The Guns of Kabul

The Guns of Kabul

Unless the number of arms is reduced dramatically, peace is unlikely to hold.


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.

American policy in Afghanistan was focused exclusively on the Soviet Union. However, Pakistan–which was in charge of distributing the weapons to the mujahedeen–cared less about Communism than about using the conflict in Afghanistan to strengthen its position vis-à-vis India. It wanted to see a strong Islamic state emerge in Afghanistan and therefore insured that the majority of covert aid supplied through the CIA pipeline went to the most radical rebel groups. The Pakistanis also handled military training and political indoctrination for the rebels. These included large numbers who came from the Middle East, among them the wealthy Saudi Osama bin Laden.

In February of 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev announced the final pullout of Russian troops from Afghanistan, but the Soviets left behind a Communist regime headed by Muhammad Najibullah. Reagan Administration Secretary of State George Shultz proposed that the United States and the Soviets halt all further arms shipments into Afghanistan, a policy he labeled "negative symmetry." Moscow, however, insisted on its right to arm Najibullah and carried out a massive airlift of equipment to its ally. The United States followed suit, and a new spiral of warfare got under way.

Within three years, the various mujahedeen factions evicted Najibullah from power. Unfortunately, they almost immediately turned on each other. Armed with stocks captured from the Najibullah government and the vast arsenals acquired from the CIA, the factions–most which now belong to the Northern Alliance–reduced one-third of Kabul to rubble by 1994 in fighting that left 25,000 dead. Outside Kabul, the country was carved up among the various factions, with many mujahedeen commanders establishing themselves as warlords. "Even before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan had a Wild West atmosphere," says Sumit Ganguly, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Texas. "Infusing a society like that with sophisticated weaponry increased the level of lethal violence and helped produce a complete collapse of order."

Disgust with the Northern Alliance paved the way for the rise of the Taliban, which took effective control of the country in 1996. Fighting continued, though, and once again the various warring parties had no trouble getting weapons. The Taliban now inherited the huge cold-war-era stocks–including hundreds of Russian tanks and about seventy-five fighter planes–and supplemented their supplies with the help of Pakistani middlemen buying small arms in Hong Kong and Dubai. They also tapped armories in the former Eastern bloc states, where corrupt military officers and factory managers have created a thriving black market. Before his assassination in a September 9 suicide bomb attack by two Arabs posing as journalists, Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud charged that the Taliban had received tanks, automatic rifles, mines and bombs from Ukraine. (To pay for the weapons, the Taliban used tens of millions of dollars they raised annually from a tax imposed on drug sales. The Northern Alliance also profited from the drug trade.)

The United States walked away from Afghanistan once it achieved its objective of toppling the Communist government there, but Pakistan saw the Taliban as a useful tool and became their most important ally. A Human Rights Watch report from this past July says that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate played a key role in "bankrolling Taliban operations…arranging training for Taliban fighters…planning and directing offensives, providing and facilitating shipments of ammunition and fuel, and on several occasions apparently directly providing combat support." The Saudis also supported the Taliban, whom they saw as a means of increasing their influence in South Asia and countering the influence of Iran, which supported several Shiite factions in the Northern Alliance.

Meanwhile, the Northern Alliance had its own network of outside sponsors. Iran–which opposed the spread of the Taliban's ideology to other areas of the Muslim world as well as greater Saudi influence in the region–was its most important supplier of military hardware. Fearing the spread of Islamic radicalism to the former Soviet republics, Russia also provided substantial direct support to the Northern Alliance and served as the chief conduit for Iranian aid. India, hoping to check Pakistan's moves, offered additional support to anti-Taliban forces, though it played a less important role than Teheran and Moscow.

The end result was that a flood of small arms continued to pour into Afghanistan. Alexander Thier, an officer-in-charge for the United Nations humanitarian office in Afghanistan during the mid-1990s, says that weapons have become so pervasive that they've come to play an important economic role in the country. "Other than drugs or basic foodstuffs, arms and ammunition are about the only items that can be sold or traded," he says. "The only way for young men to get a job is to pick up a gun and join one of the factions." Indeed, Afghanistan is so saturated with arms that it has become what Tara Kartha, an arms specialist at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, describes as a "weapons warehouse." Arms from Afghanistan have been traced to the guerrilla groups in Chechnya, Uzbekistan and the Philippines. "Weapons are flowing both into and out of Afghanistan," says Michael Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College. "If one of the factions is short on cash, it will sell part of its stocks to buyers outside the country."

One of the scarier legacies of the cold war era is the US-supplied Stinger missiles, which the mujahedeen used to great effect against Soviet helicopter gunships. Hundreds were left behind in Afghanistan, and they became something of a cult item on the international black market. In recent years, they have turned up in the United Arab Emirates, Somalia, Iraq, Qatar, Zambia and North Korea, among other places. They are also believed to be in the arsenals of antigovernment guerrillas in Turkey and Sri Lanka, as well as those of Hezbollah in Lebanon. The CIA was so worried about the proliferation of Stingers that in the mid-1990s it allocated $55 million to try to buy them back on the black market. Despite offering up to $200,000 each–about six times the original price–the program has met with virtually no success.

Though the various Afghan parties meeting in Bonn reached an agreement on December 4, it's hard to be optimistic about what comes next in Afghanistan, given the number of armed parties now competing for power. Mohammed Ayoob, a professor of international relations at Michigan State University, describes the Afghan warlords as "entrepreneurs" who gain political and economic benefits from continued fighting. Those benefits include their control of the drug trade, their ability to run extortion rackets that force civilians to pay for protection and the subsidies they receive from foreign states. "The warlords don't want to see the fighting end," he says.

Patching together a settlement among the foreign nations that have been arming the Afghan fighters may be as complicated as negotiating an internal settlement among the warlords. Pakistan is determined that the Pashtuns win a large role in the post-Taliban government. Russia and Iran are equally determined to prevent such an outcome, though they are split in regard to which factions they want to see in control of the government.

Much of what happens now will depend on the role played by the United States. Among other things, it must take the lead in halting shipments of arms and pressure other parties to do the same. American officials have suggested that only those groups that agree to disarm will be eligible to receive US aid, but there's a big loophole: The factions will be allowed to keep the majority of their small arms–the cause of most of the death and destruction since 1979.

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