Even as the main fighting in Afghanistan appears to be winding down, a two-decade-long flow of weapons into the country is picking up steam. Starting in October the United States began dropping arms to the so-called Northern Alliance by air, and in recent days the CIA has been funneling assault rifles and other small arms to anti-Taliban fighters who besieged Kandahar. In Congress, a move is afoot to provide direct military assistance to anti-Taliban forces. The European Union recently ended a ban on weapons sales to the Northern Alliance, which is already receiving, at American urging, tanks, armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles from Russia.
Meanwhile, despite being barred from importing weapons by a United Nations embargo, the Taliban were busily rearming their forces until shortly before US planes began bombing Afghanistan on October 7. Its chief suppliers were black-market brokers based in Eastern Europe and private suppliers in Pakistan, who had been shipping the Taliban substantial quantities of assault rifles, rocket launchers and machine guns.
These new shipments come on top of an estimated $8 billion worth of arms that foreign sources have pumped into Afghanistan since the Soviet Union sent troops there in 1979 to prop up a client regime, thereby escalating fighting that has continued uninterrupted to the present day. The CIA, which armed the mujahedeen rebels who ultimately forced the withdrawal of the Red Army, supplied much of that weaponry, but at every new stage of warfare a variety of nations have helped refill the arsenals of the competing Afghan factions. During the course of the fighting, 1.5 million Afghans have been killed, a huge chunk of the population has been displaced and the country's economy has been completely destroyed.
Today, Afghanistan is a country divided among heavily armed ethnic factions, and political expression is largely exercised through the barrel of a gun. It is also a place where the laws of supply and demand, combined with corruption and porous borders, have made weapons so easily available that assault rifles can be had for as little as $50. "If I send a truck full of weapons to the [Afghan-Pakistani] border and have $1,000 to hand out, my truck will get through," says an arms dealer with long experience in South Asia. "Osama bin Laden and his friends can do the same thing" (or could have, until a short time ago).
All of this means that establishing anything approaching normal government in post-Taliban Afghanistan is going to be immensely difficult. "There's no chance of a lasting peace unless there's an international presence there that collects most of the arms that are in circulation," says Daniel Nelson, a former Pentagon official and adviser to Congressional leaders. "Every faction in a future government is going to be armed to the teeth and prepared to go back to the mountains if it doesn't get what it wants."
At the time of the Soviet move into Afghanistan in 1979, the cold war was still going strong. The Carter Administration immediately stepped up what had been a modest program of covert military support for rebels who opposed the pro-Soviet regime. At that time, modern weaponry was not readily available in Afghanistan. John Miley, a retired military officer who helped supply the CIA with arms for the rebels, recalls that when he began procuring matériel, the "weapon of choice" for the typical mujahedeen fighter was the Lee Enfield .303, a World War I vintage bolt-action rifle.
That soon changed, particularly after Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 and increased the scope of covert aid. With the help of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the CIA set up an elaborate arms pipeline to support the rebels. Among the arms supplied by the agency were some 400,000 Russian assault rifles, Italian antipersonnel mines, Swiss antiaircraft guns, Egyptian mortars, British missiles, Chinese rockets, Indian rifles, Turkish ammunition and American antiaircraft missiles. The CIA even airlifted in pack mules from Tennessee to help transport the arms to the mujahedeen over the mountainous terrain. It's estimated that half of all the weapons now floating around Afghanistan were originally sent by the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war era.