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American Military Ego Will Lead to Problems As We Replace Iraq and Afghanistan's Army's AK-47 with the M-16Tim King Salem-News.com
Tim King is a former U.S. Marine and veteran journalist who recently covered the war in Afghanistan for Salem-News.com and Oregon FOX-12.
(SALEM, Ore.) - Replacing the Iraq and Afghanistan military's Russian AK-47 assault rifle with the American M-16 is a bad idea. There are many reasons, and many people in the combat theatre believe the decision is going to lead to an excessive number of needless deaths.
I fear a sad outcome like in Vietnam. American ego wins again, it seems we try to live off it these days.
I am going to protect my sources on this story. Some are the soldiers and marines that I spent time around while covering the war in Afghanistan last winter. They are very, very concerned about the weapon replacement program. That is fair, because when you examine the basic facts, the program makes no sense at all.
I hope the comment crowd takes this one on, because there will be much to add to the background of the M-16 that led us to this point, and I have only been there for some of it.
First, we have to take a look at history. I can speak clearly about Afghanistan, but what I share about Iraq is information I have gleaned from other sources because I haven't been there, as of yet anyway.
For many years, in the latter half of the 20th Century, Afghanistan was a fairly quiet country that existed under Communist/Soviet rule. The Islamic culture of Afghanistan was repressed during these Soviet years and by the late 1970's, after the cultural revolution of the west had run much of its course, it was Afghanistan's turn. The people there tell me that they were fed up with a Communist system that had little respect for the beliefs of Islam.
After massing huge amounts of small arms, artillery, tanks, jet fighters, helicopters and other aircraft from the Soviets, the Afghan government started losing interest in their Soviet relationship.
This was under the rule of Hafizullah Amin, the second President of Afghanistan during the period of the communist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.
According to Wikipedia, Amin tried to broaden his internal base of support and to bring the financial interest of Pakistan and the United States into Afghan security. During the 104 days of President Amin's rule, except for one failed military rebellion, no major uprising took place.
Then, on December 27th, 1979, his political opponents of a rival faction killed him, and Babrak Karmal became Afghanistan's President. It was passed off as a coup by a "rival faction" but people throughout Afghanistan believe it was nothing but a Soviet plot.
The Soviets then merged with the existing Afghan Army of the time of the invasion to fight the "insurgents" who are known as the Mujahadeen. The Mujahadeen were backed by U.S. money, they were, literally, the rebels.
It took ten years for the Mujahadeen to break the back of the Soviets who pulled out in late 1989, defeated. Interestingly, I learned that many Soviets who did not die in combat died of diseases that they acquired primarily from the lack of hygiene in Soviet cooking. Cooks rarely washed their hands, soldiers all got hepatitis and many died from it.
That lack of hygiene is really at the base of my entire point. The Russians do not live like Americans by and large, and they do not design their military equipment along the same lines.
Many Russians have lived a harsh life, but when it comes to invaders like Napoleon and Hitler, the Russians know how to win. That is because throughout much recent history, they have always worked at a more practical level in war. Remove the American corporate structure with dozens of hands in each pie and you start to imagine why the Russian gear is so different.
It may not look as good, it may not have as much of a finished appearance, but Soviet tools were made to work well and to last.
I spent time in Afghanistan among Mongolian soldiers who all carry the AK-47 as their standard issue weapon. Of my three friends' rifles, they were stamped, "1964", "1965" and "1966." There is no order to the numbers, but those rifles still in use today had been front line military issue for over forty years when I first saw them. Can there be a bigger statement about a tool's effectiveness?
For example, all Russian MiG jet fighters take off and land from dirt airfields. That could be extremely important in a WWIII scenario, which is what the planes were really built for when you think about it. They made simple changes from western planes and came up with one jet fighter after another that totally rivaled anything the boys at McDonnell Douglas or Lockheed-Martin could crank out.
With the exception of the Harrier, which is an attack jet that lifts straight up like a helicopter, Americans not have a single jet fighter or attack plane that can take operate from dirt runways.
And the Harrier was designed by the British.
Another interesting note is that some Russian weapons have been designed over the years with a slightly larger caliber than their western counterparts.
The result? They can fire their ammo or ours. We can only fire ours.
One more analogy is the American Astronaut and the Russian Cosmonaut the who were having a conversation. The American who graduated from the best schools shows his Russian friend his new "gas charged space pen" that writes upside down. He tells the Russian "that it costs millions to develop."
The Russian looks at him and simply says, "We use pencils."
Afghan and Iraqi troops have carried the Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle and its variant designs for years. They know how to use them for the most part and they understand them.
Like the jets, and the pen and pencil analogy, the same point holds true. The AK is an extremely reliable weapon, it has fewer parts than the M-16, and our allies in these countries already know how to use them, clean them and take care of them. How well? Not well at all. In fact, weapon care and maintenance in the Afghan National Army is the butt of jokes with the U.S. military.
Some Afghans keep their weapons impeccably clean, I don't mean to imply that they don't, but these guys are running less than a 20% literacy rate in their army. It isn't their fault as much as it is fault of the Soviets and Taliban; the Afghans did not ask for their nation to be bitterly embroiled in war for the last thirty years, but there is no changing it. They barely understand how to take care of what they already have.
So, while all types of issues already exist in training and in equipping the soldiers of Afghanistan and Iraq, our leaders in their infinite wisdom, have now decided to take away their relatively simple, accurate and reliable AK-47's and replace them with the weapon the Americans implemented during the Vietnam War, Mattel Magic, the M-16.
I get angry about the things we find ourselves arguing about in this country. I am also, admittedly, highly confused about the direction of the conflicts overseas, but this article is not about that. It is about common sense, or as the case may be, a profound lack of it. I am not writing this as a condemnation or stamp of approval toward policy. It is about foreign soldiers having an effective tool taken away and replaced by one that has cost many soldiers who used it their lives.
While we pay $3.20 for a gallon of regular gasoline.
Who benefits from this? It certainly is not the foreign soldiers or the American taxpayer.
Whatever happened to the common sense thought, "if it works, don't fix it"?
For those who say we aren't recreating the problems of Vietnam:
The feeling in the combat zone is that the M-16 decision is being driven by a simple phenomenon: American ego. It is a flagrant act of highly accomplished corporate America with its relationship to the current U.S. administration. It might also be an attempt at redemption.
When the M-16 was introduced to the war effort in Vietnam, it largely failed. What fired well in the Southern California desert did not endure the tropics of Vietnam.
An AK-47 can be immersed in water and it will still fire.
This killed many Americans in Vietnam, and one particular friend of mine who I know will be among the first to read this article, even though he is somewhere on the other side of the world today, was among the marines that had to pick up dead comrades during the Vietnam War because their M-16's jammed.
To say the least, it never sat well with him. I don't think he and his friends felt very supported by the people back home and we hear this often about the Vietnam War.
Hippies and anti-war protesters take the brunt of the credit for affecting the war's lack of popularity, change of course and eventual end. Many were completely unsupportive of the combat soldier's plight and some harassed men returning home from combat. But, with the exception of Jane Fonda, I have never heard a story about a war protester getting an American killed in combat.
Conversely, corporate America was able to do it decades ago.
"We were going in to pick up dead marines from 1/9 and when we got there, every one of them had their M-16's in various states of disassembly, trying to make them fire."
My friend tears up when he tells this story. It was near Hill 881 during the time of the siege at Khe Sahn. As I write this article, I am studying a newspaper story from the Westminster, California Independent Review from October, 1967, titled "Marine Complains Rifle is 'Not Worth a Damn'."
My friend's dad gave a damn, and he called his Congressman as well as the area newspapers, resulting in my friend's quotes about the M-16 being widely read at the time. I understand they didn't sit well with the powers to be.
"There are 20 people in our platoon. Out of all of them only five weapons worked and mine wasn't one of them."
When the M-16 was introduced in 1967, replacing the heavier M-14, it didn't even include an option for unjamming a round. If the weapon is not sparkling clean, which is a hard state to reach in a Vietnam combat zone I am told, the odds that it will jam were very high.
In 1967, Wallace Greene, the Marine Commandant, and the commander of the 3rd Division, Lt. General Lewis M. Walt, labeled the controversial weapon "the finest ever issued to U.S. troops, particularly for our troops in Vietnam."
Yet my friend, who the article is about, was not satisfied. "Assurances have no value whatsoever if the weapon doesn't fire when you need it."
He says the official excuse at the time, placed squarely on the combat man's back, was a lack of proper cleanliness and maintenance.
Anyone who has been around the Marine Corps knows that the infantry in particular, takes their job very seriously.
"I'm also not convinced that these men, well trained as they are and full well knowing that their life depends on the operation of the weapon, would be negligent with their maintenance."
My friend was 18-years old when he wrote those words, the same age I was when I joined the Marines and was issued the follow up weapon, called the M-16 A1. This was the same rifle carried in Vietnam. It has the addition of a "Forward Assist" that was sometimes helpful in unjamming rounds.
After that version and before Desert Storm, the M-16 A2 was issued to the U.S. military. This was essentially the same as the M-16 A1, but it was designed to limit the weapon to "three round bursts" when it is set to automatic.
To those who are not familiar with the M-16, it is a semi-automatic rifle that does have the option of automatic fire, similar to a machine gun. The government decided in the 1980's that it would be more effective if it could only fire three bullets at a time, and most soldiers agree that it helps by preserving ammunition. It's just not quite as cool.
The version most soldiers in combat carry today is called the "M4." This weapon is similar to an M-16 A2, but it has a shorter barrel, a collapsible stock, and a scope.
While I can't speak for all of them, American soldiers and marines that I was around in Afghanistan tend to like their M4's and that is a good sign for our forces, a sign that we have gotten the bugs out and finally developed something soldiers can readily use. Any rifle can jam, but with the highly disciplined American marines and soldiers, the M4's perform surprisingly well.
But American soldiers and marines and sailors and airmen are educated people who can be trained to remember details far better than an army of soldiers who are mostly illiterate, as the case is in Afghanistan.
These brave Afghan men and in some cases, women, are fighting for their lives and for their countries. With the resilient AK-47 Kalashnikov they are somewhat effective, and they have a lot of them. So many in fact, that the Afghan government sometimes destroys them in large numbers in Kabul.
But then maybe they are just preparing for the new American weapons? I was never able to get a straight answer on that, and I asked.
American Ego Transcends
For the Iraqis and Afghans, it will likely be a matter of prestige to carry the weapon our soldiers carry. Everyone I cross paths with in this life is intrigued by what the other guy has, especially when it comes from the U.S.A. The same goes for the Humvees that we have handed over to the native forces in recent months. Back to the literacy factor, I hope I am never in the way of an approaching convoy of Humvees operated by the Afghan National Army, at least until they can read road signs.
For practical purposes, our nation is making a vital mistake by implementing the M-16 in the Afghan and Iraqi Armies, and it will be difficult to go back. The worst part is that when the "good guys" are trying to use a demanding weapon that under the conditions will be challenging at best, they will still be fighting an enemy that carries the robust and forgiving AK-47.
If the AK wasn't better, then I doubt Americans and other Coalition forces would desire to use them in battle, but they do. I went on a combat mission with an American Lieutenant who carried a Soviet RPK, a variant of the AK-47, as his only weapon.
I know he was able to use it for hours in a prolonged firefight with an anti-Coalition force in Afghanistan during one long night, and that they killed many of the enemies who had actually cut the wire on the perimeter of their remote firebase before the battle got underway.
So maybe I'm wrong, I hope so, but when we are strained in every respect, why do we have to give American technology to a third world fighting force that can barely take care of the simple, abundant rifles that they have? It just doesn't make sense.
Salam Alikem, peace be with you.
You can email Tim King at: email@example.com
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