Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Arms Cascade and the Guns of Marja

C. J. Chivers uses the experience of soldiers in their assault on Marja, Afghanistan in 2010 as the basis for an examination of the worldwide arms market. His article, Small Arms, Big Problems: The Fallout of the Global Gun Trade, appeared in the January/February 2011 edition of Foreign Affairs.

“As the marines fought through ambushes and searched Afghan homes, they began to capture -- rifle by rifle and cartridge by cartridge -- some of the weapons used by their adversaries. These arms caches told something essential to understanding how many modern wars are fought and how relatively low-tech, low-budget irregular forces remain viable and effective. The rifles and machine guns seized by U.S. forces fit into two main categories: older bolt-action infantry arms (dominated by the Lee-Enfield line, of British provenance, and, to a lesser extent, Soviet Mosin-Nagants, manufactured before the Cold War) and newer, but still dated, automatic rifles. The automatics were the Kalashnikov assault rifle and its cousin, the Kalashnikov medium machine gun, or PKM.”
What was unique about these weapons caches were the age and durability of the weapons, and the variety of sources from which they could have been obtained.
“An infantry rifle can survive many decades in the field. They can survive so long, in fact, that no one knows how long they take to die, if only because many of the original items are still being used by guerillas. And they show no sign of breaking down. One of the Lee-Enfields captured by the marines in Marja bore a date stamp from 1915. This was a rifle that was manufactured as Kitchener's Army was massing for service on the western front, using ammunition made for service against the Third Reich, and now firing on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.”

“Lee-Enfields became widely available to guerrillas after World War I, when militaries contracted from their wartime size, and then again midway through the Cold War, as Western militaries began using assault rifles instead of bolt-action rifles. Kalashnikovs are a more recent example of the cascade, although they have now been around long enough that rifles from more than one generation of production are found side by side on the battlefield. Some of the date stamps on the assault rifles recovered from the Taliban have shown them to have been made in the 1950s and early 1960s -- a generation of the Kalashnikov line that the Soviet army replaced in the mid-1970s with a new variant that fired a smaller, faster round. The early models continued to be manufactured for stockpile and sale throughout the Cold War years, and these weapons -- many of which were effectively surplus from the moment of their birth -- had also found their way to the Taliban (some of the Taliban's weapons in Marja bore date stamps from the 1970s).”
Weapons become available for sale and distribution through a process that the author describes as the “arms cascade.” Nations that maintain an army are required to provide enough arms and ammunition to allow that army to fight a protracted war. That is the purpose of armies. This requires the stockpiling of enormous quantities of munitions. If the size or ambitions of the country and its army are scaled back, or if a new generation of weapons is to replace the old, suddenly there is a large excess of weapons that no longer have a use. This massive rearming takes place from time to time. The best example is the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and the incorporation of a number of states into NATO.
“The world's conventional militaries have upgraded their small arms several times in the past century. If there is any lesson about these cycles of replacement, it is this: as one class of weapon unseats another, displacing it from government arsenals, or as excess guns are deemed unnecessary for national security, the supposedly retired weapons often do not retire at all. They are recycled -- sold off or given to new owners -- and find new uses outside of state hands.”
Sometimes the weapons are distributed by well-intentioned governments to allies, but the net effect is to lose control over them. Often the profit motive is too great and arms dealers purchase them for resale. Chivers describes the vz.58 assault rifle which was made only in one factory in what was then Czechoslovakia. After the cold war the country was split in two and military needs were greatly reduced.
“The vz. 58s that filled armories quickly became surplus. A cascade began. How many rifles ultimately made their way out of state hands is not known. But this much is clear: they moved quickly. As a relatively unknown rifle with little reputation as a combat weapon, the vz. 58 entered the market at remarkably low prices. Some arms dealers say these rifles have been sold in bulk from Prague for less than $25 each; there are credible indications that when these guns are purchased in very large quantities -- 10,000 or more at a time -- they are sold for less than $15 apiece. Before long, the vz. 58 was turning up in African conflicts -- it was a staple of fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire) in the 1990s and is sometimes seen being carried by child soldiers there and elsewhere throughout Africa.”
The net effect of having large number of inexpensive weapons available is that one can support an insurgency or a rebel force with weaponry comparable to that of the most modern states with very little money.
“The image of a child soldier with a vz. 58 is especially evocative of the comprehensive effects of military small arms on conflict zones. This is because it is not what these weapons do to the militaries of powerful governments that causes the greatest and longest-lasting harm but rather their impact on the vulnerable and their role in making it possible for militias, militant groups, and criminal gangs to field well-equipped combatants. When readily available to irregular forces, surplus military small arms can make unstable regions more volatile and less economically sound, increase the expenses and dangers of military campaigns or aid and relief missions, enable crime and human rights abuses, dissuade governments from providing services, and increase human suffering. This is true whether the armed bands are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in and near the Horn of Africa, in southern Iraq, or along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Entire regions of the world, flooded with the excess stocks of government arsenals, have become simmering conflict zones and areas out of any government's control. These are places where even the world's best military forces operate with difficulty and local populations suffer from the presence of armed and lawless groups.”
The most disturbing notion to be derived from this article is that weapons never die. They just get passed on to people with less noble intentions. Many of the weapons being used against troops in Afghanistan were originally provided by the United States, either in the Afghan fight against the Russian invaders, or distributed to friendly Afghan forces after the invasion in 2001.

There appears to be a law of unintended consequences associated with guns.

A similar cascade effect seems to occur in our own towns and cities. Guns purchased for the best of intentions by individuals don’t seem to ever disappear. By sale or by theft they seem to move down the social ladder to those whose intentions are not always honorable.

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