By William Choong
TERRORISTS used it in the recent attacks on Mumbai. Pirates have used it to attack merchant shipping in the Gulf of Aden. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden uses it as a background prop whenever he broadcasts another fiery denunciation of the United States and the West.
Weapons of mass destruction such as the atomic bomb have stoked fears of a nuclear apocalypse. But when the history of the late 20th century is finally written, the humble AK-47 assault rifle will arguably take pride of place as the world's most destructive weapon of mass destruction.
The nuclear bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August 1945 killed up to 200,000 people. The AK-47, which entered service in the Soviet Red Army in 1949, is reported to be responsible for a quarter of a million deaths - every year.
According to Mr Larry Kahaner, the author of AK-47: The Weapon That Changed The Face of War, this weapon is the firearm of choice for at least 50 standing armies and countless fighting forces from Africa and the Middle East to Central America and Los Angeles. He writes: "The AK-47 has become the world's most prolific and effective combat weapon, a device so cheap and simple that it can be bought in many countries for less than the cost of a live chicken."
The Avtomat Kalashnikova obraztsa 1947 goda, or Kalashnikov's automatic rifle model of year 1947, was designed by Soviet tank commander Mikhail Kalashnikov after he was injured at the Battle of Bryansk during World War II. Impressed by the Germans' efficient use of assault rifles during that battle, he invented an assault rifle that combined the best of both worlds: the killing power of a machine gun and the light weight and accuracy of a submachine gun.
Ironically, the runaway success of the AK-47 is due to the success of nuclear deterrence. Writes Mr Kahaner: "The weapon that helped end World War II, the atomic bomb, paved the way for the rise of the lower-tech but deadlier AK-47. The A-bomb's guarantee of mass destruction compelled the two Cold War superpowers to wage proxy wars in poor countries, with ill-trained combatants exchanging fire - usually with cheap, lightweight and durable AKs."
Political scientists call this the stability- instability paradox. It sounds complex, but the thesis is simple: the stability that arose from mutual assured destruction (MAD) during the Cold War increased the number of lower-level conventional conflicts around the world.
This dynamic applies to the nuclear dyad of India and Pakistan too. For fear of nuclear escalation, both countries created incentives for conventional conflict, such as the 1999 Kargil war in disputed Kashmir.
But it would be too sweeping to argue that the AK-47 is responsible for many of the world's ills. The American gun lobby's controversial slogan - guns don't kill; people do - applies here, if not on the streets of Los Angeles. More importantly, the lack of law and order in many developing states has allowed many to gain illegitimate access to small arms.
According to Control Arms - a non-governmental organisation - the misuse of small arms like the AK-47 is due to the lack of global standards to regulate their use and the easy availability of supplies stemming from surplus stocks in many countries.
In the absence of a global regime to control such proliferation, the human cost of small arms will be staggering, Control Arms argues. "In the areas of armed conflict and repression in Africa, Kalashnikov rifles have gained a reputation for mass destruction and terror."
On the bright side, there has been a modicum of progress in curbing the small arms trade. In 2006, a United Nations conference convened to evaluate the progress made since 2001, when member states agreed to a "programme of action" to reduce the flow of small arms to war zones. In October this year, 147 states voted overwhelmingly to move forward on a legally binding Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to ensure that all arms traders abide by globally accepted standards regarding the use, management and transfer of small arms.
The task is pressing. Since the ATT process began in 2006, nearly 700,000 people have been killed by small arms worldwide. In Africa, the AK-47 has become so entwined with daily life that it is called the "African credit card" - one cannot leave home without it. For drug traffickers in Mexico, it is considered a good luck charm. The weapon's notoriety has compelled Mr Kalashnikov to wish he had created a lawn mower instead.
Even for professional militaries across the world, the proliferation of small arms like the AK-47 - 75 million are reported to be in circulation - continues to pose a challenge. In many conflicts, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, local insurgents have been able to hold their own against advanced militaries from the West thanks to rifles like the AK-47. If progress on the ATT stalls, this challenge will only grow bigger over time.
Therein lies another paradox: in the age of the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs, the soldier armed with a low-tech rifle continues to be a headache for high-tech militaries. Says American general William Livsey: "Despite all the sophisticated weapons we or the Soviets come up with...you still have to get that one lone infantryman, with his rifle, off his piece of land. It's the damn hardest thing in the world to do."
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 25, 2008.