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Tools of War

The dramatic if quite abstract GIF in the header to this post tracks the rapid return of the Taliban to power as a drawdown of the Forever War. It echoes a sense of loss–a ceding of territory, echoing the “loss” of Korea, China, or Vietnam–as if it were the never imagined conclusion to the War on Terror. It is perhaps just a pivot to an unknown future, where that war will no longer be fought in terms of a map of Afghanistan. But the GIF dramatically collapses the past four years as they unravelled over the months from May to April 13 to August 16, 2021; if it is only one of the several theaters of war, it seems to offer a compelling, if distorting story of a fall of provincial provinces in the state that the United States and NATO committed to rebuilt from 2008, a loss that seems to ratchet up one’s sense of a lost opportunity. The failure to compel Afghanistan to present Osama bin Laden and Taliban officers or training camps led to a huge show of power to render the submission of Afghanistan by bloody bombing campaigns, drone strikes, and military incursions; the loss of what we imagine territory held by our troops seems almost to cleanse the bloodiness of that past history. The advance of the Taliban into areas allegedly once in “government control” offer a wash of deep crimson across the country as the tragic end of the War on Terror, something of a blood bath in the making, a spurt of pink and deep crimson red–as if the bloodshed was not cast by an American show of power.

But the arrival of bloodshed to Afghanistan was something that the United States, of course, brought there on a scale no one had ever before imagined, flooding the nation with arms of a level of modernity as if they would defeat the society we had once called ‘tribal’ and incapable of tactical maneuvering or high-tech weaponry. As the United States assures we are As the area under “Government Control” contracts to an isolated the limited area, leaving us asking how the United States mapped it so badly. As the Government four Presidents promoted military ties contracts to a dot, but the dream of such an independent state now apparently eclipsed and recast into what may now seem more of an inter-regnum of two rulers–Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani–in a Taliban regime. Rather than being cast as a restoration of power, the map illustrated to Americans the fall of an American dream, and an eclipse of the idea of nation-building as a primarily military prospect, that the US Army took over from NATO. The hope to recreate firm borders of Afghanistan at untold expense fell like a house of cards. The Taliban’s strategic operations for controlling the very roads on which they once attacked American and NATO forces, and paralyzing the country’s movement and flexibility of its soldiers or national infrastructure.

The fiction that was long nourished of an Afghan state that America had been able to try to fortify by the importing armaments–the “tools of war”–over more than twenty years. While the map is a visualization that derives from the work of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and poses as a vision charting the erosion or loss of the coherence of a liberal state in the borders of Afghanistan, it both isolates the nation from its broader context in the Middle East and War on Terror–from the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) in Qatar, from the allies of Taliban in Pakistan and elsewhere, or the exit of many Afghan forces as refugees, or the seizure of weapons, humvees, and armored vehicles abandoned by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) who left them behind as they fled north across the border or abandoned their posts. A map of the arrival of firearms and materiel–the procurement of Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and International Military Assistance (IMET) programs that American Presidents are authorized, and with Donald Trump escalated and Barack Obama had previously–would be as helpful, as it would track a vision of a significant increase of security assistance for geopolitical dominance.

Finally revealed: UK drone strikes in Afghanistan by province – Drone Wars  UK
UK Drone Strikes in Afghanistan
Heat htTableaux Heat map of Drone Strikes in Afghanistan by Amderican Military under Presidents Bush, Obmaa, Trump tps://dronewars.github.io/narrative/Map of Drone Strikes in Afghanistan by American Military, Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump (2018)
DRONE WARS | Narrative
Total Drone Strikes in Afghanistan and Somalia by Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump

The investment in drone escalation as a tactical relation to “space” redefined territorial dominance to replace one of community building, often confusing targets with the territory. Drone strikes not only served to “take out terrorist commanders”–but as if this did not destroy the stability of the fabric of a nation America was allegedly trying to rebuild since 2008–defined a view far from the ground. Over 13,000 drone strikes on Afghanistan alone–a minimum of 13,072 strikes killed in Afghanistan alone over 10,000–conducted by the United States Reconnaissance created a landscape being invaded by foreign powers. The dynamic of incessant drone strikes–conducted by a tool not owned by the U.S. military before the Forever Wars, and now showcased in targeted strikes is an invaluable prism to understand the mapping of the land that appears a hope for peace and end to the Forever Wars, as much as a lack of training, strategy, or American assistance. In ways that make drone strike fatalities pale, the recent estimate of 46,310 Afghan civilians–if below half of the estimated 95,000 dead Syrian civilian casualties of the War on Terror–suggests the way that the United States has benefited form the low presence of reporters on the ground.

The war in Afghanistan was located predominantly in the countryside, and across the many provinces that “fell” to a Taliban newly fortified by the windfall of armaments they accumulated as provincial cities, abandoned by the AFSN, fell. The logic that we had supplied the ANSF with sufficient arms to defend the territory reveals a confusion between the territory and the map–and the theater of combat and the situation on the ground. When Joe Biden marveled at how American-trained Afghan security forces Americans out-numbered Taliban fighters fourfold, and possessed better arms, the 298,000 armed ANSF were thinly spread and at low morale; if trained and armed by Americans, perhaps amounting to but 96,000, they lacked decisive advantage against Taliban force of 60-80,000 whose leaders effectively exploited internal weaknesses off the battlefield.

The real map–or the inside story of the progress of the Taliban across the nation–lay the perhaps not control over districts’ capitols, but the many well-stocked bases, airfields, and army depots long cultivated by American troops. The long-running bases across the country–sites with often mythic and storied names, like Kandahar and Bagram airfield, where tens of thousands of United States soldiers had been stationed from 2001–had posed a site of immense military materiel that the . The Bagram Airfield was a site for drones, of course, but also for storing cutting edge Blackhawk helicopters that the United States committed to Afghan forces, even if they were not well-trained in using or maintaining them, munitions, and firearms, even if the larger American aircraft and drones were withdrawn. As American forces withdrew, the rifles, ammunition, and tactical vehicles–as well as cars–were left at bases that the Taliban had long attacked–as Bagram—and had their eyes and were particularly keen. American commanders, as if intending to disrupt the withdrawal’s smoothness, disrupted the smooth transition by not even telling Afghans before they arrived at the Kabul airport–allowing the looting of laptops from Bagram, as a sort of bonanza, by local residents, before the arrival of Taliban forces. Over three million items were abandoned in Bagram, from food to small weapons, ammunition, and vehicles–as if presuming that the “tribal” Taliban did not know how to use them, or not caring, before they down-powered the entire base–doubting that they could ever operate them. As ammunition for weapons not being left for the AFSN was destroyed, the abandonment of materiel, planes, helicopters and ground vehicles followed departure from ten other bases before Biden took office, often over NATO objections–that bestowed a huge symbolic victory of sorts to the Taliban of having driven foreigners from the land as they long promised, if not one of military materiel as wall. If American military argued “They can look at them, they can walk around — but they can’t fly them. They can’t operate them,” the ludic inversion of Taliban displaying armaments of Americans was profound theater of deep symbolic capital.

Taliban forces celebrate the withdrawal of US forces in Kandahar.
Taliban Forces Celebrate American Withdrawal from Kanadahar

If the hundreds of bases that Americans sent soldiers had long declined to dozens, the withdrawal of American forces without clear coordination with Afghans left a vast reserve of symbolic military material ready for the taking. How much was left at the bases closed in Helmand province, Laghman province, or Kunduz, as well as the bases in Nangahar, Balkh, Faryab and Zabul? Did these sites, and the reduction of American presence in Jalalabad Air Field, Kandahar Air Field, and Bagram not provide targets on which the Taliban long had eyes? The seizure of Kandahar provided an occasion for a triumphal procession of sorts, showcasing armored vehicles, as Blackhawk helicopters flying the Taliban flag flew in the skies overhead. In a poor country, the large prizes of American bases stood out like centers of wealth inequality, stocked with energy drinks, full meals, medical care and other amenities, and stockades were impossible to fully empty as the American bases closed from 2020.

Sites Supported by United States Military in Afghanistan, 2006/Globalsecurity.org

Few gave credence to Taliban boasts 1,533 ANSF joined the Taliban by May, or that June saw another 1,300 surrender, but the numbers of deserters only grew, expanding “contested” areas where Government forces lost ground without a fight. All of this crucial information is absent from the map, but we still believe, despite all we might have learned from Tolstoy, that generals and strategists determine the state of play on a battlefield, without knowing how the war was waged, or that the war was never seen as geopolitical–as it was waged–but across borders and rooted much more locally on the ground, as Taliban entered sites of former bases, and amassed arms caches in a drive of increasing momentum to Kabul–one of the only areas that wasn’t bombed so intensively, hoping it would be a reprieve from the violent bombed out landscapes on the ground.

For a war that was long pursued remotely, the image of territorial “loss” obscured the failure of engineering a transition to democracy. We have already begun debating the extent to which an executive decision-making shouldered full responsibility for the folding of the government of Afghanistan that followed the withdrawal of United States soldiers. –and air cover. We like to imagine that an American President has continued to steer global dialogue about the Afghanistan War, the remainder and reduced proxy of the War on Terror. Perhaps it is that we have a hard time to imagine a sense of an ending, and loose the ability to imagine one, and have lost any sense of a conclusion to the War on Terror that was long cast as a “just war,” against evil, and in terms of a dichotomy between good and bad, as if to disguise its protracted disaster. If we could never “see” the results of a an end to the War on Terror, Orwellianly, we were told it was not endless–Americans must have patience, said President George W. Bush as he promised us he had, to pursue a simple, conclusive, and final end to terrorism, assuring us the war would not, appearances to the contrary, grow open-ended, with a “mission creep” even greater than the Vietnam War. Barack Obama, after he presided over the military surge, hoped to “turn the page” on it in 2016. But any “exit” receded, and may not even be able to be dated 2021–as we imagine–but more protracted and indefinite than resolute–as Barack Obama, who presided over the military “surge”–hoped to “turn the page” and wind down by 2016. The logic of the war grew, as if deriving from Bush’s refusal to negotiate as was requested after the eight day of the bombing campaign, or move Osama bin Laden to a third country, but employ military might to force destruction of the camps of the Taliban, and delivery of all Taliban, fixating on the Taliban escalated the war far as an American struggle, far beyond attention to the situation on the ground.

The nightmarish reversion of Afghan territories was seen as the culmination of the withdrawal of American troops at large levels, almost achieved by President Obama in 2016, after the heights of the first “Surge” in 20011, but which was delayed by President Trump. The war that refused to end or conclude was never seen as a protracted struggle–or presented as one–but it was, and perhaps because of this never had any end in sight. “This is not another Vietnam” was announced by the father of that President, President George H.W. Bush in 1990. Americans changed the organizational structure and leadership of Afghan troops with each U.S. President, making it hard to conclude or manage, shifting how Afghans were trained, that must have encouraged a sense of clientelism and corruption of which the Afghan government became increasingly accused–and perhaps introducing a lingering suspicion of corruption and clientelism, more than bringing anything like a modern fighting army or New Model Army. There was never a sense of refusing to leave for fear that the failure that the maps depicted of the collapse of all districts of the new “Afghanistan” depended on continued American investment and support to endure.

Although the rapid reversion of districts to Taliban is far more likely to remain perceived by Republicans as a fiasco in leadership, the poor state of the country and ineffectiveness to work with the increased military materiel it was provided as if the army members did not have to be motivated and organized. The impossibility of mapping the geopolitical interests America felt onto the Security Forces–Lt. General William Caldwell IV reflected Defense Dept. opinion in the military when he assured the world Afghanistan National Security Forces were effective and trained, in fact “probably the best-trained, the best-equipped and the best-led of any forces we’ve developed yet inside of Afghanistan,” by June 2011, after a decade of military training, and only able to get better, even if American Generals were clear they would tolerate a degree of chaos, and didn’t want Afghans to be defining priorities, but only to instill a “particular kind of stability“: by 2016, National Security officials openly worried about the lack of any metrics–levels of violence, control over territory, or Taliban attacks that presented or projected confidence. The distrust, missed assessment and mutual mis-communications between American Generals who promoted and mistrusted Afghan troops whose efficiency they promoted created a disconnect between Americans as they downplayed the military ability of the Taliban, regarded as lacking sufficient air capacity or military prowess to command the nation or pose a threat to the Afghan Security Forces who folded before the Taliban’s military and threats of reprisals.

Is it possible to trace a transfer of military technologies and armaments in the twenty years since the crashing of airplanes into the Twin Towers by jihadist militants and the appropriation of sophisticated arms, night-goggles and humvees of members of the same Taliban who now occupy Baghdad? At the same time as American purchasers of handguns and firearms grew, the transfers of weapons and military firearms to the Afghan areas–UAE; Saudi Arabia; and especially Qatar–in a massive transfer of military technology that paralleled the emergence of the very groups cast as primitive rebels who had commandeered aircrafts to strike the Twin Towers into an efficient user of enhanced military tools and technologies, rather than the primitives who occupied the outer peripheries, but were both trained and prepared to occupy a nation’s center in disarmingly modern ways. Although the image of the plans flying into the Twin Towers presented an image of modernity versus premodernity, a lens through which the protracted war was pursued, as we cast the Taliban as “tribal,” and drove the Taliban into the opium production business, selling “modern” weapons and military tools into Afghanistan, the dichotomy of modern and primitive failed to present anything like a proper lens to pursue the war, although it was one American military had adopted on cue from an American President who had promised a “crusade” in no uncertain terms.

9/11

Perhaps the story of the War on Terror, in both its Afghanistan chapter and in other ways, demands to be written, when it is, as a massive transformation from the perspective of a shift of military engagement on the ground, and the military experience of the soldier, or what John Keegan called “the face of battle,” rather than the grand narratives of a conflict of civilizations in which it was framed. If the experience and strategic outlook Keegan emphasized might well be expanded, following increased awareness, to the long-term psychological and physical costs to those who were fighting, the erosion and fraying of the sense of nation and national motivation for combat must be included in the history as well, but the shift in war experience of the soldier must have shifted far more dramatically for how the “sharp end of war” appeared for the generation of the Taliban who matured in a terrain where American weapons had increasingly arrived in abundance to become part of the landscape of the state, and might be understood in terms of the shifting eras of military engagement from being attacked by bombers, targeted by drones–none of which were owned by the U.S. Army before the war, a telling index of engagement that reflects the way the war was in fact pursued at its sharp face. While in America disdain candidate Obama showed for how his opponent thought the military operated by measuring might by its navy or air force–“we have these things called aircraft carriers . . .,” suggesting one might use cavalry or bayonets as metrics in the Presidential debates in condescending tones–the shifting theater of military engagement of the Taliban, from placement of IED devices to the mastery of roadways and local influence–more than the numbers of American soldiers on the ground.

From IED placement to suicide bombers, to rifles, kalashnikov, helicopters, and humvees, Taliban developed a new mastery of terrain, control of road networks for shipping materiel, to a n increasingly sophisticated tactical and performative use of arms and modern fighting tools that altered its experience and skill at the “sharp face of war” that we ignore, or attribute to outside assistance from Pakistani military, preferring to see the Taliban as primitive fighters without access to the technology America possesses and our provision of military “aid” as destined for “Security Forces” alone, rather than for a theater of war.

1. The current appeal of the clear mapping of the “fall” of Afghan districts to Taliban omits any senses of the line of battle. This is perhaps convenient for the military observers, who digest the war as it is pursued by American interests alone, even the NATO presence was increasingly defined in terms of the development of Afghan forces and democracy, although the “military alliance” shared by America and its Afghan ally is most often understood only in American terms. In mapping the “fall” of districts as if they were of purely strategic outposts in a geopolitical game, the map not only ignores the face of battle, but emblematizes the mis-mapping of American geopolitical interests onto Afghan interests. Despite the continued perhaps overzealous promotion of the skills of Afghan Security and the continued presence of American and NATO military failed to transition to Afghan Security Forces, even if we have continued to equip them with robust “tools of war,” without having trained them fully to fight our wars or to imagine their territorial mastery as anything like a strategic advantage for themselves.

Although the first elected President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, was a friendly figure for Americans, trained in international relations and fond of Islamic philosophy, the promise invested in him as a “transitional figure” uniting “all Afghans” was better received by the British Queen and American President, Americans have been more concerned to map Afghan strategy as if it aligned with American interests, and a global war on terror, which Afghan Security Forces were deputized to adopt. We had long mapped the Taliban Resistance or “neo-Taliban” after the Taliban had been crushed as confined in the mountians, rather than in terms of its engagement with the “sharp face” of battle and its toll on both soldiers and the civilians who lived it. We saw the Taliban as an “insurgency” confined to the mountains as if these were the margins of the nation, and located them in Tribal grounds that were opposed to the vision of a central state–or as the inhabitants of a “Triangle of Terror” they had created.

File:Neotaliban insurgency 2002-2006 en.png
“Neo-Taliban Insurgency, 2002-6”
“Triangle of Terror”

In the images of Afghanistan’s “fall,” the “face of battle” is conveniently absent. In the visualizations of “district control” that were produced in the maps of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy and reproduced across Western media, serving lambasted President Biden for some sort of dereliction of duty in concluding a forty-year old poorly thought out war? Democracy becomes something that the United States defends in these maps–or deputized Afghans to learn to defend–but the American President is suddenly seen as asleep at the wheel and not vigilant, the reverse of the image of a powerful Commander-in-Chief we desire, or the necessary and needed military “genius” who can strategically protect the national interests these visualizations reveal to have been tragically imperiled. And so we watch the “fall” of districts that had never gained independent unity, as if they failed to protect themselves from a theocratic opposition. We pretended that the failure was not the entry of increased materiel to the nation, but the global dismay at the levels of arms that are left in Afghanistan–more than are possessed by some NATO countries, and an unknown remainder of the $83 billion of materiel shipped to that nation–and the failure of Afghans to learn to use them against the Taliban, as if they were the exponents shaped by a Triangle of Terror, not affected by the shifting face of battle and “sharp edge” of war.

Increasingly, the promotion of the image of success in containing the Taliban that the U.S. Government promoted was doubted in the press, and seen as not an accurate reflection of the dominant role that the Taliban already had gained and controlled in Afghanistan, but which United States military assessments had rather dishonestly diminished, a scneario in which the maps of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy provided a needed reality check as the true crowd-sourced story of the limited amount of control that the Afghan Government controlled. The extent to which the misleading military map by which the US government was seen as exaggerating and misleading the public on Afghanistan was US government is exaggerating and misleading the public on Afghanistan reflected the more bracing judgements of the right-wing Long War Journal, which valued its ability to present a clear-eyed view of America’s strategic interests in an unvarnished or not sugar-coated geopolitical assessment that America needed in the Trump era, when the confidence in our own government declined.

We did not ever map the “sharp edge” of war, preferring to view the nation from above, either against a “Triangle of Terror” we sought to bomb and domesticize, or parsed into tribal affiliations that became the preferred means of translating Afghanistan to an American audience, which almost acknowledge the failed imperial fantasy to project Afghanistan as a nation with clear sovereign borders, or to define an objective for Afghan independence that is not backward-looking, and rooted in the cartographic attempts of Great Britain in the nineteenth century, translated into the crucial “buffer” function that might contain Pakistan, and stabilize Central Asia in a geopolitical struggle defined by the War on Terror, and not the situation on the ground, or how Americans altered that situation by their increasing military presence and profile. As the Taliban slowly gained ground over the years, and in which the logic of waging war as a protracted struggle had ceased to be worth the $6.4 trillion American taxpayers have invested in post-9/11 wars through FY2020, in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan–and the escalating future costs that the war would mean. As we have lost sight of the logic of continuing the “forever wars” into the Biden Presidency, and the vision of a “just war” has become clouded and polluted in the Trump yeas, we have lost site of any ability to imagine the ground plan for the resolution of the continuation of a War on Terror or imagine at what scale such a conclusion might ever occur.

To be sure, the advance of Taliban was not how we wanted to imagine it as a restoration of “normalcy” or a status quo, and a rejection of a theocratic government for a secular liberal ideal. But perhaps the image of Afghanistan as a liberal state was indeed a failed project, and it only existed in maps that had outlived their usefulness or reflection of the area on the ground. The “fall” of Afghanistan reflects the inability to contain the Taliban from the nation, and the weird blindness that America–and the American military and perhaps military intelligence–have to the effects of war on Afghanistan on the ground, wanting to believe in a clear chain of command, recognizable in other militaries, in the AFSN. The GIF seems to raise as many questions as it resolves of the fall of Afghanistan’s provinces to imagine what that ending looks like. As much as the number of districts that speedily negotiated a resolution of hostilities with the Taliban, the fall of Afghanistan and painful and deadly withdrawal from Kabul has been cast as the final cataclysmic episode of the War on Terror, as if President Joseph R. Biden–and Donald Trump before him–had already decided on a military withdrawal from the region was both long planned, and was indeed a means of cutting losses and leaving a region to re-dimension or re-scale the War on Terror that had been fought.

The mapping of the collapse of Afghan districts to the Taliban, cast as sudden and without any sense of occurrence, seem to justify the continuation of that war, but track the erosion of a territorial war, long morphed into a struggle whose aims are unclear. Maps that suggest a “country” of Afghanistan as land that was lost help us imagine that the authority of US forces might have trumped geography. And so we are retrospectively questioning the reporting of intelligence on the ground, trying to read the records of intelligence, or debate the false confidence projected by U.S. military through the final years of the campaign, as if this were an American decision, and a reflection of American global authority, as a microcosm of the image of the United States in the world theater, and seem to present the reassuring picture of a scenario of global politics in which wars are still fought on the ground, and which the loss of the War on Terror was not a failure of the American military, but the ceding of land by Afghans themselves who lacked ability or conviction to fight the war against theocracy that was largely scripted by American Presidents and military–who were unwilling to share their sense of their mission in Afghanistan with Afghan leaders, certain, as last as 2016, that Afghan “priorities are different from ours”–perhaps making it impossible for Afghans to take charge, as leadership of the nation was less of a gridded battlefield that became the dominant graphic that filtered, processed and mediated the withdrawal of American forces across the mainstream media.

In viewing a nation as a battlefield, we are not looking at the right map, or perhaps not looking at the right maps at all–or at the role that the arrival of military weapons played in the rendering “Afghanistan” all the more difficult to map. Perhaps the exportation of arms to the Middle East and to Afghanistan in the years since the nation’s invasion provides a better legend, and indeed a necessary legend, to map how control slipped out of the increasingly corrupt Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, established in 2004 after the United States as it assumed control of most of the country, which has been ceded–and destroyed–by the advance of the Taliban. The drawdown of troops in the country from the heights of the first surge under President Obama of 10,000 men and women has in fact been declining for years, but we have not noticed, or even looked closely at it. Yet the compelling nature of visualizations of “control” over individual districts by 2020 seemed a sudden loss of the nation, a progression of a fall of provinces culminating in the Taliban taking control over almost all of Afghanistan’s provinces, and entering Kabul, perhaps as Afghanistan seems a fitting theater or field for the master-trope of America’s imperial decline. Indeed, the attention in media maps to the delusion at an apparent absence of groundplan for American extrication or withdrawal.

These graphic visualizations are hardly accurate maps, but conveniently omit all information about the “sharp end” of battle, falling back on the geostrategic place of “control” over provinces–is this by the flags flying in their capitals? what is control in a war-torn area?–that can be understood as an element of a “Global War on Terror,” rather than the ways that the war was fought. As uncomfortable as such images might be, we prefer the “objective” GPS image “mapping” control, not pausing to ask what they miss or distort, or process the war in an episode on the War on Terror, or a lost field of battle for Afghan independence which it has long ceased to be.

The time-lapse visualization in the header to this post, of Afghan provinces shifting from “Government Control” or “Contested” to “Taliban Control” offers an image of dramatic impact, as if it were real-time, compelling as a tragic narrative, but erases the deep roots of the “lightning drive” of Taliban forces, fueled in large part both by absence of administrative unity and a massive uncoordinated influx and abandonment of arms–both left to Afghan Security forces or in caches. So strong was the flow of arms to Afghanistan and Qatar from the United States that the Biden administration only suspended arms contractors from delivering pending arms sales. Caches of arms left abandoned by Afghan Security Forces and, presumably, American military who had left them to be used by Government forces, not only destabilized the landscape of local government, but amplified a landscape by men with guns long fed by the over $40 billion contracts for firearms and ammunition flowing to the Middle East since 9/11. But if Biden assessed the Afghan Security Forces as being “as well-equipped as any army in the world” in contrast to the Taliban–and greatly outnumbering Taliban fighters–the long-term distrust of Afghan priorities and concerns left them with little sense of a common grounds for defense. As Americans were making similar assurances, Afghans were already fleeing in July to Tajikistan, where over a thousand Security Forces had already fled.

The arrival of the Taliban did not embody the victory of a theocratic to a secular regime that Americans have cast the War on Terror. The arrival of the Taliban as an armed infantry group, with its own modern military power, is an unwritten history, but was fueled by the arrival of an increased number of weapon that arrived in the region, and the transmission of military technologies across borders in ways that American governments could not perhaps imagine. Whether they were not exposed to the arrival of high tech arms of US manufacture in previous years or not, the idea that the arms that allowed Taliban members to arrive with speed in Kabul and negotiate a ready capitulation of districts, perhaps with Pakistani assistance, the seizure of of an unaccounted number of weapons caches turbocharged the advance to Kabul, in ways that not registered adequately in daunting images of the shift in districts to Taliban control. Such visualizations map a checkerboard of district that seem to track the government “control” of districts that image the erosion of a secular vision of Afghanistan. The division of Afghan lands into “districts” is almost a shorthand for the localism of Afghan politics, an admission of the difficulty of knitting together a secular state from into a centralized state, was never resolved by occupying forces or the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. More than confirm the alienation of ethnic groups from the vision of an allegedly secular government, inter-ethnic divisions have dramatically grown in the place of a coherent strategy for forging a multi-ethnic state, emblematized by an unknown CIA analysts’ map of circa 2017, that continued to map a nation bound by the red line of Afghanistan’s historical border–the “Durand” line, negotiated in the last decade of the nineteenth century–a conceit bisecting a region of Pashtun dominance and mountainous terrain that poses questions of Afghanistan’s ‘borders’ as much as it answers them. Was the retention of this imperial cartographic imaginary not suited for the sense that Afghanistan, as Samuel Moyn argued, offered a chance for the “last gaps if imperial nostalgia” in the post-Trump years, that was, improbably, able to play across the political spectrum?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is cia-map-durand_line_border_between_afghanistan_and_pakistan-1.jpg
CIA Analyst’s Map of Afghanistan, Pashtun dominance in Blue “Tribal Belt” (CIA, c. 2007)

Is it possible that the among of weapons funneled into Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia that have disguised the cost of the War on Terror to some degree have created a huge concentration of arms in Afghanistan.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)

If a rationale for the increased ability of Taliban members both to manipulate negotiations may lie in their attention to negotiations at Doha, their use military weapons may lie in the increased arrival of arms in the region. The escalation of imports and sales of arms to Afghanistan–many not registered or under the radar–escalated in the course of the Afghanistan War, and reflect a growing geopolitical significance that the nation was given to the United States, rather frighteningly similar to Vietnam, if the withdrawal from Afghanistan has been most focussed on as the greatest similarity between these two long wars, both fought at considerable hemispheric remove, only conceivable as they were logistically mapped by GPS. In both cases, wars were pursued across a complex and often oversimplified logistic chain, pursuing an elusive vision of global dominance or geopolitical strategy, whose obstacle appeared a lack of geopolitical “vision”: but was the presumption of a possibility of “global military dominance” that mismapped both military projects from a purely American point of view. The flattening of the effects of waging war only seems to have increased, paradoxically, as the geopolitical significance of Afghanistan overwhelmed the well-being of its residents, blotting it out, as the country modernized by force as it became a focus of the arms trade.

2. The investment of American taxpayers’ monies in the region was astounding, and hardly democratic, so much as a tantamount to a massive dereliction of national vision amidst the faulty reprioritization of mission creep that may be attributed as much to the military-industrial complex as to leadership or governance. Over half of all American foreign military financing arrived in Afghanistan directly by 2008, but aid had long flowed to Mujahideen and other insurgents through Pakistan, yet in later years billions of substantial materiel flowed via Qatar, location of the $1 billion CENTCOM headquarters where Americans coordinated all air operations in Afghanistan–a small nation that became the tenth largest importer of arms in the world, after South Korea, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, from 2015-19, largely from the United States, with contributions from France and Germany, jumping by 631% from 2010-14–becoming the eighth-largest market share in arms imports for 2016-2020 behind South Korea.

The absence of attention to the situation in the ground is nowhere more apparent than in the GIF that is the header to this post, which reveals the “fall” of Afghan districts to the Taliban from April, 2021. We map the hasty conclusion of the long war in GIF’s of districts, as in the header of this post, the flattening of a country that has been divided for over forty years, a form provided by the Long War Blog. The division of inhabitants of the land, or the effects of previous combat on the nation’s infrastructure and sense of security, is hardly rendered in the shape-files that flip from one hue to the other, suggesting a “lightning” advance of a militarized Taliban, evoking a sudden loss of a territorial advantage for which Americans long fought, and for which Aghans are to blame. Yet as much as the linked maps of “district control” suggest a traumatic collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the ally of the past five American Presidents, the maps collapse or elide the deep disturbances the war and importation of arms has brought to the territory that lies beneath the map, or oversimplified visualization of regional control.

Financial Times via Global Investigative Journalism, “The Taliban’s March”
source: Foundation for the Defense of Democracy’s “Long War Journal” by Mike Roggio

The quandary of designating Afghan regions by questions of “control” presumed a sense of stability and allegiance more akin to an idealized military map than to the situation on the ground. The checkerboard image of areas of “government” and areas of “Taliban” control became thinly veiled covers for a Global War on Terror in which the United States defined itself on the side of the good, that was current in a variety of maps long after the First Surge. In the context of the broad drawdown of American troops after the First Surge, as US troops level fell below 10,000 and Afghan Security Forces were celebrated for their effectiveness, the Taliban made steady gains on the ground. But the maps that suggested “stability” in government-held areas created a cocoon from which to affirm stability of a regime that never had broad institutional support as if the dangers it faced were from an “insurgency” 2002-6, and promoted an image of government control within the outlines of a national map, arriving from outside of a nation that still had retained its integrity and clear bounds as if they were able to be preserved.

“Neo Taliban Insurgency, 2002-6”

Even as Taliban presence was more clearly established than we liked to map, the image of the Taliban as outsiders in Tribal lands created a sense of justifying a “civilizing mission” that was understood as more pacific than military, underpinned by a myth or conceit that the disciplined bodies of American warriors would beat the undisciplined bodies of the Taliban. This myth was confusing the goals of the military occupation, but creating an increasingly real edge for Afghans who experienced much more fully “the sharp edge of war” both forged increased bonds between the members of the military and the fighters and the landscape among the generations of Taliban fighters, and their logic of responding to a military strategy American generals mismapped on a geostrategic checkerboard–the very checkerboard that Foundation for the Defense of Democracies encouraged us to understand the success, progress, or challenges of combat, and indeed control their fears and responses to technologies of combat imported to the region by the United States.

Fall of Districts by July 1, 2021, documented by Fazl Raman Muzary, from local media and on the ground reports

The deep concern of a lack of “strategic vision” was not the best way to understand military engagement of Taliban forces, or to cast the compact shift of district loyalty after the American withdrawal. But these terms provided the terms to condemn and bewail the broad geopolitical military failure read into the maps of Taliban advance in August, 2021, apparently confirming that the AFSN had built up as our surrogate was unable to “face” the Taliban militia we continue to cast as “rebels” or “insurgents.” But the negotiated settlement allowed te rapid fall of a number of districts, as while it required the Taliban cease hostilities with NATO and American troops who had negotiated the settlement, the terms allowed Taliban forces to concentrate on negotiating settlements with local regions, exploiting divisions and existing corruption of Ghani’s Afghan government, boosted by the concessions to release 5,000 prisoners in the past, and the opening of jails in districts whose centers they captured or negotiated a solution.

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Filed under Afghanistan War, data visualization, military maps, military weapons, War on Terror

On the Growing Global Migration of Guns

Although we’ve been entreated to fear Syrian immigrants as posing potential threats to national safety, rather than with sympathy, as if they held sleeper cells of terrorists more than people in need.  (Bills intending to block states from funding refugee resettlement have been introduced or are under consideration in Missouri and South Carolina, as programs of federal resettlement of Syrian refugees has been challenged in Tennessee, Kansas, Mississippi, and Arizona.)  The fearsome specter of terrorists seems to surpass the humanitarian needs and obligations of the United States, however, as if our borders needed securing–rather than thwarting terrorism by limiting the arms in circulation that enter their hands.  For the recent evocation of a terrifying specter of terrorist threats that arrive from afar–posing as refugees–hints at the profiling of Muslims suspected as terrorists, for Donald Trump, and  deflects attention from the unprecedented scale of the circulation of small arms within our borders–as well as from outside of them.

Indeed, few Americans seem  to be conscious of the expanding traffic and sales of firearms worldwide, from the trusted Kalashnikov pictured in the header to the increased guns that have entered circulation–and the problem of encompassing their traffic and its effects pose steep cognitive challenges.

 

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The heightened availability of guns and the expansion of the national gun trade, however, seems more deeply dangerous to our safety than anything arriving from outside of our frontiers.  Indeed, in pointing to the dangers of terrorist threats, we may fail to take account for the scope of the growing traffic in guns–and indeed the trafficking and “migration’ of guns world-wide, lest they fail to be more clearly mapped.

It seems easier to fear a refugee, after all, than the firearms whose open circulation ever expands.  The purported threat of sleeper cells entering the country’s allegedly increasingly fragile borders is both a casualty of a toxic Presidential race and a crisis in global geography, in which eyes are easily drawn to red flags raised on nations’ borders, while expanding trading zones of firearms or munitions are rarely mapped with any attention to detail.  The impossibility to map or foresee threatened firearms attacks are in fact imagined at a remove from the global routes of migration that firearms regularly take in their global sales across boundaries of jurisdiction.

For we repeatedly re-map the scope of the global refugee crisis in hopes to indicate its seemingly unprecedented scope, and increasingly pronounced local reactions to the increased number of Syrian refugees, but fail to map the ever-expanding market for rapid-fire guns–including that most “democratic” of all weapons, the streamlined Kalashnikov.  But as we do so, we ignore threats of an expanding free market in firearms which has grown so rapidly to be difficult to map, let alone tally.  Although firearms and guns that are the tragic means to perpetrate recent attacks that have cost increased numbers of lives as well as bodily and psychic casualties, the expansion of licit and illicit trading zones of small firearms has occurred in recent years that make discussions of declining violent crime in the nation, the astounding number of over 30,000 deaths from firearms this year–arriving at a rate 130,000 people shot each month–so surpass abilities for easy comprehension to take the eye off of the increased number of firearms in open circulation.  And so, when we point to the dangers of refugees, we find a target that displaces attention from maps of shootings in our own neighborhoods,

 

USA Shot by GUns

Slate/Gun Violence Archive

the lack of decline of firearm-related deaths in the country, the persistently growing number of firearms-related incidents, or the number of mass shootings since Sandy Hook, and, of course, from the circulation of increasing numbers of firearms.  And we do not even know how these guns move–although, according to work of Everytown Research, the expansion of unlicensed gun sales over the internet, social media, and site such as armslist.com have been tied to increased gun violence; such sites indeed attract buyers with criminal records–mostly including domestic violence and felon records that would prohibit them from legal gun sales–as a way to circumvent background checks, but provide an increasing means to transport guns in need of legal oversight.

 

Mass Shootings Since Sandy HookVox/ShootingTracker.com

 

There is, after all, considerable quantifiable satisfaction in indicating numbers and routes of immigrants from the Middle East that can be clearly mapped–as if they contained the sleeper cells of Jihadist threats–but a failure to map the expanding circulation of guns that are the means for such disruptive violence or even to comprehend the scale and stakes of the global gun trade.  For it places one at a somewhat myopic remove from understanding the nature of terrorist threats.   Perhaps we’re blinded to it, in part, given how much more common gun ownership remains in the US than in other countries.

The growing circulation of firearms and automatic rifles across countries is not a reason for, so much as a consequence of terrorist activity.  But it is the chosen and highest impact route for orchestrating attempts at violently and suddenly destabilizing a state and civil society.  The Kalashnikov, indeed, looks like a somewhat remote and less grizzly reminder of the spate of gun violence we have increasingly seen in recent years, often through automatic guns outfitted with much more rapid-fire magazines.  But the suggestion of foreign agents who might perpetrate gun violence raises more curiosity than obfuscation.  And so, when several governors in the United States took to identify points of vulnerability in groups of Islamic immigrants, they openly demonized the foreign provenance of a population of refugees–by metaphors of disease.   The readiness with which state governors took it upon themselves to try to ease panic by directing attention to refugees’ entry into the country–even as some questioned whether “states have the authority to decide whether or not we can take refugees”–suggests a dangerous degree of myopia.

 

states not accepting-syrian-refugees-exlarge-169

Their show of bravado not only undermined human rights accords, but almost directs attention from the growing danger of multiplying markets of guns among those “engaging in the business,” legally or illegally, of selling guns.   For the problems of understanding the expanding paths by which ever-increasing numbers of guns circulate–path far less easily tracked, but also challenging collective comprehension.  The construction of the United States as a closed universe–all too easily visualized as a hermetically sealed land of local governance–seems a particularly perilous premise in a landscape of the international flows of firearm trading, however helpful it is to indicate the stances each governor took.   The constellation of quasi-autonomous political entities seems unrealistically impervious to the undercurrents that lap its shores.

 

Governors and Immagrants.pngNational Public Radio (November 15, 2015)

 

By trumpeting such fake fears, the lack of orientation to the scale alone of guns’ sale is obfuscated, since it is so hard to articulate compared to fears of terror attacks by sleeper cells.   (Insisting on the need to ensure our borders, they ignore that many Syrian refugees referred for refugee status in the US are children under 12 years in age.)   The proposed protective closure of state boundaries distract us from the broad dimensions with which guns have come to circulate at large–and indeed the disorienting nature that the circulation of guns has within most things we can actually measure.  If Justin Peters found, based on data six years old,  approximately 310 million firearms to exist in the United States–a count broken down into 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns–but the numbers are not complete.  A $489 million domestic market for non-military assault-style rifles Smith & Wesson reported in 2011 has grown, according to the Freedom Group, at a compound annual rate of 3 percent and for assault-style rifles at almost 30%; the NRA reported at least 1,626,525 AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles sold in domestically from 1986 to 2007, whose numbers have since grown far beyond 2.5 million; including foreign-made rifles, the count of assault-style rifles alone surpasses 3.5 million.

Meanwhile the United States continues to shatter records in surging exports of global arms sales, exceeding the 66 billion dollar record high of 2011, far beyond the $31 billion record of 2009, and totaling the $67.3 billion exports of armaments sold in 1994-96 in a single year:  another $7 billion worth of excess surplus arms it exported at free or deeply discounted arms rates from 1990-95.  And as the US government continues to shatter records in global arms sales, it sets something of a message for the growing traffic in arms worldwide.  The collective growth of a global traffic in arms goes scarily unmapped, as we have lost a sense of how many guns in fact circulate world-wide.  It conceals a deep ignorance of the actual vectors or pathways of global violence in the traffic of guns and assault weapons whose numbers have not only increased but so dramatically grown in the United States alone that we have no actual idea how many firearms are actually in circulation–if those entering circulation has risen dramatically, as revealed in the number of monthly background checks over ten years–and almost inexorably so since 2008.

monthly-permit-related-nics-checks-1999-2014NRA/Institute or Legislative Action

 

1. The solemn insistence by governors to refuse to admit refugees for public safety obscures the almost four-fold growth in the number of guns in circulation in the US from 2000.  We not only just don’t know how many hundreds of millions of guns are in circulation, since the self-reported number is rarely willingly disclosed with true accuracy–“especially if [gun-owners] are concerned that there may be future restrictions on gun possession or if they acquired their firearms illegally,” as the Pew Research Center concluded in 2013.  We don’t know how many guns circulate in the nation.  And this was before 2015 brought more background checks than any year in American history–even if such checks are only required in but fourteen states.  To be sure, the conjuring of terrorist threats migrating in concealment diverts attention from how the circulation firearms provide tools to perpetrate such deadly attacks.

As if in concert with accusations of national weakness and the need to secure frontiers, the expansive global currency in light firearms and assault weapons may indeed puncture The increasing ease of purchasing and accumulating assault weapons defines terrorism as nothing else:   acts of terror reflect expanding of a “free” legal and illegal market of firearms,  which permits the sort of domestic stockpiling of arsenals by individuals, as much as the indoctrination of terrorists over the internet by indoctrinating videos.   Amedy Coulibaly famously kept an array of AK-47s and ammunition stacked in a hamper in his home.  And the firearms legally purchased firearms as the AR-15’s used in the  San Bernardino mass shooting, bought at a local retail chain, Turner’s Outdoorsman, and later modified with larger capacity magazines–raising questions of whether the arms should be sold without clearer background checks, even as other voices remain firm that concealed weapons could have prevented the deadly attacks Tafsheen Malik staged with with AR15s, before fleeing in a black Ford Explorer with more than 1600 bullets in the car. The stockpiling of arms by the Pakistani Malik and her husband Syed Farook, who she joined in the United States from June 2013, after being subject to background checks, was enabled by the wide availability of arms in the United States.

 

BN-LO495_1204gu_P_20151204131326

 

Despite demands to create better surveillance and management of bullet sales, fears of government encroaching on gun ownership led the AFT to openly withdraw the proposals.

 

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It is not any secret that the proportions of the growing global traffic of arms has escalated in particularly dizzying ways.  Providing a better mapping of the scale and circulation of the transaction of such assault rifles may not be a measure against their later use.  But better mapping their density and volumes of scale seems increasingly important when illegal gun trafficking is increasingly incumbent in a thriving underground and above-ground gun trade.  Is defense of permissive attitudes to gun sales really an excuse for not mapping the migration of guns in actual inter-connected webs of human exchange?

The increased fetishization of ‘open carry’ in America seems something like a terrifying public pronouncement of one’s ability to exist in a world without clear purchase on the increasing numbers of guns that have come to be regularly exchanged–and even carried openly in public in times of peace.

 

Bill Pugliano Gun Activitists    Bill Pugliano–Getty Images

 

Assault weapons are not only purchased at gun shows or sporting good stores, but are in need of better mapping nationwide.  About 50,000 yearly cross state lines on underground networks of interstate traffickers, often subverting one state’s gun laws by arriving on highways, by FedEx, or from states with markedly different gun laws, often under the eyes of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.  While admittedly based on the guns that arrived in cities from other states that were confiscated by police, the pathway of underground sales to urban areas are particularly striking, and dangerously remove gun sales from any official monitoring or oversight.  Although it often repeated that “guns don’t kill people, people do,” the arrival of guns under the noses of authority suggests not only an evasion of laws, but thriving illegal markets for guns, some foreign.

 

gunflow-bigmap-1050New York Times, based on data of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

If gun trafficking is a major inter-state offense, a significant number of the trafficking cases for guns involve international illegal trafficking of firearms across borders, mostly with obliterated serial numbers, making it difficult to identify exact numbers of guns or ammunition that reach foreign countries with certainty–in postal shipments or by underground routes of gun trafficking.

 

Page10-GunTraffickingMap-1

Everytown Research

 

We can understand the basis for such traffic from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri and Florida through the uneven geography of enforcing background checks at gun shows reluctant to admit that they “engage in” firearm sales.

 

Background Check policies.png

Governing, from Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence

 

More clearly mapping the increased pathways of travel taken by firearms seems a far more opportune response to terrorism, as tracing the multiple pathways assault weapons take provides a basis to better to comprehend the growing dangers of assault.  And despite President Obama’s decision to not harp on the need to map guns better in his State of the Union address, only a better mapping of the traffic and movement of guns can present a better image of gun sales–and indeed suggests cultivation of an individual bond to guns.

The ease of access to assault rifles in the United States and diminished checks to their purchase or policing have had limited attention until recent months.  Despite deep fears exploited in suspicions about the hidden infiltration of the country by terrorist threats, far less attention has focussed on the needed tracking of the illegal transit of firearms across borders:  in an age when we are apt to concentrate on social media as a tool of indoctrination of subversive and on mass-migrations as hidden vectors enabling flexible geographical mobility of terror networks, it’s perhaps overly retro to focus on the itineraries of the  transport of mundane material things like guns.  Tracking the physical movement of small guns, rifles and other firearms, and the transport of assault weapons such as the popular Kalashnikov reveals the deeper social relations encouraged by the greater circulation of firearms–and indeed an increasingly global sense of cathecting to guns.  The paths by which guns reach the hands of their users isn’t as interesting, perhaps, as the uses made of them, but demands to be far more closely tracked.

Attention to firearms’ rapidly increasing availability in the United States is relatively recent–partly in light of the limited oversight of hobbyists “engaged” in selling guns–but also is a microcosm of the growth of a global market for firearms.  Indeed, increased sales of arms as well as applications for concealed weapons permits suggest an increasingly vicious circle between escalation of sales in response to announcements of gun control policies, leading gun salesmen to crow that “Obama is our best salesperson,” and gun sales to double over his administration; mass shootings have not only accelerated sales, but created new currents of gun transports, as well as growing numbers of first-time applications for concealed handgun permits with mass shootings, as well as a growing geography of places accepting open carrying of handguns in reactions to fears of gun violence, and agitation from pro-gun groups to change laws to allow open carry and conceal carry as a right to self-defense in a country whose residents seem increasingly desperate to seek safety.

 

OG-AC384_openca_G_20140822132909Wall Street Journal

 

Increased number of mass shootings have partly prompted gun sales in ways from which manufacturers such as Smith & Wesson have been able to consciously profit–whose sales channel further funds to the NRA–and the webs of gun sales both in the country and on an international scale demand to be mapped.  More detailed mapping of the growing global exchange of military materiel–tracing where guns go–however raise tantalizing questions about networks of global firearm exchanges as the dark side of globalism in what might be called Pynchonian proportions.

The novelist Thomas Pynchon has returned with what seems quite considerable prescience if not obsessiveness to the motifs of the circulation of rockets, rifles, grenades, or small bombs–often encoded with cyphers–as the telling modern talismans of global exchange; mapping the trade in arms, one of the historical items of global trade, reveals eery global networks in the post-Cold War world that demand to be more broadly mapped through the  routes that guns are increasingly disseminated across channels of illicit as well as public exchange.  More than ever, the hydra headed illicit trafficking of arms–as well as the “legal” arms trade–seems an emblem of globalism.

But the routes of the licit and illicit transportation of guns indicates increasing cultivation of firearms as powerful forms of human-object relations–a relationship which oddly links such terrorism to mass shootings, though the two threats are quite distinct.  And the transport of firearms have also so intensified globally to demand to be better mapped, as much as the question of what it means to be “engaged in the business” of selling firearms demands to be better clarified.  (In the span of a single recent year, over 644,700 ads for guns from those without licenses to sell were tallied by Everytown Research in the single online marketplace Armslist.com, most not selling only individual firearms.)  Visualizing the global context of the local pathways exchange of small firearms provides a way to consider global changes in firearm exchange on a local level that is particularly illuminating–and to identify global markets of small arms exchange for mobile arms of considerable force, including automatic assault rifles such as the Kalashnikov pictured in the header to this post, one of the most popular and most widely produced of firearms.

 

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2.  Exposing the global markets of small guns was the ostensible subject of Google‘s 2012 day-glo interactive “Chrome Experiment” that maps global arms trafficking–a big data visualization limited per force to legal trade of small arms alone, using public data from the Small Arms Survey.  Nonetheless, the interactive 3D maps offer a cool tool to investigate what globalization looks like, in a sort of weather map of the arms trade that occurs above-board and in the open.  The “experiment” offers a sort of landscape of small arms markets for ready scanning, letting one to rotate the globe interactively to create the best vantage point on aggregated data from reported imports and exports, or the above board “over-the-counter” gun sales.

The gloriously color-saturated interactive Globe allows viewers to rotate the globe in different manners to chart the global traffic of firearm imports and exports in surprising fashion.  The exports and imports are mapped from individual countries, while parallel bars break the official numbers down into ammunition and small firearms, allowing one to parse the massive flows of armaments that proceed from larger mega-states like the USA to the world.  The weirdly aestheticized images will make viewers oscillate between wonder, stupefied awe, and depression.  It’s a strikingly powerful visualization of major arms providers, like the United States, as it illuminates their traffic, and in scanning the globe that we can turn interactively, we can compare the somehow huge exports of ammunition the US manufacturers send to the world–the huge importation and exportation of firearms in the US compare to the incredible 85 plus million imported in Canada (where guns and ammunition are less often manufactured) or far smaller number imported in Mexico, where few guns are allowed in personal possession, unlike the US.

One can visualize the global dispersion of imports (blue) and exports (red) moving around the globe in animated vectors, coursing with an intensity of white-hot fashion:

 

Googling Gun TradeInteractive Globe: Small Arms and Ammunition-Imports and Exports

 

The interactive map is a sort of GL 3D experiment, and foregrounds the rotatability of the globe to seek the best angle by which to visualize each country’s collective import-export business of arms and ammunition.  For larger arms exporters like, say, the Russian Federation, the results are spectacular–the RF streams over 140 and a half millions of dollars worth of small exports (mostly to client states) and imports another 36 million worth, here shown coursing the globe in pulsating red and orange neon arcs; the thin blue streams of imports contrast to major rivers of exports to Russian client states.  The global format has clear advantages for visualizing major arms providers–although the maps eerily disembody and almost naturalize the arms trade.  The graphic rendering of the small arms trade can’t help but seem–even if this is not its primary intent–somehow celebratory about its explosive energy, so that one can forget what the sort of small arms and firearms traded actually are, segregated as they are from any mortal consequences:

 

big export of arms and Russian Fed.pngGoogle Interactive Globe: Small Arms Imports & Exports

 

The impact is similarly stunning, if less grandiosely global, for smaller states in hot spots as Serbia, as it allows one to look at the globalization of arms, struck by the relatively few bright blue lines of arms importation, and the flow of $28 million of legally exported arms from the small country that chart the remapping of its global significance circa 2010 with a similarly sinister white-hot glow, revealing the surprising scale of its huge exportation of arms worldwide:

 

Serbian arms exchanges.pngGoogle Interactive Globe: Small Arms Imports & Exports

 

There is a similar odd balance between local and global in the collective arms trade from neighboring Croatia, a major exporter of materiel and transatlantic provider of arms:

 

CroatiaGoogle Interactive Globe: Small Arms Imports & Exports

 

or examine the glow of flows of exports and imports to and from Hungary-

 

HuNgArY war flows.pngGoogle Interactive Globe: Small Arms Imports & Exports

 

and the local importer of arts, its Balkan neighbor Montenegro, which seems to import a considerable amount of arms indeed–

 

Montenegro 2010.pngGoogle Interactive Globe: Small Arms Imports & Exports

 

3.  Such enticingly glittering global networks leave us in awe at the massive amount of arms trafficked, as if what passes under the radar would be insignificant in comparison.  But it makes us thirst for better local knowledge.  Small is beautiful in mapping local knowledge of the mechanics of the hidden paths guns travel, as well as their licit sales, which prove far more multi-causal and serpentine than the broad brushstrokes afforded by “where the world buys its weapons”–and it reveals the patterns of illicit gun transport, accumulation and sales.  But, most disturbingly, they are utterly removed from human agency, as if such geopolitically inflected macroeconomic flows are actually alienated from paths of traffic on planet earth.

Indeed, local pathways are perhaps more illuminating when it comes to arms traffic–especially, of course, of illicit trade in arms not revealed in such global macroeconomic images.  For few of the actual arms we want to track circulate stratospherically along the aeronautical routes the Google rendering suggests.  Despite the benefits of Google’s glossy macroeconomic global view, what would it mean to make this mapping more local, more closely focussing on local transport of individual arms by itineraries, or to try to track hidden on-the-ground routes of firearms supplies?  The big data maps almost make you want to wonder what went on to the individual materiality of arms themselves, which vanish into so many brilliantly coursing data streams.

Mapping local routes of arms travels, if less glamorous or flashy, seems increasingly timely, if less interactive or dynamic in form.  But together with varied maps of the same regions, they provide another way to visualize networks of violence, civil war, or terror.  The basis for the transport of Kalashnikovs lies in large part in regions in the Balkans, as Montenegro, which provide pathways by which they are carried to Schengen lands.

 

Spread of Kalashnikovs

The Guardian

The uncontrolled smuggling of arms in the Balkans, recently a veritable hub for the illicit arms trade, led the United Nations Development Program to give a mandate to the Pynchonian entity of the South Eastern and Eastern European Clearing House for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons, acronymized as SEESAC; uncontrolled weapons trafficking in the region increased its chronic instability and fueled local crime, with a arms exports in the western Balkans amassing $1.6 billion between 2007-13, and little data available on illegal trade arms trade that is increasingly a problem of global proportions.  Of course, it parallels the primary route for the burgeoning business of routes to smuggle asylum across the western Balkans, for which some €16 billion was payed to middlemen since 2000–

 

image-893567-galleryV9-fwyp-893567

Der Spiegel

 

–following routes that almost directly mirror the popular pathway for the also lucrative heroin trade from Afghanistan, onto which it might well be superimposed:

 

Balkan Route MAP_UNUNODC

 

and global routes of a metric tons of heroin carried on a modern and more mechanized Silk Road moving across Asia to European markets:

 

Heroin from Asia, etric tons.pngUNODC

 

But the trajectories of assault rifles across the Balkans have allowed amateur armories to be assembled by folks like Amedy Coulibaly and Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, who planned and executed attacks at the office of Charlie Hebdo, including multiple AK-47s, Scorpions, handguns and semiautomatic rifles,  van loads of arms, often of Soviet production, from the 7.62-mm Tokarev rifle to the AK-47 with which Coulibaly infamously decided to pose beside in the curated message he would stream to the world after he had killed four innocents at a Kosher Deli in Paris.  (Coulibaly neatly stacked those AK-47’s and their ammunition in a laundry hamper in his home.)

The broad range of arms available to ISIS was dramatically increased through the proliferation of war-torn areas across the world, as the Balkans, as well as the collapse of strong-armed power-hungry states–as Syria or as Libya–who had long stockpiled small arms within their national armories.  Indeed, the collapse of Libya prompted a struggle to contain Kalashnikovs, and struggle with the possibilities of instituting anything like a buy-back program in the country, given the clear value of arms in a society that seemed poised to descend into chaos, and growing advantages of owning arms in most all of north Africa.  As a garrison storing 20,000 surface-to-air missiles simply collapsed in Libya, as previously guarded hidden arms caches throughout the country that constituted the huge arsenal assembled by Col. Muamar el-Qaddafi entered the black market quickly, and spread from Libya, according to the Small Arms Survey, through much of the Middle East, reaching Syria as well as Mali and Sudan, even as US-sponsored “covert” actions to arm rebels funneled still more arms into the country as it approached the brink of civil war–and many rebels, desperate for cash, sold the arms with which they were supplied.

 

arms from stockpiles in fragmented Libya.pngNew York Times

 

4.  Perhaps the pietas of commemorations for the eponymous designer of the assault rifle of which all others are epigones, Lieutenant-General Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, who designed multiple rifles in his post within the Chief Directorate of the Red Army, suggests a growing migration of the gun particularly fitting in light of their newfound mobility–particularly the migration of the Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947, or AK-47, designed in prototype for a 1946 design competition to defend Mother Russia, and which has proved one of the most easily transportable assault weapons of the twentieth century.

Kalashnikov-AK-47-assault-007

Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947 (type 2)

 

The arrival in 2011 of the renowned Kalashnikov assault rifle in London’s Design Museum, in homage to the curved grooves of the machined geometry of its magazine, as well as in an opportune expansion of museum audiences by gesturing to current questions of terror, may reflect the prominence of the objection modern life.  Its display surely mirrors the central place of the gun the Kalashnikov’s very own eponymous museum in Russia, which also features inviting exhibits like “Let’s recall Afghanistan!”, an anniversary special to commemorate withdrawal from that land–the museum opening was actually attended by its designer, the recently deceased lieutenant-general for the Red Army who designed the assault rifle as an effective arm to “defend the mother country” during World War II.

Far from being a purely historical relic, however, the arm that was designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov, here carrying a copy of the arm he both built and designed together with a group of weapons’ engineers, was intended for arctic combat.  But the assault rifle enjoyed huge staying power, or legs:  about 100 million of which are currently in circulation globally and some million more are built annually for a growing clientage.

 

521Михаи́л Тимофе́евич

 

At almost the same time as its designer’s death, the rifle entered the London’s Design Museum, in an attempt to enlarge its “classics” that marks the migration of the Soviet Union’s old Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle, now the world’s most popular assault weapon, to the territory of esthetics and museum docents.  Whether it belongs in an exhibition in a e Design museum apart, the translation of the automatic assault rifle from the Arctic (where it had been developed) to the battlefield, and from illegal arms markets all the way into a modern exhibition space.

Even if the AK-47 assault rifle is removed from our own tragic familiarity with rifles in the United States, the widespread currency that it has gained as a rapid-fire weapon from central Africa to Indonesia suggests the heinous crimes with which it can be tied–as well, perhaps, of the far greater proximity of the firearm in question to London’s Design Museum than, say, the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York or to MoMA.

 

AK47-Map

 

Much of this has to do with regional geography.  The collapse of the Soviet Union and military famously led such gun-entrepreneurs as Viktor Bout to trade AK 47’s that were Cold War surplus during the 1990s to the armories of African warlords, including those in Rwanda, as he also supplied them to UN peace-keepers there–all from an office he incorporated in Delaware.  Using a fleet of retired Antonov and Ilyushin military fighter jets to ferry firearms to Angola, Liberia–where he helped Charles Taylor destabilize the country of Sierra Leone–and Nigeria, helping to saturate the continent with firearms, as well as introduce them with rapidity into the Ukraine.  Despite the arms embargo imposed on Somalia, private militias and warlords continued to stock old, unused AK47s.

 

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Viktor Bout

 

5.  To be sure, the trade in firearms is anything but new, and tends to blossom in the aftermath of wars, as materiel is traded privately in what were once war fields to willing buyers.  If there was something romantic in how Dutch colonists and traders introduced 300,000 carbines to the Gold Coast during the mid- to late nineteenth century that were marketed by clever munitions suppliers and manufacturers for global export–

 

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An increasingly broad trade in obsolete French and Belgium weapons emerged in Ethiopia in the post-war period that prefaced a new theater of international weapons trading, as arms exporters, revealed by this image of an apparently innocent arms manufacturer who instructs his prospective clients on how a rifle worked.  Italian munitions manufacturers soon shipped Remingtons, as Jonathan Grant noted, to Ethiopia as well, setting the stage for global arms exports over the twentieth century that so rapidly accelerated after the end of World War One marked an attempt to contain the growing arms market worldwide–emblematized by the full ceramic sculpture that adorned a Belgian arms factory specialized in the export of arms openly vaunts the circulation of arms it promotes in new markets as part of a civilizing process of instructing locals to develop their relation to firearms.

 

4-3-img1807Lambert Sevart weapons factory in Liege, Belgium, ceramic inlay

 

Post-WWII surplus allowed the market to expand wildly, and weapons surplus was recycled and resold in the Americas, with Samuel Cumming’s emergence as a licensed arms dealer, largely stored in Manchester, England and Alexandria, Virginia, in parallel to country-to-country sales of weaponry in the Cold War, when the AK-47 came to dominate the international light arms trade, even as American withdrawal from Vietnam made it heir to two million M16s and 150,000 tons of rifle ammunition that became the basic currency of barter Communist Vietnam circulated to trading allies.  As Third World countries devoted $258 Billion to arms between 1978-58, the United Nations Development Program estimates a trade of 8 million light arms and weapons in West Africa alone–a legacy of the many firearms that reached the continent after the Cold War that have continued to circulate to non-state actors (in Mali or the Maghreb) or secessionist movements to use in armed conflicts (as Boko Haram in Niger), or in coups, providing “legacy firearms”–of which assault rifles still prove the largest group, most of which are Kalashnikovs.

Although the flows of firearms are not consistent, UNODC has suggested broad patterns of sale to local buyers, including from Libya’s large stock of conventional firearms.

 

Firearms in W AfricaUnited Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Report on Firearms–Firearms Flows

 

Based on thirty recent gun seizures between 2008 and 2011, traffic in arms in Africa remained high, fueling warlords, nations and wars alike–

 

weapons transfersUNODC

The transport of Russian war materiel on conventional means as ships has allowed a brisk trade in Kh-55 Cruise Missiles with Iran and surface-to-air missiles to Ethiopia from St Petersburg that continued through 2014, and was later replaced by the increasing value of seaports in Ukraine’s Oktyabrsk port as points of departure for arms to Assad’s failing Syrian regime at a considerable swifter arrival time:

 

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The spiking shipments from Odessa and Oktaybrsk remained a vital basis of sending further arms in container ships through the Bosphorus strait–across which refugees still try to move–to Damascus, in a stream of replacement parts for battlefield weapons in the continuing civil war that effectively assures the desperate flow of refugees from their land.

 

russian-arms-to-Syrian-regime

 

The continued export of global weaponry and related gear that leaves Ukraine to Syrian ports such as Latakia and Tartus constitute a broad geopolitical tactical game, of course, partly hidden, in which Russia is not at all alone–and one that is often engaged through hidden channels, as conventional weapons are disseminated from the US, Russia, Germany, and France to a growing number of client-countries at the start of the second millennium echoes lines drawn during the Cold War.

 

The five largest exporters of major conventional weapons -2004-2008 and 2009-13- and their recipient states -2009-13

 

But the rise of such webs of weapons transport from Ukrainian ports may have been overlooked in calculating the region’s geopolitical value as a transport-hub for the delivery of a range of wartime materiel from tanks, ammunition, SAMs, to automatic rifles like AK-47s to the Middle East, facilitated by a rail network connecting arms plants across a region Cold Warriors know as the “FSU” (Former Soviet Union)–including the Izhevsk factory where Kalashnikov long worked–so that such weapons factories from the Cold War could continue to fill standing orders for shipments from Oktyabrsk.  The geopolitical capital of Ukraine as a region may rest in good part in allowing the ongoing transport of war material to a broader range of the region  Russia considers its sphere of influence for Bashar al-Assad and others, as well as oil pipelines and the global significance of the region as being a nexus of energy transport.

 

Rail Weapons Transport in RUssia, FSU weapons

 

The networks by which firearms continue to move, and the ease with which they do, suggest something like a chapter in what Tomas Pynchon described as the networks of firearms in the “inexorably rising tide of World Anarchism” in Against the Day, a 2006 historical novel set in the turn of the century, whose global transit of firearms from Mexico to Buffalo to Europe mapped a premonition of the current globalization of multiplying networks of firearms.  One thinks back to that fictional seventeenth-century Dutch colonist, newly arrived in Mauritius with his arquebus, Frans Van Der Groov, who stalks the island compulsively in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, compulsively and systematically eliminating dodo birds to extinction “for reasons he could not explain.”

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