Arms Sent by U.S. May Be Falling Into Taliban Hands

A soldier in the Second Platoon, Company B, First Battalion, 26th Infantry, last month in the Korangal Valley, Afghanistan. The platoon captured what looked like American-issued munitions.

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.

Tracing Taliban Arms
Weapons from a police post linked to an attack on Americans. Most rifles were the kind issued by the United States.

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 suppliers.

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 arrangement “bxn.”

“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 small.

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.
 
 
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