January 7, 2009:
Afghan traditionalists are changing the way the Taliban fight. This can be seen by the increase in the use of sniping by the Taliban. In the last year, NATO units in southern Afghanistan estimate there has been a 25 percent increase in sniping incidents. This is not seen as a major danger. NATO troops wear protective bests and helmets that can stop bullets fired at long range, making it very frustrating for the Taliban shooters trying to hit a distant target in a vulnerable spot.
This shift in tactics is largely a reaction to the better training, and weapons, of U.S. and NATO infantry. Afghans, and especially the Taliban, consider themselves great warriors. But they are getting tired of being defeated every time they get into a firefight with the foreign troops. Worse yet, if the Taliban stay put during a fight, the damned foreigners bring in a warplane that drops a smart bomb or two, bringing an inglorious (for the Taliban) end to the action.
Then some of the young guys remembered grandpa decrying the decline in marksmanship years ago. Back before the Russians showed up, in the 1980s, the best an Afghan could hope to have was a World War II, or World War I, era bolt action rifle. These weapons were eclipsed in the 1980s by full automatic AK-47s and the RPG rocket launcher. The young guys took to the AK, and the thrill of emptying a 30 round magazine on full automatic. Not bad for a brief firefight, and suddenly hardly anyone, except a few old timers, wanted to use the old bolt action rifle.
What was not noticed much outside of Afghanistan, was that this shift in weaponry brought to an end a long Afghan tradition of precision, long range shooting. Before the 1980s, this skill was treasured for both hunting and warfare. When doing neither, Afghan men played games centered on marksmanship. One, for example, involved a group of men chipping in and buying a goat. The animal was then tethered to a rock, often on a hill, and then the half dozen or so men moved several hundred meters away and drew lots to see who would fire in what order. The first man to drop the goat, won it. 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.
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. The old timers, or a few young traditionalists, kept their Lee-Enfields, and made themselves useful picking off Russian soldiers at long distances, on those rare occasions where that was needed.
The Lee-Enfield is one of the oldest, and still widely used, rifles on the planet. Over 17 million were manufactured between 1895 and the 1980s. While there are more AK-47s out there (over 20 million in private hands), these are looked down on by those who use their rifles for hunting, or killing with a minimum expenditure of ammunition. The 8.8 pound Lee-Enfield is a bolt-action rifle (with a ten round magazine) noted for its accuracy and sturdiness. The inaccurate AK-47 has a hard time hitting anything more than a hundred meters away, while the Lee-Enfield can drop an animal, or a man, at over 400 meters.
There are millions of Lee-Enfields still in use throughout India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even Iraq and other Persian Gulf nations. These are largely World War II leftovers. In the early half of the 20th century, the British gave out millions of these weapons to allies, or those being courted. Noting the accuracy of the Lee-Enfield (.303 caliber, or 7.7mm), the locals came to prize the rifle for hunting, and self-defense. There are still many gunsmiths throughout the region (and at least one factory in India) that will refurbish century old Lee-Enfields to "like new" condition. Ammunition is still manufactured, with the high quality stuff going for a dollar a round, and lesser quality for 25 cents a round. These rifles sell in the west for $500-1,000. The Lee-Enfield will carry on well into the 21st century.
One place where the Lee-Enfield found lots of fans was Afghanistan. There, the Afghans had been introduced to rifles in the 19th century, and they treasured these weapons. This was particularly true with the introduction of smokeless powder rifles in the late 19th century. Many Afghans were still using black powder rifles well into the 20th century. But once Lee-Enfields began show up in large numbers after World War I (1914-18), no one wanted the larger, heavier and less accurate black powder rifles (which always gave off your position, with all that smoke, after you fired a round.) Now, wealthy drug lords are buying expensive hunting and sniper rifles for their militias, but so far, the Taliban Snipers appear to be using grandpa's old Lee-Enfield.