Afghanistan: An Army Prepares

Graveyard of empires, “USA! USA!” edition:

Here’s a key factoid from the accompanying story:

When in 2008 the much loved and trusted AK-47 (the Kalashnikov had previously been the ANA’s standard issue weapon) began to be replaced by the American-made M-16 rifle, there were loud cries of complaint.

The M-16 may be a reliable gun in the hands of a well-supplied and well-trained US soldier, but in dusty and dry Afghanistan the weapon is a disaster. Its lubricant-hungry parts soak up the dirt causing the weapon to jam and stick persistently.

Coalition trainers say that with proper cleaning and maintenance the M-16 is reliable and effective – but most Afghan army veterans are quick to point out that they already had one of the world’s most reliable weapons. They add that ANA supply lines are poor and getting the necessary cleaning oil out to where it is needed on the battlefield often proves impossible.

In fact, many consider that the issue of the M-16 is actually just another sign of coalition mistrust. The AK-47 takes a 7.62mm round, whereas the M-16 uses the standard NATO 5.56mm bullet. Yet because the AK-47 is widely-used both by the Taliban and elsewhere in the region, the ammunition for it is readily available. M-16 rounds, of course, are that much harder to obtain. It means that if an ANA soldier deserts to the Taliban with his newly-issued M-16 in tow, he will struggle to find bullets for it. Spend any time with ANA troops and cynics among them will tell you that they are being forced to fight (sometimes with dangerous consequences) with a rifle that jams, purely because their allies want to stop it of being any use to the other side.

So the M-16 bullet is like an Apple cable. Jeebus, we’ve even got a rentier military. Why do I get the feeling this will end very badly?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. psychohistorian

    This would be laughable if it wasn’t so sick.

    They hate us for our freedom……….rrrrrrright.

    How does that saying go……We enter the graveyard of empires with the MIC we have not the MIC we might want.

    And on our gravestone the global inherited rich will put:

    America, where propaganda was perfected and social control mastered.

  2. Maju

    “… if an ANA soldier deserts to the Taliban with his newly-issued M-16 in tow, he will struggle to find bullets for it”.

    What logic is that when an AK-47 can be almost cheaper than the ammunition for the almost useless M-16? Searching around, I can see claims of prices for AK-47 in AfPak for as little as $300!!! That’s a mere 1,200 M16 bullets at US price (2005).

    Control freaks never control anything in fact.

    1. Nathanael

      If an ANA soldier deserts, he’ll probably appreciate the tactical training and perhaps some of the gear, but will dump the gun in favor of a reliable AK-47.

  3. rkka

    It will end badly because we suck at war.

    We’re great at killing and destruction, no one is better at that.

    We’re not too bad at campaigns.

    Its making all the killing and destruction serve a useful political purpose that we fail at, mostly because we wage war either for lunatic political objectives or for deceptive ones.

    And the whether you think the objectives are insane or lies depends on whether you think the Anglosphere Foreign Policy Elite and Punditocracy are crazy or evil.

    1. SayWhat?

      And the whether you think the objectives are insane or lies depends on whether you think the Anglosphere Foreign Policy Elite and Punditocracy are crazy or evil.

      You mean it’s either/or?

  4. Tiresias

    “Spend any time with ANA troops and cynics among them will tell you that they are being forced to fight (sometimes with dangerous consequences) with a rifle that jams, purely because their allies want to stop it of being any use to the other side.”

    You may think it cynical. I think limiting the potential damage of a weapon you might well find turned against you is sound common sense.

    Trust has to be earned, and there’s precious little trust being earned by anyone in Afghanistan.

    1. vlade

      It would make sense if AK47 wasn’t a cheap and readily available substitute (and operationally the weapons are not that much different really, especially if you look at the main users of the weapons)

      Given that ANA has trouble getting the oil (forget the ammo) for the guns to work properly, what chances of Taliban sourcing it and distributing?

      It’s like saying that you won’t give ANA US medical insurance so that US hospitals don’t operate on Taliban…

      On a slightly off topic – I remember a WW2 Marine saying how they got M1 rifles replacing their 1903 Springfields. First thing they did was to roll them in mud and sand and try to fire them – which failed. So they kept they 1903 and chucked M1s back.

    2. rkka

      Givng the ANA M-16s isn’t sound common sense. It is stupidity, driven by fear.

      Sound common sense would have been leaving Afghanistan any time in the last decade.

      It is easily seen that what we are doing in Afghanistan, and why we’re doing it, has nothing to do with sound common sense.

      “With homebread hordes the hillsides teem.
      The choppers bring us one by one,
      At vast expense of time and avgas
      to slay Afridis where they run.”

      (With apologies to Rudyard Kipling, who had this figured out more than a century ago.)

    3. diptherio

      We know that the Pakistani ISI is funneling money to the Taliban, it has even been officially acknowledged, yet we still continue the flow of funds. Let’s be honest, we don’t give a shirt about supporting the enemy, or some of our money, or guns, being used against our own troops. It draws out the fighting, which requires DOD to buy more stuff, which is great for our “defense” contractors…which is, of course, where DOD brass go to live when they retire.

      The real reason that we won’t give our Afghan “allies” AK-47s is that they aren’t produced by an American Company. No way are they gonna let a small arms contract go to the Ruskies. When it comes to the US military, quality of supplies has never really been an issue. Just ask an Iraq vet about anything Carlyle Group built over there (met some super pissed-off ones at Occupy). As for cost effectiveness, I seem to recall something about $5,000 toilet seats and no-bid contracts, and the whole Joint-Strike Fighter fiasco…Since when has DOD cared about cost? Come on, peeps…

      We should all read Catch-22 again, so as to better understand our modern military lunacy.

      1. TK421

        That’s what I was thinking, too. That whole “if we make them dependent on us they won’t attack us” plan seems a little too complex for the simpletons who have been running this war.

      2. rob

        first big point,
        Pakistan isi- funded taliban before 9-11.colin powell giving them money,they give it to those blamed for 9-11.funny how colin powell wasn’t dragged off to gitmo.
        years going by…..
        wikileaks proves what reports had already said:that US funds are knowingly going to tribal groups who are aligned with taliban.(i.e.hakani network and others).
        that weekend,hillary clinton makes PR trip to afghanistan giving billions in aid….
        why wasn’t she dragged of to gitmo?
        All the while the kabul bank, set up in 2001, by two families,one of them the karzai family…
        Now shown to be “set up specifically for the purpose of bilking investors”Two clear sets of books…no long term plan to keeep the con going..just a ponzi scheme…
        This is where more of our tax dollars go.
        Don’t forget that the taliban that controled afghanistan, which was paid for by the ISI in pakistan…had eradicated the poppy trade. Afghanistan,long known for good drugs;was effectively taken out of the opium trade.
        But again. american tax dollars at work,now the poppy crop is making big dollars for american and world banks laundering money.oh, and those pesky terrorists,too.Making enough money they can buy whatever guns they want.

        then there is the idea of “eradicating” memebers of a society who are, many times; respected by their peers and neighbors.Many of these radical fundementalist god-fearing men are community leaders, and often generally liked by their neighbors and families.To think people want to go into a society that revolves around their religion,in so many ways;and substitute their culture for one from an invading army.Ironically an army that is from a culture that has well respected religious fundementalist radicals in its leadership,where many of its citizens say they center their entirety of being around their “faith” in god.
        The way to “win” the war in afghanistan is easy. All we have to do is the same thing we did to get rid of those radical fudementalist who call themselves the KKK.and since those often respected church-going community leaders are no longer in existance, and none of their screwed up world view is shared by anybody….winning in afghanistan should be easy…..oh wait, we haven’t gotten rid of the KKK yet?or neo-nazi’s,or have we?

    4. TK421

      “Trust has to be earned”

      Gosh I wonder why we aren’t trusted by the people whose country we invaded, and who we round up and throw in prisons without charge when we aren’t machine-gunning them or blowing them to pieces with sky robots.

  5. skippy

    The ANA is not an army, its a quasi-private security force in training. Its roll will be to secure the extraction sites and logistical routes, used for resource extraction and transport.

    The AR-15 issue is money for american company’s, it talks different (easier to tell friend from foe), massively more accurate (still have to teach individuals how too), lighter (hump stuff in that climate – you’ll want water, ammo, energy bars – not much else – every thing else gets trucked or dropped), #1… its already part of the logistics chain and one trick pony’s – only do one trick.

    Personally.. I’d go with the Ar-15 7.62mm upgrade for up close work – urban and the 5.56 for open terrain – LRP.

    Skippy… Their doing a lot of water testing as of now… ummm… $100K365… 4 weeks in, 4 weeks out. Water testing ROFLOL….

    1. Synopticist

      Hmmm, gun porn.

      The only good argument I know for the continuing criminalisation of drugs is the total lack of gun porn here in the UK.

      Its’ end point can’t be consumed legally, so we’re not exposed to it, so there’s no desire for it. The “forbidden fruit’ thing doesn’t seem to apply.

    2. bob

      This is exactly what Afganistan needs, more AK’s. There aren’t nearly enough there already.

      Best case “open source” scenerio, hundreds of small manufactures making very bad quality, high rate of fire weapons. (check?)

      Although, as sales go up, customers and their families may tend to disappear, so it’s probably not a very long term solution. (bug or feature?)

  6. wunsacon

    >> Why do I get the feeling this will end very badly?

    Why does it have to “end”? Why can’t it “continue very badly”? …

  7. Max424

    Come and get it, my ANA brothers! We’ve got oodles of –relatively cheap and readily available– ammunition over here!

    Take a look at two of our most recent, volume shooters. James Eagan Holmes was a rat-tat-tattin’ away in a Colorado movie theater with an M-16 variant, the Smith and Wesson M&P 15, and guess what, his weapon had a drum magazine that contained one hundred of the same type bullets you’re looking for!

    Yes, it’s true, the clunky drum jammed on Jim almost immediately, which precipitated the unfortunate switch to the pea shootin’ Glock. However, one gets the sense that the jam occurred because our weapon’s manager didn’t know how to properly insert and release those X-tra big mags. Jim E. was apparently, if we go by the data we’ve collected so far, a Fish & Game illiterate ignoramus.

    In the end, the amateur Mr. Holmes acquired and hit a stunningly low 70 targets (with just 12 paltry kill shots), despite the fact there were 250 potentials, ranged 30 meters or less, and all of them, for the most part, as immobile as sleeping sheep.

    (Imagine though, my Taliban hunting friends, what even an ineffectual firearm operant like Jim could have achieved, if he had been able to change out of four or five of those 100 round magazines! Wowzer!)

    Our other guy, Adam (No-Middle-Name) Lanza, was also acquiring targets with an M-16 variant, the .223 Bushmaster AR-15. And guess what, my ANA brothers, the .223 round is basically the same one you’re looking for!

    That’s right, the .233 and 5.56 NATO bullet are almost identical –essentially, interchangeable. They’re both based on the old rim fire .22 round, the one we use over here to kill rabbits and squirrels and rodents and such.

    And that’s one of your quibbles, if I’m not mistaken? Stopping power? The NATO slug is light and doesn’t penetrate like the heavier 7.62. It’s a small game bullet?

    A fair complaint, my fellow allies in the War Against Terror, but consider, at longer ranges, our projectile is more accurate, and up close, our round creates the more exceptional wound pattern –our light bullet fragments more eagerly when it impacts bone, and to remedy an old problem, we’ve programed the newer ones to tumble (even better than your seven-six-two) the moment they contact living tissue.

    What did Adam use, the two-two-three or the NATO five-five-six? It doesn’t matter, in essence they’re the same, and his weapon fired either/or. The main thing is, the round your looking for, is one we have plenty of, and more importantly, it was up to the task the other day, as affirmed by Adam’s outstanding killed to wounded ratio.*

    All 27 targets that Mr. Lanza honed in on visually and hit, he put down, and he had so much M-16 type ammunition –and the ability to competently change out M-16 type magazines (it’s not that hard, my brothers)– he could engage the wounded/prostrate targets and finish them off with as many as 11 coup de grâce shots!

    *One wounded. A lucky woman. Shot twice through a door. Our round penetrates better than you think.

    1. Jim Haygood

      ‘Adam (No-Middle-Name) Lanza, was also acquiring targets with an M-16 variant, the .223 Bushmaster AR-15 … the .223 and 5.56mm NATO bullet are … both based on the old rim fire .22 round, the one we use over here to kill rabbits and squirrels and rodents and such.’

      Here we pause to quote CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who during a live broadcast from Connecticut on Saturday morning called the Bushmaster a ‘high caliber rifle.’

      Like most journos, Blitzer knows almost nothing about weapons … except that they’re B-A-A-A-A-A-D-D-D-D!!!

    2. TK421

      Haven’t you heard? Guns don’t kill people, people do, and how dare you imply otherwise! So the Taliban doesn’t need firearms, and would be just as effective with swords or pikes. The same goes for any other fighting force, I’m sure.

  8. from Mexico

    I think these ANA soldiers are not so stupid as to have failed to figure out what their true role is: proxies for US/NATO imperial ambitions in the region.

    I give the ANA 30 days after the US/NATO troops are withdrawn.

    1. from Mexico

      There’s probably only one thing the Afghan people hate worse than the Taliban, and that’s the US/NATO occupiers.

    2. Paul Tioxon

      Can you tell me the, of course IMHO, if the withdrawal from Afghanistan of the US military will cause conflict between the Mexican heroin cartels and the Afghan heroin cartels?

      1. SayWhat?

        Good point! Might call for a playoff round, to be played at a neutral site of course (my vote’s for Arizona, although anywhere in the American southwest would be happy for the tourist revenues I’m sure). The smart money’s on the Mexicans at this point. Them’s some muy loca son-of-a-guns, and they’re armed and funded much better to boot.

      2. from Mexico

        Heroin is not the Mexican cartels’ strong suit. Almost all of their revenues are derived from marijuana.

        However, I would think that the US withdrawl from Afganistan would make that country less of a competitive threat to the Mexican cartels. Here’s how Peter Dale Scott explains it in a recent piece he did for Global Research:

        By launching a War on Terror in Afghanistan in 2001, America has contributed to a doubling of opium production there, making Afghanistan now the source of 90 percent of the world’s heroin and most of the world’s hashish.2

        Americans should be aware of the overall pattern that drug production repeatedly rises where America intervenes militarily – Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 60s, Colombia and Afghanistan since then. (Opium cultivation also increased in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion.)3 And the opposite is also true: where America ceases to intervene militarily, notably in Southeast Asia since the 1970s, drug production declines.4

      3. from Mexico

        I think most people in Mexico are cognizant of something else Scott says, and that is that America’s two “self-generating wars” on “terror” and “drugs” have “in effect become one.”

        After Osama bin Laden’s death, Janet Napolitano even held a press conference to announce that Joaquin ‘Chapo’ Guzman had been elevated to the world’s most wanted man, hinting that he would meet a similar fate:

        Some Mexicans take a great deal of pride in this, Guzman now having achieved folk hero status, as this video illustrates:

        Despite all the bluster, however, few in Mexico expect a bona fide attempt to stem the drug trade. It’s becoming fairly clear, after all, that the major financial powerhouses in Europe and the US (can you say Bank of America, Barclays, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, HSBC, ING and Wachovia) are reaping the lions’ share of profits derived from the grim trade, now a veritable Narco-Industrial Complex. And I think everybody knows that the banks own the US government, lock, stock and barrel.

        1. TrueDat

          Despite all the bluster, however, few in Mexico expect a bona fide attempt to stem the drug trade.

          Nor would I, nor would I. Truth to power, from Mexico, it’ll get you killed these days. But then again, what on earth are we alive for in the first place!

        2. Nathanael

          The megabanks only own the federal government.

          Buying all 50 state governments is, shall we say, more expensive. And the megabanks are greedy.

          Therefore I expect a systematic dismantling of the drug laws on a state level.

          1. DANNYBOY


            I beg to differ. I hail from the Great State of New York, and state government here is nicely owned, as you say, “lock, stock, and barrel”.

            oops, did i just disclose my location.

            Hope no one’s reading this.

          2. different clue


            Just because you hailed from New York State at one point does not necessarily mean you are there now, does it? So you have not necessarily disclosed your present location, have you?

            No yes or no answer needed, “maybe or maybe not” is surely good enough.

      4. Synopticist

        I’m pretty sure that not a lot of Afghan heroin ends up in the states, it mostly goes to Europe.

        Apparently, it’s getting harder and harder to get drugs across the atlantic. The prices for coke in Europe these days are fuc*ing absurd. loads of people don’t bother any longer. Heroin prices haven’t have barelly shifted though, by all accounts.

      5. LucyLulu

        “Can you tell me the, of course IMHO, if the withdrawal from Afghanistan of the US military will cause conflict between the Mexican heroin cartels and the Afghan heroin cartels?”

        Supply will create demand, right?

        The largest market is in the US and it isn’t for heroin or cocaine. It’s for prescription drugs. We like giving our business to bigPharma here.

  9. S Brennan

    If we want to talk about idiocy in the Af-PAK war, let’s talk about Obama spooling up troop numbers from ~18,000 to ~138,000…apparently, liberals don’t mind stupid wars if Obama is der leader.

    Withdraw troops, take Pakistan off the US Government teat…and very carefully explain that annihilation of Pakistan is on the table…if ISI continues to aid in Nuclear proliferation and terrorism as it has…and is currently doing.

  10. SqueakyRat

    The M-16 had a terrible reputation for jamming in Vietnam. It was based on the AR-15, which was very reliable, but the Army insisted on modifying it to fire .30 instead of .22 caliber ammunition. It didn’t work, but they forced it on hundreds of thousands of soldiers anyway, just because they felt like it. James Fallows wrote a good account of the bureaucratic turf wars involved in that decision (National Defense, Chap. 4).

  11. Beppo

    AK pattern rifles sell for 1000 dollars in Afghanistan. Removing that huge monetary incentive to steal rifles and ammunition is a pretty reasonable thing.

    The m4 platform has been refined for 40 years, and it works fine when maintained, like any rifle. People have this idea that AKs are unstoppable and you can not clean or lubricate them and they’ll run just fine, but this isn’t really the case. They have very loose tolerances and this makes them hardier, but if you’re regularly using your weapon and not cleaning/lubricating it, it will stop working very soon. All of those rusted out 50 year old AKs that somali pirates have are clean and lubricated on the inside. The same goes for the weapons of the taliban.

    It could also be argued that issuing m4s to ANA troops is part of professionalizing the force. This is not the rifle that any farmer in Afghan has hanging on his wall. This is a soldier’s tool, you are a soldier, you’re not a militia man, you’re not a guerilla, you are a soldier. That’s one of the concepts that they’ve had a hard time instilling in ANA troops. (For good reason, but that’s a longer explanation) And if there is to be a non ISI/Taliban Afghanistan in the future, having a core of professional soldiers for the chaos that will come with American withdrawal is very important, even if they do have to switch back to AK pattern rifles.

    1. LucyLulu

      Thanks for the explanation of the M4. When Rep. Gohmert (R Tx) suggested that the teachers in Newtown should have had M4’s, I had no idea what type of weapon it was. Having all our teachers armed with machine guns evokes quite a different picture than traditional American education as we know it.

      And these people are given guns? Lord help us all.

  12. Nathanael

    This is funny. Why hasn’t the US switched to an AK-47 knockoff yet? The AK-47 is a better military machine gun than anything used in the US military EVER. How can we tell? Guerrilla armies keep beating the US using ’em.

    I suppose the stupid US policy is because the US military is operated for the benefit of military contractors, not for the purpose of winning wars. Only plausible explanation.

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