By the late 1970s, the Soviet Union was ramping up for what its leaders mistakenly thought would be a quick war in Afghanistan. At first the AK seemed to be one of the superpower’s main military assets, but the rifle later proved to be in part responsible for its defeat. The catastrophic Soviet defeat following a ten-year guerrilla war eventually led to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the proliferation of cheap AKs throughout the Middle East.
The Vietnam War gave the AK its credibility, and the Afghanistan war would spread it around the region, placing it in the hands of terrorists and insurgents who embraced it as the budding icon of anti-imperialism.
The war that Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev later called “our country’s Vietnam” had roots as far back as the 1920s, when Afghanistan became the first nation to recognize the newly minted Soviet Communist regime after the Bolshevik Revolution. The two nations shared a common border and maintained friendly relations. Soviet aid and advisors were a constant feature in Afghanistan for the next fifty years. During the cold war, both East and West curried favor with the Afghans. The Soviets, for example, built a large irrigation project south of Jalalabad, and the United States constructed roads and an airfield at Kandahar.
By the 1970s, Communism was growing worldwide, boosted by the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. Other countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia turned Communist. In Cuba, the Communist revolution under Fidel Castro was stronger than ever despite CIA efforts to shake his hold. The Soviet Union was spreading its Marxist doctrine to the Congo, Egypt, Syria, and Latin America.
In April 1978, members of the Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (DRA) assassinated Prime Minister Sardar Mohammed Daoud Khan during a coup supported by the Soviet Union. Although the new government enjoyed popular support, it was poorly organized and run. The following year, unknown assassins (presumably encouraged by Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin) smothered President Nur Muhammad Taraki in his sleep and Amin became president. Amin was warm to Soviet help but not as willing as his predecessor to be the superpower’s puppet.
By the fall of 1979, the Soviet Union had set its sights on taking over Afghanistan by military force. Although many reasons have been suggested for an invasion, ranging from helping a neighboring Communist regime to a closer military presence in the Persian Gulf area where the world’s oil tankers traveled, the situation in nearby Iran was also a factor. The country was in the midst of an Islamic revolution, throwing out the corrupt U.S.-backed government of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, and installing the Islamic hard-liner Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Although the new regime was an enemy of the United States, it was not friendly to the Soviet Union either and presented another loss of influence to the Soviets and little hope of Communist inroads.
On Christmas Eve 1979, the Soviet army, with planning help from the DRA, rolled three divisions across the border and quickly took control of airfields around Kabul as well as the telecommunications infrastructure. In a set of clever ploys, Soviet advisors hosted a party for Afghan government leaders at the InterContinental Hotel in Kabul, and Soviet military advisors held a similar fete for upper-level Afghan military officers. At the conclusion of both galas, all the Afghan guests were taken prisoner. That same day, Soviet soldiers dressed as Afghan soldiers stormed the presidential palace, killing President Amin. Within days, more than fifty thousand Soviet troops were in Afghanistan, with all the major cities under their control.
Strategically, the invasion had been brilliant, with only sixty-six Soviet soldiers killed, most of them due to non-combat-related accidents. The Soviet strategy was to maintain control of major cities with their own forces and have the Afghan army seek out and destroy rural-based opposition groups, known as mujahideen, who were scattered throughout the countryside, mainly in the mountains. Soviet planners, elated by a quick victory and little resistance, anticipated a stay of no more than three years.
The mujahideen, which literally means “strugglers” in Arabic but also translates as “holy warriors,” sought U.S. assistance against the Soviet invaders. They opposed the Soviets largely on nationalistic grounds; they were not willing to be taken over by any outside force. They also garnered strong support from influential local imams for whom the Marxist ideology of atheism was abhorrent. Hundreds of small bands were formed. Even some DRA soldiers joined the mujahideen fighters.
President Jimmy Carter authorized the CIA to supply the mujahideen with weapons and funds for their fight against the Soviets. The weapons would be funneled through Pakistan, which was uneasy about having the Soviets next door in Afghanistan. Moreover, as the war continued and the Soviets bombed and destroyed rural villages, millions of Afghans found themselves living in refugee camps bordering Pakistan and Iran, which made it difficult if not impossible to maintain the borders’ integrity. Both nations supported the mujahideen movement.
The Soviets with their tanks, airpower, and AKs vastly outgunned the mujahideen, who were relegated in the early years to whatever weapons they could scrounge or take from captured Soviet convoys and army caches. Their situation changed for the better when one of the first CIA shipments arrived, less than two weeks after the Soviet invasion, containing thousands of bolt-action .303 Lee-Enfield rifles, the British counterpart of the venerable but outmoded M1. Howard Hart, who was the CIA’s chief in Pakistan, believed that the old Enfield rifles were superior to the Soviet AK. Orders went out to sources in Greece, India, and wherever else they could be found for delivery to Karachi. The CIA also shipped rocket-propelled grenade launchers, portable enough for guerrillas to carry in the field, and capable of stopping a Soviet tank.
The Soviets fought using the methods expected of any large army of the day. In many respects, they mimicked the U.S. program in Vietnam. They delivered massive firepower from bombers, helicopters, fixed artillery, and tanks upon a town, completely dominating the area, and then dispatched ground troops who fired their AKs at anything that moved until the town fell under their control. Mopping up was largely unnecessary because the massive shellings took care of any resistance save a few stragglers. The Soviets’ scorched-earth strategy was considered a form of “migratory genocide.” By destroying villages and forcing people into exile, they hoped to sap the rural support that fed the mujahideen.
Initially, the outgunned mujahideen were shaken by the Soviet tactics and the firepower delivered by a new version of the AK that was making its way onto the battlefield. The mujahideen so feared this mysterious this new rifle and its odd-sized cartridge that they called it “poison bullet” because of its almost supernatural destructive power. The new bullet was not only smaller than previous AK rounds, many of which the mujahideen had captured during raids, but it was also more deadly—even more so than the M-16 round that had prompted its development.
Soviet weapons designers had taken note of the small, high-velocity 5.56mm bullet used in the M-16 when they saw firsthand in Vietnam its destructive bone-cracking power. The truth was that Soviet military officials were not completely happy with the AK, and they were looking for a change. Although the intermediate round was a major step forward, many troops could not keep the rifle on target during full automatic fire because of the strong recoil.
Kalashnikov, well aware of the move by the United States to a smaller bullet, was ready to embrace the new order. Later, he wrote, “Our foreign colleagues [U.S. arms designers] had already been working along this line, so the Russian command decided to do so in this country. Of course, I could not stand idle in this situation and rest on my laurels. In a way, the earned reputation won’t allow you to stop working. On the contrary, it makes you take up new projects as long as you have the strength.”
Through the passing of time, Kalashnikov now characterizes himself as gung-ho on the new, smaller bullet, but at the time, he, like many of his Western counterparts, was still not convinced that smaller was better. Despite the forensic and anecdotal data, many conventional arms designers had trouble believing that a smaller bullet could produce greater destruction. However, Kalashnikov was a team player and threw himself into modifying his AK to accommodate the smaller round. Moreover, he wanted to make certain that the legacy of the AK design would continue.
Making a smaller-caliber weapon did not mean simply using a narrower barrel, he learned. As in the AR-15, small-diameter barrels tended to retain water, but this was overcome. Other changes were necessary, too, for the basic AK design to be used. This included changing the bolt head, improving the extractor, and changing the magazine to a steel-and-fiberglass composite.
These changes were all doable. Kalashnikov’s main challenge was not technical but political. He had to convince the other teams working on the small-bullet project that the AK design, once modified, was still viable and could handle the new bullet. After all, the United States had changed to a radically new gun design in order to accommodate the 5.56mm cartridge, and the AK itself was born to shoot the new intermediate round. Maybe a change was in order now that the AK was going on twenty years old. Some Kalashnikov competitors had likened the AK design to a lemon that had been squeezed dry with nothing left to offer, and this riled the arms designer.
Kalashnikov’s main challengers were engineers from another design group known as TsNIITochmash, the Central Institute for Precision Machine Building, who were also modifying an AKM to shoot the small bullet. They went a step further, however. By the mid-1960s, they had developed a way to virtually eliminate recoil in the AKM, which used the intermediate round. The AL-7, as it was called, employed a counter-recoil system that almost perfectly matched the recoil from each round with a spring balanced in the opposite direction, thereby eliminating any backward motion. The two forces nearly canceled each other.
Unfortunately, the AL-7, completed in 1972, required substantial changes to existing factory lines, and was rejected as too expensive to produce. With this group out of the running, a newly named AK-74 (again, for the year it was accepted), which fired a 5.45 × 39mm bullet, closer in size to the M-16 round, was put into service and began replacing the older intermediate-cartridge-firing rifle. Unlike previous rifles, it used all polymer in the buttstock and grip, components known as “furniture,” which had previously been made of wood. This change offered a much lighter weapon.
The Soviets had another winning rifle. It was light like the M-16, used the smaller more lethal bullet, yet maintained the legendary Kalashnikov reliability. The new AK-74 with muzzle brake had about half the recoil of an M-16 and about two-thirds that of the previous AK. Reduced recoil offered less skillful soldiers the ability to keep their weapons fixed closer on target during rapid fire. The new firearm and lighter bullets also allowed soldiers to carry twice as much ammunition into battle.
Again, Western intelligence underestimated the Soviet weapon’s importance. When reports about the new rifle filtered in during the late 1970s, analysts believed the new rifles (and a light machine gun known as the RPK-74) would be issued only to special squads because of the logistical headache of issuing new weapons and ammunition to all Soviet troops. This underestimation of the weapon’s importance may have been due to the belief that Soviet production capacity was still low or their technical ability poor. Nevertheless, the Soviets were committed to the new weapon and the timing was fortuitous. Phased in during the Afghanistan war, this new rifle became a fixture in the conflict as stories of its destructiveness spread throughout the rebel ranks.
The new bullet consisted of a thin-jacketed point with an airspace in the middle. As the bullet entered the human body, the impact bent and deformed the tip because the airspace offered no structural strength to keep it intact. As it penetrated, the bullet usually came apart, fragmenting and inflicting extreme damage to tissues and organs. Western intelligence knew few details about the new bullet until Galen L. Geer, a correspondent for Soldier of Fortune magazine in Afghanistan, wrote about it in a two-part series for the September and October 1980 issues. Not only did he obtain the new rounds, but he and Soldier of Fortune editor and publisher Robert K. Brown delivered two rounds to an unnamed U.S. government agency (“not the CIA,” noted Brown) and beat the CIA. Geer also visited many hospitals in Pakistan and reported seeing extraordinarily large wounds. He believed the injuries were the result of rounds shattering entire bone sections. He was correct. In addition, he reported wounded fighters with limb wounds only, because those with more extensive body wounds rarely survived the trip to a hospital.
Realizing that they could not win by fighting the Soviets’ type of war, the mujahideen altered their tactics. At the first signs of bombing, they would leave the area and hide in the mountains, often in caves. They would return hours, days, or even weeks later to surprise the unprepared Soviet soldiers now complacent in the belief that they had complete control of the town. The mujahideen could not engage the Soviets in head-to-head combat, because their old, long-range, single-shot Enfields and even some semiautomatic M-14s they had obtained were no match for the rapid-firing AK, but they could fight them as guerrillas.
The old way of war was officially dead.