staging areas in the towns of Quetta and Peshawar near the Afghan border, then into Afghanistan.

Islamabad, the center of CIA activity in Pakistan, became an arms bazaar, a wide-open and sometimes lawless town awash in weapons, where quick money could be made easily. While most of the funds destined for the mujahideen reached them, much money and many weapons went astray. In payment for their help, the Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), that country’s CIA counterpart, took a cut of the money and arms flowing through their country. AKs were sold to those inside Pakistan, including thugs, criminal gangs, and citizens who wanted protection in a region that was becoming dangerous. Many weapons also found their way to Islamic revolutionaries in Iran.

The mujahideen themselves sold some AKs and used the money for medical supplies and food. They also stockpiled weapons and ammunition to be used after the Soviets left. Convoys of mujahideen supplies from Pakistan needed protection from the Soviets and civilian gangs who roamed the no-man’s-land in the border area of Tora Bora. Private truckers hauling for the mujahideen were given AKs to protect their loads. These drivers, who were paid by the mujahideen or the CIA to deliver weapons to Afghanistan’s interior, would return to Pakistan with empty trucks. To help defray their costs, they sometimes hauled heroin and other drugs produced in Afghanistan. These convoys often paid gangs, drug kingpins, or local strongmen for protection. Their weapon of choice was the AK because of its low cost and reliability. Drug dealers and their gangs, who became an integral part of the arms pipeline, also chose the AK. The name Kalashnikov became well known in the region as people began to call their favorite gun by the inventor’s name.

As more and more AKs flooded the region, street prices dropped, and even more people bought them on the black market. Indeed, one of the ways in which the CIA hoped to monitor the arms shipments and prevent wholesale weapons skimming by the Pakistanis was to keep an eye on prices. If they dropped too far and too quickly it would be a sign of dumping on the market. Later, the ISI was found to be skimming, including several instances involving sending weapons offshore and then back to Pakistan for sale, as well as selling back the CIA its own weapons.

AKs were seen on the streets of most Pakistani and Afghan towns as ordinary citizens armed themselves for personal protection in a region now abounding in small arms. The simple-to-use and easy-to-maintain AK—both older and new models—became the most ubiquitous weapon in the region, and all versions coexisted side by side. To avoid confusion, the Soviets cleverly placed a long smooth groove in the buttstock of the 5.45mm model so that even in the dark soldiers could tell which weapon they were holding and feed it the correct ammunition.

The newly delivered AKs offered the mujahideen an opportunity to better their tactics. One successful technique was to start a landslide on a mountain route to block it before a convoy arrived. To make it look like a natural occurrence and not a deliberate ploy, they used small rocks instead of huge boulders. The convoy would stop, and when Soviet soldiers got out to clear the roads, the mujahideen would pounce, AKs in hand, and open up at close range, spending hundreds of rounds in minutes. The guerrillas would pick up Soviet weapons and whatever else they could carry and scurry back into the mountains. Although the Soviets still had greater long-range firepower and air support, their troops quickly became demoralized at the mujahideen’s hit-and-run tactics that turned their own assault weapons against them. To be sure, the AK was not the only weapon used successfully by the mujahideen. The CIA also supplied Stinger Human-Portable Air-Defense System, or MANPAD, missiles. These shoulder-fired guided missiles were effective against low-flying Soviet helicopters, although they were not supplied until later in 1986 during the war’s peak years. The AK remained the most used weapon in the region.

Despite the graft, corruption, and skimming that occurred, the CIA-run arms pipeline was effective. During the course of the war, Afghanistan became the world’s largest arms recipient in relation to the size of its population, according to the United Nations. With help from the ISI, the United States delivered perhaps as many as four hundred thousand AKs to the mujahideen. The ISI had access to an additional three million Kalashnikovs from pipeline operations, some of which made it to the rebels and some of which were sold on the black market. Hundreds of thousands more AKs entered the area from other countries now that the pipeline infrastructure had been established.

By 1985, the war was reaching a stalemate despite the large number of Soviet ground troops in Afghanistan, estimated to have peaked at 100,000 men. With other troops and support, that number probably reached 175,000.

Regardless of the large troop numbers, the Soviets could not beat the mujahideen. They found themselves spending 85 percent of their resources guarding cities, airfields, and supply depots, which left only 15 percent to chase after the mujahideen. The massive CIA/ISI arms pipeline kept the rebels well stocked, and more than half of all Soviet soldiers at some point were hospitalized for diseases such as cholera and hepatitis. In addition, although the Soviet government kept most of the casualty information hidden from the public and put a positive spin on the conflict, negative reports began to filter back. Soviet citizens grew weary of what was becoming a no-win war.

The Soviet Politburo was little help in formulating an end to the war. During the conflict, the Soviet Union lost three leaders in quick succession to illness and death—Leonid Brezhnev, who had begun the war, Konstantin Chernenko, and then Yuri Andropov—and it seemed as if no one had the energy to move the process along until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. Wanting to end the war with a decisive victory, Gorbachev ordered massive attacks, but after several bloody battles, including one particularly brutal engagement at Jalalabad, the Soviet leader sought a negotiated way out of the morass.

A deal brokered by the United Nations allowed the Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan and save face. The agreement specified that the Russians had entered Afghanistan to aid a friendly government, the DRA, but now threats to its well-being were diminished and a Soviet force was no longer necessary. Calling it “Afghanization”—Afghans deciding the best course for Afghanistan—Gorbachev insisted that the agreement call for Pakistan not to interfere in Afghan affairs and to sever aid to anti-Soviet groups.

Economically, the war’s drain on the faltering Soviet financial system had been enormous, perhaps $2.7 billion annually from 1980 on. Moreover, approximately twenty-two thousand Soviets were killed and seventy-five thousand wounded. The Soviet invasion decimated Afghanistan. About ninety thousand Afghan combatants died, with an equal number wounded. More than 1.3 million Afghan citizens perished. One-third to one-half of the country’s net worth was damaged or destroyed. Agricultural production dropped by 50 percent and livestock losses were 50 percent, mainly due to Soviet bombings and towns leveled with no people left to care for the animals or tend the land. As many as five thousand of the nation’s fifteen thousand villages were destroyed or made unlivable. United Nations estimates suggest that 70 percent of paved roads were destroyed.

ON FEBRUARY 15, 1989, the last Soviet troops left Afghanistan. But the arms pipeline that had been operating for a decade, and was now ingrained in the economic and cultural landscape of the neighboring countries, did not disappear, nor did the drugs and weapons it conveyed throughout the region. Indeed, just before the Soviet withdrawal, the United States increased its arms shipments to Afghanistan to make certain the pullout held. Likewise, the Soviet Union left behind huge small-arms stockpiles for use by the new pro-Soviet regime headed by President Muhammad Najibullah, and it continued arms deliveries even after the troops returned home. Other nations such as China continued to sell small arms on the well-developed black market for delivery to drug dealers, gangs, private citizens, and extremist groups including factions of the mujahideen that kept fighting among themselves along tribal and ethnic lines.

Just prior to the Soviet withdrawal, Western newspapers had begun to take note of the huge supply of AKs in the region, especially in Pakistan. With hostilities winding down, it became easier for journalists to travel and report on the effects of cheap guns on the population and culture. In Khel, an hour’s drive south of Peshawar, local arms dealer Haji Baz Gul told the New York Times about his brisk business in AKs. He carried three different models: the Soviet model for about $1,400, the Chinese model for $1,150, and a locally made knockoff for $400. Another arms dealer said that he noticed a dip in prices when the Soviets announced they were leaving Afghanistan, but prices rose again when the withdrawal became less certain.

A 1988 story in the Los Angeles Times relayed how cheap guns had turned some Pakistani cities into caricatures of the Wild West where everyone, it seemed, carried an AK. “Conservatively speaking, there are 8,000 Kalashnikovs in Hyderabad now,” said Aftab Sheikh, the mayor of Pakistan’s fifth largest city. “The people who have them rule supreme. They can kill anybody.” Sheikh said he had not gone outside his house in three months because the last time he did, he was shot nine times by AK-wielding gunmen and left for dead in his driveway. His jeep showed ninety bullet holes. Judges and other government officials also became targets. Close to two hundred citizens alone were killed in a three-hour spree dubbed “Black Friday,” the result of ongoing conflicts fueled by ethnic differences and readily available automatic weapons. A government official said, “The problem has gotten so bad that Kalashnikovs are being sold on the installment plan. The total price is 15,000 rupees [about $850]. You put 5,000 rupees down, take the Kalashnikov, go rob someone and use the loot to pay off the rest of the purchase price.” In Peshawar itself, people reportedly could rent assault rifles by the hour.

A substantial part of Pakistan’s economy—from gangs who robbed and kidnapped, to armed drug kingpins who followed established arms routes, to the small village arms maker who bought, sold, repaired, and produced their homemade versions—relied on the ubiquitous AK. In many small towns, the robust AK market was the only way to make a living. It was similar in Afghanistan. Thriving mom-and-pop (and kids) gun shops that built homegrown versions of the AK in seven to ten days remain commonplace to this day. Per capita, Afghanistan remains one of the world’s most heavily armed countries in terms of small arms, the vast majority of which are AKs.

This economic and social reliance on AKs throughout parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan brought a new phrase to the region that is still used. One of the first to publicly describe the phenomenon was Hyderabad newspaper owner Sheik Ali Mohammed, who said, “What we have… is a Kalashnikov Culture.”

The Kalashnikov Culture became even more pronounced after the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991—the costly Afghanistan invasion being a prime factor—and the Warsaw Pact nations, no longer receiving aid from the Soviet Union or beholden to its ideology, sold millions of AKs held in Soviet stockpiles to raise cash. As the scene inside Russia deteriorated, Soviet soldiers themselves looted arsenals and sold huge AK caches to criminals inside the country and to the world black market where they were bought by terrorist groups.

Years earlier, cash-strapped countries like Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania, for instance, had been selling their own versions of the AK to raise cash. Now the AK’s growing reputation as a cheap, reliable, effective weapon made sales to legitimate armies and rogue actors even easier. For example, during the chaos surrounding the bloodless revolution in East Germany, a few years before the Soviet Union’s demise, the East German National People’s Army began selling hardware to the highest bidders. Without the secret police or the strong hand of the Communist Party, arsenals were emptied and army commanders became rich. Even individual Soviet soldiers reportedly sold AKs on the black market for less than $100. Nobody knows how many weapons disappeared from stockpiles, but it could have been in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. When the Albanian government fell in 1993, criminals looted state arsenals. Up to a million weapons, most of them AKs, found their way into the world’s illegal arms market. Without the Soviet Union looking over their shoulder, even former Soviet states, such as Ukraine, sold off AK stockpiles and ammunition to raise cash.

Many weapons were sold to insurgent fighters and antigovernment rebels not only in the Middle East but also in Africa and South America. These groups could not afford expensive weapons like the M-16, nor could they legally obtain them from the United States or its allies. Because of its low price and availability, the reliable AK became the perfect weapon for guerrilla fighters and terrorists. Politics aside, the AK was the perfect item from a seller’s point of view. It was cheap, easy to produce in great quantities, simple to transport, good value for the price, easily repairable, and it came with a ready market.

Now, with the Soviets gone, factional fighting continued in Afghanistan, with the country eventually divided into two main groups: the Taliban, which was backed by Pakistan, and the United Front or Northern Alliance. Pakistan used the established arms pipeline to continue arming the Taliban, which also relied on seizing weapons from overrun supply dumps. In late 1994, the group took possession of eighteen thousand Kalashnikovs from an arms dump in Pasha, a move that was considered pivotal to their success in eventually controlling the majority of the country.

This established Kalashnikov Culture, fueled by cheap and prolific weapons, helped to change the region’s politics once again with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism embodied in Osama bin Laden.

WHEN THE SOVIETS ATTACKED AFGHANISTAN, the Saudi-born bin Laden fell in on the side of the mujahideen against the invaders. He used his considerable wealth—estimated at $250 million from his family and his construction business—to help raise even more money for the guerrillas. He worked with the CIA and employed his company’s heavy equipment to build bridges and roads for the guerrillas.

As the war continued, bin Laden became more radical in his views about the idea of a jihad, or holy war, against the Soviet invaders and those who disagreed with his burgeoning Islamic fundamentalist views. Before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan had been considered a moderate Islamic country, but now a more virulent strain of the faith was growing in the ravaged countryside, fueled by easily accessible weapons and a devastated economy. After the Soviets left, fighting continued among rival mujahideen groups.

In 1988, bin Laden had broken with a group he established four years earlier known as Maktab al-Khadamat (Office of Order), which collected money, weapons, and Muslim fighters for the Afghan war, and started al-Qaeda (meaning “the base” or “foundation”) with the more militant members of Maktab al-Khadamat. In the mountainous border area near Pakistan, he built at least twenty training camps that specialized in handling the AK and RPGs. Proficiency in these weapons was followed by lessons in bomb making, urban assault techniques, and the use of chemical weapons. It is estimated that as many as fifty thousand people went through the training.

Despite continued internal hostilities, the United States showed little interest in Afghanistan until the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Less than a month after the attack, President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan. The goal was to rid the country of the Taliban, which was protecting al-Qaeda terrorists and camps, and to capture Osama bin Laden, thought to be the mastermind of the attack. Just prior to the U.S.-led invasion, bin Laden had distributed what was to be the first of several videotapes warning the West about reprisals for their transgressions. In these tapes, the al-Qaeda leader is seen with an AK either next to him or propped against a background wall—his signature weapon and now the worldwide symbol of rebellion against imperialist ideology. (Gun enthusiasts point out that bin Laden is often seen with the AKS-74U, a shortened-barrel, folding-stock version of the AK-74, issued by the Soviet Union in 1982 to special operatives, mechanized troops, and armor and helicopter crews. It was prized as a war trophy and status symbol among the mujahideen, and U.S. AK enthusiasts gave it the name Krinkov.)

As a way of flaunting his antiestablishment, anti-Western stance, Osama bin Laden, seen here on a videotape, fires his signature AK weapon. In almost all photos of him, he is accompanied by his AK, which he and al-Qaeda consider the terrorists’ most important weapon.Getty Images News/Getty Images

After several years of sustained bombings and attacks, U.S. forces were unable to find bin Laden, who was believed to be hiding in reinforced caves at Tora Bora near the Pakistani border before slipping into that country. Ironically, the United States had funded the fortification and weapons stocking of these caves during Ronald Reagan’s presidency to help protect the mujahideen from Soviet troops.

Although at the time of this writing Taliban forces have been badly hurt, they continue to launch attacks on U.S. troops. Many tribal groups and al-Qaeda soldiers still carry the very same AKs that the CIA had purchased more than a decade earlier.

In essays from al-Qaeda writers that appeared several years later, the group reportedly has based its tactical doctrine on the activities of the mujahideen in Afghanistan who successfully drove out the Soviets. The tenets of this doctrine hinge on using weapons that are easily available, reliable, and cheap. “You must prepare weapons of all kinds” to fight the enemy, an essay notes. The most important is “the Kalashnikov and ammunition, and there must be large quantities of this because it is the substance of war.”

Just after the U.S. invasion, American GIs began reporting up the chain of command a disturbing trend. Children, some as young as twelve years old, were seen carrying AKs. Rebel armies discovered that this light, easy-to-use weapon, which required less than an hour of training time, was perfectly suited for small hands and bodies. Even youngsters with poor coordination or strength could be turned into a lethal killers. The AKs required almost no maintenance or cleaning, so absentminded kids did not have to worry about forgetting to take care of their weapon. Poorly funded groups had no qualms about distributing AKs to children; if they lost the weapon or died in battle, the economic loss would be small.

None of this was known to thirty-one-year-old Green Beret sergeant first class Nathan Ross Chapman of San Antonio, Texas. On January 4, 2002, he became the first American soldier to be killed by hostile fire in Afghanistan. His unit was coordinating missions with friendly tribes in Paktria Province near Pakistan when they were ambushed.

The shooter was a fourteen-year-old Afghan boy, born and nurtured in the Kalashnikov Culture and armed with an AK. Although facing child soldiers barely strong enough to hold an AK may have been a new and shocking experience for young GIs in Afghanistan, it had been a widespread and accepted practice in Africa for decades.

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