Battling the AK-47

AK-47 assault rifles

KAI RYSSDAL: President Bush's Iraq strategy got a dose of realpolitik over the weekend. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the BBC he doesn't think the U.S. can win. That the civil war and religious killings in Iraq make a military victory there impossible.

The U.S. has the world's most high-tech army. But American troops in Iraq are being shot at by people carrying a weapon that's made its name being simple. Larry Kahaner's latest book is called "AK-47".

LARRY KAHANER: The Germans had invented a new kind of warfare called blitzkrieg where you go in and shoot what they called machinepistols, which were submachine guns, at the enemy and just decimated them and psychologically ruined them. And Mikhail Kalashnikov decided that he wanted to build a submachine gun to go against what the Germans had. Well, that didn't work out and, the end of the story, he invented something called an assault rifle. Which is more deadly, uses a larger bullet but can still be carried and it was very, very inexpensive to make and very simple to use. And it spread throughout the world, mainly, actually, by the Central Intelligence Agency.

RYSSDAL: Oh, is that right?

KAHANER: Yeah, the Mujahideen were having a hard time beating back the Soviet Union during the invasion between '79 and '89, and they wanted some weapons. So they funneled — we don't know how many — hundreds of thousdands of AK-47s to the Mujahideen. And from there is spread throughout the Middle East. And it happened again during the Iran-Contra era where again the CIA sent thousands, hundreds of thousands, of AK-47s to [Central] America.

RYSSDAL: If it's so good, and if the CIA distributes it — or use to, anyway, so liberally — why isn't the Pentagon using it?

KAHANER: That's a question I get a lot. And there's two reasons. One is the doctrine of the U.S. military is that the United States produces marksmen, people who take careful aim and shoot. You know, one shot, one kill kind of attitude. And the AK-47 simply is not that accurate a weapon, like the M-16. The other reason is that because of the AK-47's pedigree — built by the Soviet Union, taken up by insurgents, terrorists, enemies, if you will, of the United States — it's become the bad guy's weapon. And we can't be associated with it.

RYSSDAL: You related some amazing statistics about the lethality of this weapon, and how many people it kills year on year on year. More deadly, really, than the atomic bomb.

KAHANER: Absolutely. The United Nations uses a figure of 250,000 people a year. It is the most-used weapon in the world. More people are killed in Iraq by AK fire than any other reason, even though it all looks like the IADs are doing it.

RYSSDAL: It is so cheap that the AK finds itself in some places and some conflicts where, perhaps, the people doing the shooting at each other might not otherwise be able to afford weapons.

KAHANER: Exactly. And I always make the point that AK-47s don't really start wars, but they keep wars simmering longer than they really should. And we see this in the Congo, we see it in Darfur. We even see it in Iraq, where every family is allowed to have at least one weapon by law, and it's always an AK.

RYSSDAL: Is there a supply and demand function here. I mean, when things are heating up, does the price of an AK rise?

KAHANER: Absolutely. And we see this time and time again. In fact, NGOs like the Red Cross and so forth — Doctors Without Borders — they actually will often monitor the price of an AK-47 in an area. When the price is starting to go up, they realize that violence is simmering and will start to happen. And the U.S. military in Iraq monitors the price of the AK-47 as well for the same reason. Also, so they can buy them back, which they do quite often at the proper black-market prices. But it gives them an indication of when things are heating up.

RYSSDAL: What do you suppose the end result will be? I mean, the AK's been around for 50 years and it's essentially the same today as it was back then.

KAHANER: Yeah, absolutely. It's amazing. There are some cosmetic changes, a few simple changes, but it's not going away. In fact, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela bought 100,000 AKs from the Soviet Union.

RYSSDAL: Do you think we're ever going to change our minds in the Defense Department?

KAHANER: Uh, no. There's an easy answer. It's just not in our culture. We tend to go high-tech instead of low-tech.

RYSSDAL: Larry Kahaner's the author of "AK-47." And the subtitle is "The Weapon That Changed the Face of War." Larry, thanks a lot for your time.

KAHANER: Thanks, Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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