Charlie Wilson’s War, the 2007 blockbuster in which Tom Hanks plays the flamboyant US Congressman, initiated – with the help of the CIA – what is probably ‘the biggest covert operation in history’.  It was called Operation Cyclone, and involved the supply of arms to the beleaguered Afghanistan forces that were facing the Soviet invasion in the 80s and 90s.

The CIA used the Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) as a middle man to supply their proxy force – the Afghan mujahideen – fearing a Russian backlash if their direct involvement was discovered. The Stinger antiaircraft missile supplied by the CIA, were used to great effect by the mujahideen, giving the lightly armed Afghans a vital weapon in fighting the deadly Soviet helicopter gunships.  But there were other less  high profile weapons that were contributed to their cause which are still knocking around this most forbidding of countries.

The ever present AK-47, this time in the hands of the Afghan Police
The ever present AK-47, this time in the hands of the Afghan Police

The AK-47, probably the most iconic weapon in the history of warfare, is a common sight on the streets of of most counties where I tend to do business.  The assault rifle – designed by Mr. Kalashnikov shortly after WWII – has been so successful, that is it has become the weapon of choice of not only a hundred or so countries security forces but terrorists and insurgents alike.

The popularity of this gas operated rifle – which is easily distinguishable from its contemporaries by its banana shaped magazine – is due to its rugged simplicity, which allows a reliability which far outstrips its more complexed rivals.  The high regard in which the weapon is held, has led to it being made under license in over thirty countries, ensuring demand for this most rugged of weapons is met.

When I was working in Jalalabad – the provincial capital of Nangahar Province in eastern Afghanistan – I had to ensure that my guard force was armed sufficiently in order to deter any would be attackers.  I bought a number of assorted AKs in differing conditions, for vastly inflated prices, their markings stamped at time of manufacture giving the country of origin.  The Russian ones were by far the best, with the worst of the bunch being ones that were stamped with Arabic.

Intrigued with the Arabic AKs I began to do some research, quickly establishing that they were made in Egypt, had been in Afghanistan for a number of years and were part of Operation Cyclone.  But that wasn’t the end of it.  The Egyptian AKs had had a rather eventful life.  Initially they had belonged to the Egyptian army and had taken part in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967, which is more commonly know as the Six Day War.

Arabic serial numbers on the Egyptian AK, Charlie Wilson's Legacy, Operation Cyclone Afghanistan
Arabic serial numbers on the Egyptian AK, Charlie Wilson’s Legacy, Operation Cyclone Afghanistan

After attacking Israel, the Arabic coalition forces were emphatically defeated, with the captured soldiers being disarmed before being released back to their respective countries.  Israel – recipient of the spoils of war – stockpiled their stash of Egyptian AKs, and when approached by the CIA – who were looking for a deniable cache of arms for Afghanistan – were only more than happy help them out.

Charlie Wilson died in 2010 – but his Afghan legacy lives on.  The Egyptian AKs which he helped supply, played a part in the defeat of Soviet forces – which ultimately according to historians, led to the break up of the Soviet Union.  With retrospect it could be argued that he achieved his objective.  But lets hope that these weapons historic role has now ended, and that they fall silent. But knowing Afghanistan’s as I do, I fear that there’s little hope of this happening.

Author : RICHARD C PENDRY is a security consultant, author and public speaker who has been delivering resilience solutions in the form of risk, crisis and business continuity management and Terrorism Awarness to his varied clients since 2005. He holds degrees in Security & Risk Management (Leicester) and Terrorism & Political Violence (St Andrews), his debut novel Damascus Redemption was released in 2016.


  • Hello,

    Kalashnikov rifles were manufactured in Egypt at the “Factory 54,” the Maadi Company for Engineering Industries in Cairo starting in 1968.. Egyptian personnel were trained in the Soviet Union, and the plant was supervised by Russians prior to their expulsion from Egypt at the hands of Anwar Sadat in 1972..All of the tooling came from the Tula plant in Russia. The models seen in Afghanistan are most likely those captured by Israel in the Yom Kippur War. Great article non the less. Thank you.

    • Hey, Thanks for taking time out to read the blog and comment. You maybe be correct about the weapons coming from the Yom Kippur War, but the truth is we will never know for sure.

  • as you know before the arrival of the international forces into Afghanistan, they collected back some of the weapons, such as stingers, Is there any plan for collecting the AK47s from Afghanistan.

    • Mustafa, The Stinger missiles that were provided by the Pakistani ISI with money from the CIA, posed a great risk, and in the wrong hands had the potential to cause havoc in a world reliant of air travel. This is why they were taken out of circulation so emphatically. There is acknowledgement that and abundance of small arms – AK47s and the like – can be a major source of instability in post conflict countries. With small arms and light weapon (SALW) programmes in countries like Libya, needed to reduce weapons that fuel violence and unlawfulness. I am not aware of any SALW programme’s earmarked for Afghanistan, however it might happen in the future. The question then would be however, would the Afghans give up their guns?

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