As I watched Al Jazeera this morning, I saw that Mikhail Kalashnikov turned 90 yesterday.
I thought this was as good a time as any to reflect on the weapon that bears his name and is used by both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and of course the Central Asian former SSRs. And, interestingly, by the insurgencies that are troubling the region.
That it is used by both sides in the current conflict is something to remark on. It wasn’t always the weapon carried by the rural Pashtun warriors; indeed, the British had to contend with Afghans using (rather effectively) hand-made jezails and later, having their own Lee-Enfield rifles used against them — which were still being handed out to Pashtun militias in the early 1970s before the CIA and ISI could lay their hands on some spare AK-47s.
The most common assault rifle on earth, being used by children in Africa and old men in Paktia, is the end result of an arms glut never before witnessed in history. The armies of some two to three dozen countries use Kalashnikovs or an unlicensed copy. Armed non state actors on every continent except Antarctica have used it. The production of these weapons is estimated at roughly 100 million units, give or take, and is being copied — by hand in some places, or by industrial manufacturers in others.
When most people talk about the Cold War being responsible for the conflict in Afghanistan, they’re usually referring to the proxy war fought against the Soviets by Afghans and funded by the CIA, ISI, and Saudis. What usually is ignored are the millions of small arms either captured from Soviet forces or provided by the Chinese and Pakistanis. What makes this important is that for most entities to carry out what we’ll call “industrial” warfare, they require industrial arms production. After WWII, unprecedented levels of production and also proliferation by the two Cold War superpowers changed that; major armored vehicles, artillery, and nearly ubiquitous small arms made their way into the dusty forgotten corners of the world. By allowing that, we have given medieval societies the modern means to make war.
I don’t blame General Kalashnikov for the countless (really, people have tried) deaths caused by AK-47s. Indeed, it’s obvious to say that if it wasn’t his rifle it would have been another. In that vein, there may have been a Taliban without cheap and easily obtainable modern arms, leaving them to fight with rusty bolt action rifles in small numbers against the next village, instead of attacking in company-sized formations against patrols and smaller FOBs.
But if that had been the case, would anyone have cared?
A scrimmage in a Border Station
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail.