The Taliban’s Rifles in Marja, Afghanistan.
On several occasions this year, I had the opportunity to examine assortments of recently collected Taliban arms and munitions. Each chance provided the opportunity to glean something of the insurgency. And when combined with other sources of information — interviews with Afghan and American participants in recent fighting, observations on patrols and in firefights and ambushes, reviews of wounding data and conversations with medics and others who treat those who have been shot — the rifles helped to tell something of the ground-level experience of the war.
The photographer Tyler Hicks and I have covered this at length in the pages of The New York Times and on the At War blog. Today I’ll add a few images and details here from one assortment of captured rifles, which were held in an evidence locker and command post of 3rd Battalion, Sixth Marines in Marja. Among them was the rifle partially shown at the top of this post, a Chinese Kalashnikov clone, readily distinguishable by its factory marking — the number 66 within a triangle.
Although you can’t quite tell from this picture, the weapon’s collapsible stock, wrapped in purple tape, is folded up under the receiver. The collapsible stock fit the pattern for this particular batch of rifles. Of 12 Kalashnikovs in this captured assortment, only one, pictured below, had a fixed wooden stock. All of the others had either folding stocks or their stocks removed.
Certain types of combatants favor a rifle without a fixed stock. The Soviet Union manufactured Kalashnikovs with collapsible stocks so that its troops could fold the butts out of the way and reduce their weapons’ size when being carried. This was useful trait in a rifle for many classes of soldiers, including paratroopers and those who traveled within the tight confines of armored vehicles. The numbers tell the story. A fixed stock Kalashnikov is nearly 35 inches long. A Kalashnikov with the stock folded measures almost nine inches less.
In Afghanistan, Kalashnikovs of reduced length have another cachet — concealability. Afghan fighters have a finely developed sense of the rules of engagement that guide when and how NATO troops can use force. They know that one of the most sure ways to be at risk is to be seen carrying a rifle. In this kind of environment, rifles are kept from view. And it comes to this: a 35-inch rifle is difficult to hide within clothing, or when riding a motorcycle, or in any other number of circumstances. But the 26-inch variant? Look at the young Afghan man below. The muzzle of his collapsible Kalashnikov is visible at his right hip. But not at a glance, and not at any distance.