Seizing Insurgent Weapons

ISAF and Afghan forces are finding and removing more insurgent weapons from the battlefield now than ever before, operational reports from front-line units in Afghanistan indicate.

Officials say the proliferation of insurgent cache finds is partly intuitive: the addition of roughly 110,000 more coalition and Afghan forces over the last year has created more opportunities to find illicit weapons, bomb-making materials and drugs.

Another development boosting the trend − one that lends support to the long-term goal of having Afghans provide their own security − is a marked increase in tips from Afghan civilians who are more fed-up with than fearful of insurgents.

After remaining relatively flat for a year, reports of found weapons and other insurgent materiel jumped dramatically in November. Of the roughly 2,700 cache discoveries reported between January 2010 and January 2011, more than half were found in the last four months, according to International Security Assistance Force figures.

Yet ISAF officials remain cautious about the significance of the numbers despite what they say is an obvious upward trend.

Data anomalies resulting from inconsistent reporting of caches in the past have prevented analysts from making many direct comparisons to previous years. Uncertainties about how many weapons are in Afghanistan and insurgents’ ability to acquire replacements for their lost arms further cloud the picture.

Anecdotally, however, there is no doubt that the volume of weapons taken off the battlefield and tips from locals are significant and will hinder insurgents as they try to regroup for a spring offensive.

During one of the slowest weeks in February, coalition and Afghan forces found 71 caches, seizing 36 AK-47 rifles, 60 mortars, 60 rockets, more than 900 pounds of homemade explosives, more than 23,000 rounds of ammunition, and hundreds of other weapons and weapons parts.

Then on March 1, an Afghan-led operation in Kandahar snatched the biggest cache in months. Among the weapons found were 17 heavy anti-aircraft machine guns, 200 recoilless rifle rounds, 200 mortar rounds, three ready-to-go improvised explosive devices and a car bomb rigged with 350 pounds of explosives. Also recovered in the operation were more than a thousand rounds of heavy machine gun ammunition, more than 1,000 pounds of other explosives and explosive-making materials and scores of other weapons and bomb-making parts.

Three days later in Parwan province, a tip to ISAF troops by a local civilian led to a cache of 57 rocket propelled grenades, 21 rockets, 15 boxes of small arms ammunition and 10 recoilless rifle rounds. Such tips have, in recent months, become significant in degrading insurgent capabilites.

Across Afghanistan there were 226 tips and weapons turn-ins between January 2010 and January 2011, accounting for roughly 8 percent of cache finds. Similar tips and turn-ins are nearly routine in some villages where coalition forces regularly operate.

In one village in Uruzgan province, locals have tipped U.S. Special Forces troops off to significant caches four times in a little more than a month. On March 6 alone, Afghan civilians twice alerted U.S. Special Forces patrols – one in Uruzgan and one in Kandahar – to the presence of insurgent weapons.

“The more weapons caches discovered prior to fighting season, the less effective the fighters will be once they return to retrieve and eventually employ them,” a U.S. Special Forces team member said after a local led his patrol to a cache in Uruzgan in early February.

It remains to be seen how significantly the uptick in weapons seizures will impact insurgent operations, which are expected to rebound this month from a winter lull. Yet ISAF is cautiously optimistic that large numbers of militants returning from their winter safe havens will find their weapons gone, hampering their ability to carry out attacks against Afghan civilians and Afghan and coalition forces.

Insurgents “coming back from their hideouts in Pakistan are going to find a very different and difficult environment,” Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, an ISAF spokesman, told reporters Monday.