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Weapons are cheap and plentiful in Afghanistan

December 7, 2001

By Drew Brown
Knight Ridder Newspapers

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Dec. 7) – Almost nothing works in Afghanistan.

Electricity, unless by gasoline generator, is a fantasy in most of the country. Plumbing consists mainly of open ditches, which are sometimes used for washing, sometimes used for sewers, most of the time for both.

Toilets, even in the rare places where they exist, usually don’t flush. The roads are among the worst in the world.

But if there is one thing that works fine in Afghanistan, it’s the weapons. Spend a couple of weeks here, and there’s no telling what you’ll run across in terms of ordnance. The entire country, it seems, is an arms merchant’s dream market.

Driving across the northern part of Afghanistan is like driving through a Soviet version of the 1981 (please check date) movie “The Road Warrior.”

The stark, apocalyptic landscape seems almost biblical at times. Villages made of one-story mud houses dot the landscape like scenes imagined from the Old Testament.  Sometimes, you wonder why Mullah Omar and his Taliban gang went through so much trouble to recreate the time of the Prophet Muhammed. It’s already here.

But outside of nearly every village and major town from here to the Tajik border crossing near Dash-te-Qa’lah, there are generally a few, if not scores of blown-up tanks and armored personnel carriers left over from the Soviet invasion 23 years ago. They are perched on lonely mountaintops like forgotten sentinels or parked among the rocks on some distant desert plain as if their crews just left them there and decided to hitch a ride back to mother Russia. Which is exactly what happened in most cases when the Soviets pulled out in humiliation a little more than a decade ago, if you believe the stories that some of the Russian journalists here and the Northern Alliance soldiers tell.

“When the Russians left Afghanistan, they left all of these weapons here,” said Commander Mubaraz, 35,  a veteran mujahed who claimed to have earned his name, which means “fighter” in Dari, during the anti-Soviet guerilla war. “Some of these we captured ourselves. “Others we got during the war with the Taliban, during jihad.”

The fact that some of the weapons still work is nothing short of amazing. The rifles, tanks, artillery and other weapons used by the Northern Alliance are like a living museum of the past 50 years of Soviet and Russian arms production.

The backbone of the Northern Alliance armored units are T-55 and T-62 Soviet-era tanks, both of which rolled off the production line nearly a half-century ago. BMP and BTR armored personnel carriers look as if they just rolled out of central casting from the Prague Spring of 1968 or some Cold War stand-off in Berlin.

Weapons in Afghanistan are the currency of power. During the battle of Kunduz two weeks ago, truck-mounted 20mm anti-aircraft guns were in hot demand among discriminating commanders at the front. Though plenty of them were parked on the streets of nearby Taloqan, they became a prized piece of war booty as the Taliban fighters surrendered with more than a couple of dozen of them over the course of a week. Two different groups of fighters within the army of Northern Alliance Gen. Mohammed Daoud almost shot it out because their commanders wanted to claim one that had just been handed over by surrendered Taliban forces. The fighters scattered to both sides of the road, searching for cover as journalists suddenly worried if they were on the wrong side of the front line.

Russian-made Katyusha rockets are in such ample supply that Northern Alliance fighters used them as makeshift explosives after the Taliban uprising at Qala-i-jangy last week. They stuffed them into holes and set them off with detonating cord in an attempt to flush hidden Taliban fighters out of an underground bunker. Explosions shook the ground all day, but in the end, not a single Taliban fighter emerged. Eighty-six of them eventually surfaced and surrendered two days later, but only after the Northern Alliance fighters above ground pumped the bunker full of freezing cold water.

Piles of spent casings and often live ammunition litter the ground like dung piles near scenes of recent fighting. Unexploded mortar rounds lay scattered around the 19th century fortress grounds like deadly mushrooms. The mud-walled citadel was the scene of a fierce three-day battle between 600 foreign Taliban and Northern Alliance soldiers. A quick tour through the grounds is enough to make one realize how the Taliban were able to hold out against withering U.S. air strikes and superior Northern Alliance forces. The prisoners were kept in an area close to the weapons storerooms. Once inside, they had enough firepower and ammo to hold off almost any counterattack imaginable.

The storerooms held a vast cornucopia of weapons and ammunition. Quad-mounted 20mm anti-aircraft guns known as ZUs. AK-47s, PK machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades. Hundreds of boxes of dozens of kinds of ammunition — 20mm anti-aircraft guns, 60 and 80mm mortar rounds, 155mm artillery rounds, belt links of machine gun rounds, World War II-vintage Mauser ammunition, empty boxes of American-made AK-47 rounds, even an American-made Stinger missile, capable of taking down an aircraft from two miles away, rusting and stripped of its batteries and sights.

Most fighters carry the venerable Ak-47 Kalashnikov rifle or 7.62 mm PK machine gun, generally a rocket-propelled grenade or two. The Datsun and Toyota pickups the Northern Alliance soldiers use as their primary mode of transport are usually festooned with a couple of bouquets of RPG rounds sticking up next to the cab, as the trucks speed through the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif and other cities.

These little pickups have earned a formidable reputation for themselves among the fighters for their reliability and durability, but in a country where armies still use calvary, sometimes pickups can only go so far.

“The Datsun is more effective than the tank,” said Gen. Haji Mohammed Muhkaqiq, leader of the Hazara faction in northern Afghanistan, said recently. “But the horse is more effective than the Datsun.”

Most fighters have captured their weapons in battle or they are issued one by their commanders, according to Mubaraz, the veteran mujaheddin commander. But weapons are also readily available on the black market as well. A Kalashnikov sells for about $75 at the current exchange rate. An RPG sells for about twice that. A PK machine gun goes for three times as much.

Most of the weapons the soldiers carry are older than the soldiers themselves. It is not uncommon to find 15-year-old fighters with 30-year-old Kalashnikovs. Abdul Aziz Mujahed, a Northern Alliance fighter at Qala-i-jangy carried a Soviet-made SKS semi-automatic rifle stamped with a production date of 1955.

He claimed to have killed a number of Taliban with it.

Sometimes, the oddest things appear. At the Bangi front, outside of Kunduz, a group of soldiers tooled around the frontlines in a camouflage jeep with an American-made Korean War-era 90mm recoilless rifle mounted on the back. Ammunition was probably difficult to find. But at least they looked cool.

For some inexplicable reason, a weapons storeroom at Qala-i-jangy held an enormous pile of World War II-era Soviet submachine guns. None of them had probably worked in years. The bolts were frozen shut with rust on each.

One Northern Alliance fighter at Bangi carried a single-shot, bolt-action .22 caliber hunting rifle, slung over his shoulder with a piece of braided string. The fighter looked barely old enough to shave, obviously a recent arrival at the front.

A quick trip to the front is enough to illustrate that most of the fighters, at least on the Northern Alliance side, do not spend a lot of time on target practice.

A flock of geese flew over one morning a few weeks ago at the Bangi front. Gunfire erupted all along the front line as the birds winged by overhead. Not a single one fell.

For better or for worse, some fighters say they don’t need the practice. After so many years of war, learning how to use a weapon in Afghanistan is a skill that you acquire at an early age.

“There is no one in Afghanistan who doesn’t know how to use this weapon,” said 30-year-old Mohammed Anwer, gesturing at an AK-47 nearly as old as himself.

Anwer stood guard outside the foreign affairs ministry in Mazar-e-Sharif one a recent afternoon. A boy about six-years-old stood nearby, watching the exchange.

“Even if I were to give it to this child,” he said. “He would know how to use it.”

(c) 2001, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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