by Mike Spike of “I wanted a gun page so I made one”
A distinct hallmark of the 1979-1989 Soviet war in Afghanistan is the sheer amount and variation of weapons provided to the Mujahideen by the anti-Soviet coalition under Operation Cyclone. Among the deluge is a rifle common to the world but uncommon and misunderstood in this conflict: the US M16. Long before the “Global War on Terrorism” the M16 was toted in Afghanistan by Mujahideen caravanners and the Soviet Spetsnaz hunting them. Through close examination of photographs, published veterans accounts and understanding the larger contemporary circumstances, we can better understand this little-known story about a very well-known weapon.
If you want to learn more on Soviet equipment in Afghanistan, check out our book on that - Uniforms and history of the Soviet Airborne in Afghanistan. And in case you are really into Soviet weapons, we have something else to offer - Soviet Infantry Weapons of the Afghan War.
Background on the US lethal arms aid to Afghanistan
Even earlier than Reagan Doctrine which aggressively increased the number of modern weapons, such as FIM-92 Stinger missile in 1986. The original Russian language source does not elaborate on the origin of this rifle. In September 1951 US Delegate to the United Nations Warren Austin presented a Soviet made PPSh-41 machine gun stamped “1950” to prove the USSR was supplying weapons to North Korea. That gun was captured by Americans in Korea in July 1950. In May 2015 the Ukrainian military displayed on television a VSS Vintorez sniper rifle captured from separatist forces in the east that could only have come from Russia. The Soviets never used an M16 on the world stage to connect the US CIA, Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) and Mujahideen groups they captured the rifles from, such as the Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan (IULA).
Where the M-16 rifles were actually captured
The single greatest source of captured M16 Rifles in Afghanistan 1979-1989 is the Battle of Karera, March 16-30, 1986. The IULA was one of the “Peshawar Seven”; the seven big anti-Soviet groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan directly receiving billions of dollars of weapons from over 50 nations. To stem that flow, the GRU 334th Separate Spetsnaz Battalion operating out of Asadabad, Kunar Province mounted a raid against an IULA stronghold near the Afghan-Pakistan border, named Karera. It is a battle extensively written about in Russian language war history by the veterans themselves, such as Alexander Sukholessky (contributing author, “Spetsnaz GRU Star Hour of the Special Forces, 1979-1989”, “Soldier of Fortune” 1996 No.10 “Karera”) and Sergei Galitsky.
The battle was a microcosm of the war itself: A tactical, if relatively costly, victory which did not produce a strategic result, fought over ground which was ceded to a ghost enemy which came back to life as soon as it was clear. Still, the Spetsnaz captured a lot of M16 Rifles. They did what Soldiers do and took after-action photographs for their “demobilization album”.
Aside from Karera, we can trace the lines of M16 across Afghanistan by context rather than subject. The overwhelming majority are Spetsnaz, due to the weapons caravan interdiction missions. In the vast mountain passes a common Spetsnaz tactic was to dress and arm themselves as Mujahideen so they could attack from as close as possible, to include carrying M16. Other photographs of Spetsnaz show Officers in rear areas posing with M16s captured after hunts for Stinger and Milan missiles. It is clear the Soviets recognized the M16 as a great photo opportunity. In February 1987, 101th Motor Rifle Regiment’s Recon Company Commander Andrey Schultz met with Mujahideen leaders for ceasefire talks in Herat Province. Given the opportunity to swap clothes and equipment for a souvenir photo he opted a US M65 Field Jacket and M16A1 Rifle to represent the Mujahideen for posterity.
M-16 variations captured during the Soviet-Afghan War
From east (Asadabad) to west (Herat), from 1984 until after the end of the Soviet war, the M16 Rifle was a presence in Afghanistan. The rifle was captured directly from Mujahideen groups being supplied with the most modern Western weapons.
Fun fact about the plastic toy Mujahideen with M16: They are produced by Mars Figures in Ukraine. It makes one wonder if the sculptor consultated a veteran or unit history to create the figure.
Given the presence of pre-A1 M16 rifles and US rifle and machine gun slings on the M16s, it appears the rifles themselves are ex-United States Military property, not factory production destined for Afghanistan. Some contemporary M16 variants have not been observed in Afghanistan, such as any CAR-15 Carbine or the M16A2.
Likewise, the contemporary Chinese NORINCO copy of M16A1 called CQ has not been observed despite the Chinese imperative to arm the Mujahideen. There are extremely few photographs of Mujahideen themselves with M16 Rifles themselves, but we must not draw the wrong conclusions from an absence of Mujahid combat photographers. Rather, we must take the content of veteran accounts, visual clues discerned from photographs, and times and places from unit histories to understand how the US M16 Rifle really fought in the Soviet-Afghan War 1979-1989.