Weapons: Afghans Have To Earn The M24


January 13, 2011: Afghanistan is buying over a thousand American M24 sniper rifles for its army and police. These will be delivered over the next 40 months. Why not deliver them faster? Because most Afghans are lousy shots. While there are a lot of weapons in Afghanistan, and most families have one, there is not a lot of money for ammunition. Many of the weapons are old (often a century old) rifles and shotguns. Afghanistan is a very poor, if heavily armed, country. While marksmanship is admired, shooting skills have greatly deteriorated in the last three decades. Thus the U.S. is not supplying the Afghans with the more powerful .300 Winchester magnum version of the M24 (the M2010).

The big issue in Afghanistan is how to get Afghans to shoot more accurately. To remedy this problem, NATO trainers have obtained large amounts of rifle ammunition and are having Afghan troops expend it regularly learning to fire accurately. Afghans, and especially the Taliban, consider themselves great warriors. But they are not noted for their accuracy in a firefight. Blame this on new toys. Since the 1980s, the country has been awash with AK-47s and RPG rocket launchers. The Afghans took to the AK-47, and the thrill of emptying a 30 round magazine on full automatic, as a worthy battlefield technique. Actually, it's not bad for a brief, close range firefight, especially if you were fighting other Afghans. But against soldiers who aim and fire single shots, the "spray and pray" approach gets you killed.

NATO troops have built rifle ranges for the Afghan Army, and trained Afghan officers and NCOs in time-tested techniques of becoming an accurate shot, and training other Afghans to do the same. Afghan troops are also being equipped with M-16 rifles. These are more accurate, for single shot use, than the AK-47 (as well as being a little lighter, and using lighter ammo). The Taliban now try to be more careful when getting into a fight with the Afghan Army. Like the foreign troops, Afghan soldiers can be detected by ear. They will be firing M-16s, one shot at a time, while their Taliban adversaries will be on full automatic with AK-47s. The sound of an M-16 and AK-47 are different, and full auto fire is obviously different than single shots. The Taliban often depend on setting up an ambush, with the intention of fleeing if they do not destroy most of the army force with their initial fire and roadside bombs.

There used to be an Afghan tradition of precision, long range shooting. Before the 1980s, this skill was treasured for both hunting and warfare. Since Afghanistan was the poorest nation in Asia, ammo was expensive, and older men taught the young boys all the proper moves needed to get that first shot off accurately. But because of that poverty, few families had a rifle, and most of those who did, could not afford to buy the ammo needed to develop accuracy. Thus sharpshooters were highly respected, not only for their skill, but because they could afford to buy a rifle (usually a bolt action one) and had an innate talent for getting the job done with one shot.

During the 1980s, Saudi Arabia spent billions of dollars to arm Afghans with all the AK-47s and ammo they could use, and they used lots of it. But rarely for target practice. Compared to bolt-action rifles like the British Lee-Enfield, the AK-47 was much less accurate when one shot at a time was fired. During the last three decades, it's become much more common for Afghans to have a rifle, usually an AK-47. But it was rare for any of these new riflemen to be very accurate with their weapon. The NATO training program is changing that, and changing the way the Afghan Army fights.

The last stage of this training is selecting the best marksmen and training them to be snipers. In addition to shooting skills, a sniper has to learn about concealment, and moving about the battlefield without being seen.



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