Arms Sent by US May Be Falling Into Taliban Hands
KABUL - Insurgents in Afghanistan,
fighting from some of the poorest and most remote regions on earth,
have managed for years to maintain an intensive guerrilla war against
materially superior American and Afghan forces.
Arms and ordnance collected from dead insurgents hint at one
possible reason: Of 30 rifle magazines recently taken from insurgents'
corpses, at least 17 contained cartridges, or rounds, identical to
ammunition the United States had provided to Afghan government forces,
according to an examination of ammunition markings by The New York
Times and interviews with American officers and arms dealers.
The presence of this ammunition among the dead in the Korangal
Valley, an area of often fierce fighting near Afghanistan's border with
Pakistan, strongly suggests that munitions procured by the Pentagon
have leaked from Afghan forces for use against American troops.
The scope of that diversion remains unknown, and the 30 magazines
represented a single sampling of fewer than 1,000 cartridges. But
military officials, arms analysts and dealers say it points to a
worrisome possibility: With only spotty American and Afghan controls on
the vast inventory of weapons and ammunition sent into Afghanistan
during an eight-year conflict, poor discipline and outright corruption
among Afghan forces may have helped insurgents stay supplied.
The United States has been criticized, as recently as February by the federal Government Accountability Office,
for failing to account for thousands of rifles issued to Afghan
security forces. Some of these weapons have been documented in
insurgents' hands, including weapons in a battle last year in which nine Americans died.
In response, the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan,
the American-led unit tasked with training and supplying Afghan forces,
said it had made accountability of all Afghan police and military
property a top priority, and taken steps to locate and log rifles
issued even years ago. The Pentagon has created a database of small
arms issued to Afghan units.
No similarly thorough accountability system exists for ammunition,
which is harder to trace and more liquid than firearms, readily
changing hands through corruption, illegal sales, theft, battlefield
loss and other forms of diversion.
American forces do not examine all captured arms and munitions to
trace how insurgents obtained them, or to determine whether the Afghan
government, directly or indirectly, is a significant Taliban supplier, military officers said.
The reasons include limited resources and institutional memory of
issued arms, as well as an absence of collaboration between field units
that collect equipment and the investigators and supervisors in Kabul
who could trace it.
In this case, the rifle magazines were captured last month by a
platoon in Company B, First Battalion, 26th Infantry, which killed at
least 13 insurgents in a nighttime ambush in eastern Afghanistan.
The soldiers searched the insurgents' remains and collected 10 rifles,
a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher, 30 magazines and other equipment.
Access to Taliban equipment is unusual. But after the ambush, the company allowed the items to be examined by this reporter.
Photographs were taken of the weapons' serial numbers and markings
on the bottoms of the cartridge casings, known as headstamps, which can reveal where and when ammunition was manufactured.
The headstamps were then compared with ammunition in government
circulation, and with this reporter's records of ammunition sampled in
Afghan magazines and bunkers in multiple provinces in recent years.
The type of ammunition in question, 7.62x39 millimeter, colloquially
known as "7.62 short," is one of the world's most abundant classes of
military small-arms cartridges, and can come from dozens of potential
It is used in Kalashnikov rifles and their knockoffs, and has been
made in many countries, including Russia, China, Ukraine, North Korea,
Cuba, India, Pakistan, the United States, the former Warsaw Pact
nations and several countries in Africa. Several countries have
multiple factories, each associated with distinct markings.
The examination of the Taliban's cartridges found telling signs of
diversion: 17 of the magazines contained ammunition bearing either of
two stamps: the word "WOLF" in uppercase letters, or the lowercase
"WOLF" stamps mark ammunition from Wolf Performance Ammunition,
a company in California that sells Russian-made cartridges to American
gun owners. The company has also provided cartridges for Afghan
soldiers and police officers, typically through middlemen. Its
munitions can be found in Afghan government bunkers.
The "bxn" marking was formerly used at a Czech factory during the
cold war. Since 2004, the Czech government has donated surplus
ammunition and equipment to Afghanistan. A.E.Y. Inc., a former Pentagon
supplier, also shipped surplus Czech ammunition to Afghanistan,
according to the United States Army, including cartridges bearing "bxn" stamps.
Most of the Wolf and Czech ammunition in the Taliban magazines was
in good condition and showed little weathering, denting, corrosion or
soiling, suggesting it had been removed from packaging recently.
There is no evidence that Wolf, the Czech government or A.E.Y. knowingly shipped ammunition to Afghan insurgents. A.E.Y. was banned last year from doing business with the Pentagon, but its legal troubles stemmed from unrelated allegations of fraud.
Given the number of potential sources, the probability that the
Taliban and the Pentagon were sharing identical supply sources was
Rather, the concentration of Taliban ammunition identical in
markings and condition to that used by Afghan units indicated that the
munitions had most likely slipped from state custody, said James Bevan,
a researcher specializing in ammunition for the Small Arms Survey, an independent research group in Geneva.
Mr. Bevan, who has documented ammunition diversion in Kenya, Uganda
and Sudan, said one likely explanation was that interpreters, soldiers
or police officers had sold ammunition for profit or passed it along
for other reasons, including support for the insurgency. "Same story,
different location," he said.
The majority of cartridges in the remaining 13 Taliban magazines
bore headstamps indicating they were made in Russia in the Soviet
period. Several rounds had Chinese stamps and dates indicating
manufacture in the 1960s and '70s. A smaller number were Hungarian.
Much of this other ammunition was in poor condition.
Hungarian and Chinese ammunition had also been provided to the
Afghan government by A.E.Y., making it possible that several of the
remaining magazines included American-procured rounds.
The American military did not dispute the possibility that theft or
corruption could have steered Wolf and Czech ammunition to insurgents.
Capt. James C. Howell, who commands the company that captured the
ammunition, said illicit diversion would be consistent with an enduring
reputation of corruption in Afghan units, especially the police. "It's
not surprising," he said.
But he added that in his experience this form of corruption was not
the norm. Rather than deliberate diversion, he said, the more likely
causes would be poor discipline and oversight in the Afghan national
security forces, or A.N.S.F. "I think most A.N.S.F. don't want their
own stuff coming back at them," he said.
Captured Taliban rifles provide a glimpse at arms diversion as well.
After the battle in the eastern village of Wanat last year, in which
9 Americans died and more than 20 were wounded, investigators found a
large cache of AMD-65 assault rifles in the village's police post,
which was implicated in the attack, according to American officers. In
all, the post had more than 70 assault rifles, but only 20 officers on
its roster. Three AMD-65s were recovered near the battle as well.
The AMD-65, a distinctive Hungarian rifle, was rarely seen in
Afghanistan until the United States issued it by the thousands to the
Afghan police. They can now be found in Pakistani arms bazaars.
In the American ambush last month, all of the 10 captured rifles had
factory stamps from China or Izhevsk, Russia. Those with date stamps
had been manufactured in the 1960s and '70s.
Photographs of the weapons and serial numbers were provided to Brig.
Gen. Anthony R. Ierardi, the deputy commander of the transition
command. Upon checking the Pentagon's new database, the general said
one of the Chinese rifles had been issued to an Afghan auxiliary police
officer in 2007. How Taliban insurgents had acquired the rifle was not
The auxiliary police, which augmented the Afghan Interior Ministry,
were riddled with corruption and incompetence. They were disbanded last
Speaking about the captured Taliban ammunition, General Ierardi
cautioned that the range of headstamps could indicate that insurgent
use of American-procured munitions was not widespread. He noted that
the captured ammunition sampling was small and that munitions might
have leaked through less nefarious means.
"The mixed ammo could suggest battlefield losses; it could suggest
captured ammo," he said. He added, however, that he did not want to
appear defensive and that accountability of Afghan arms and munitions
was of "highest priority."
"The emphasis from our perspective is on accountability of all
logistics property," he said. Leakage of Pentagon-supplied armaments to
insurgents is an "absolutely worst-case scenario," he said, adding, "We
want to guard against the exact scenario you laid out."