In a sharp break for a military with long experience wielding the battle-tested AK-47, the Afghan national army is set to replace its entire inventory of Kalashnikov rifles with the American-made M-16.
By the end of the year, the U.S. military plans to ship about 55,000 used Marine Corps M-16A2 rifles to Afghanistan with the intent of outfitting every soldier in the Afghan army with one by the late spring of 2009. So far about 6,000 M16s, including Canadian C-7 variants, have been fielded to Afghan units and about 6,000 M-4 carbines have been in the hands of Afghan commandos since May 2007.
Officials in charge of the $44 million modernization effort recognize the difficultly in transitioning a largely illiterate force from a weapon designed for the third world to one that requires intensive maintenance and marksmanship. But the new, more accurate weapons are already proving their worth on the battlefield.
"When the commandos go into a fight against an enemy that's armed with AKs, it's not a fair fight. And even fire against 'spray and slay,' it's not a fair fight at all," said Army Col. Mike McMahon, who heads up the modernization program for the Afghan army.
"The competence you get [from the M-16] and the confidence is just incredible."
The effort to abandon decades of experience with the venerable Kalashnikov is in part an attempt by Kabul to make a symbolic break from its insurgent past, where genocidal battles with AK-47-toting Soviets and Taliban religious zealots weigh heavily on the memory of Afghanistan's post-September 11 government, McMahon said.
Similar efforts are in the works to supply the new Iraqi army with M-16s as well.
But the enhanced performance and increased assurance gained by wielding the M-16 and its variants come at a cost. Early efforts to train the Afghan army on the M-16 have been mixed, with some soldiers sticking to their trigger-happy ways -- firing triple the amount of ammunition that a typical U.S. trainee would -- and others using diesel fuel to lube the finely-tuned carbine as if it were an AK.
"The Afghans called this the 'Black Kalashnikov' -- it was nothing different than just a plastic weapon," McMahon explained. "They figured out very quickly -- after they went through zeroing -- that it was way different than the Kalashnikov, and you didn't fire all your rounds at the same time."
The M-16s do take some getting used to, McMahon said, and some long-standing habits have to be broken. For one, Afghan troops can't just pick up any M-16 and fire it with any hope of hitting what they're aiming at. Each soldier has his individual weapon zeroed to his particular shooting style and is accountable for that weapon's whereabouts.
And no more ripping off a 30-round magazine shooting from the hip, McMahon said. The M-16 is designed to be fired from the shoulder, so forget the "spray and slay" shooting style.
Initial training on the M-16 with the 205th Afghan Army Corps in January was mixed, mainly because there were too few instructors with deep enough range and marksmanship know-how to get the students up to speed. So a new program has been launched along the lines of the M-16 training regimen in Iraq to hire six teams of 12 civilian contract instructors who will teach Afghan non-commissioned officers how to use the new rifle.
In a classic "train the trainer" model, those NCOs will then be in charge of teaching Afghan grunts on the M-16, giving small unit leaders the added benefit of perfecting both their rifle and management skills.
"We see a huge secondary benefit in terms of development of the NCO corps by doing this; in teaching them how to train, how to run ranges and how to teach" other soldiers, McMahon said. "Also this gives them a system that will have a devastating impact on the enemy in terms of almost revolutionizing the army."