On Feb. 8 an Afghan soldier turned his American-supplied M249 light machine gun on a group of American and Afghan commandos who were huddled and patiently waiting for an airlift from a small base in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province.
The burst of fire killed Staff Sgt. Javier J. Gutierrez and Staff Sgt. Antonio R. Rodriguez and wounded six other Americans. A brief gun battle followed as the U.S. troops struggled to discern friends from foe. The two sergeants and their American Special Forces team were betrayed by Sergeant Jawed, an Afghan Army soldier who went by a single name. Insider attacks, known as “green on blue,” are a staple of the conflict, and a bitterly sad and fatal expression of the deep distrust both Afghan and American forces often have toward one another.
Sergeant Jawed was a six-year veteran of the very force the Pentagon helped create and equip. The weapon he used in the attack was one of the hundreds of thousands doled out by the United States over the course of the 18-year-long war. By various tallies, the Pentagon has supplied roughly 465,000 small arms to Afghan security forces, purchased and dispatched from at least 18 countries. The weapons included the wooden-stocked Soviet Kalashnikov rifle and the jet-black American M16 — in addition to sniper rifles, pistols, machine guns and even anti-tank recoilless rifles, even though the Taliban insurgency hasn’t possessed tanks since 2001.
And though the weapons were intended for the Afghan army and police forces, the military’s failure to document how and to where they were distributed has meant many of them found their way into the hands of militant groups throughout Afghanistan and the Middle East. In 2013, the inspector general for Afghan reconstruction reported that 43 percent of the Department of Defense’s records for small arms sent to Afghanistan were missing information or were duplicates.
This near-continuous arms flow has cost millions in taxpayers dollars, some of which remains unaccounted for, along with many weapons themselves. The Defense Department’s failure to track and maintain these weapons is a result of the convoluted bureaucracy that fuels defense contracts and Washington’s desire to build an army and police force quickly from scratch.
In recent years, the Pentagon has tried to improve its methods for tracking the weapons, but low literacy rates have made it difficult for Afghan soldiers and armorers to maintain accurate records.
Once a status symbol for senior commanders and insurgents, the American-made M16 — easily sold, lost or taken from the battlefield — is now seemingly as prevalent as the Soviet-style rifles that make up much of the insurgency’s arsenal.
Pickup trucks, armored Humvees and night vision goggles have also found their way into Taliban hands. The expensive goggles have given the group the upper hand in recent years when attacking far-flung Afghan checkpoints and outposts across the country. Between 2014 and 2017, the Taliban more than doubled their nighttime attacks thanks to night-vision devices, according to one United States military official who in 2018 described internal Pentagon data.
The weapon Sergeant Jawed used, a M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, is an American military mainstay and has been used since the 1980s, often serving as the pillar of automatic fire for the four-man fire teams that form a 12-man squad. It is unclear how many have been supplied to Afghan forces, who were initially provided with Soviet-style arms in the early years of the war before the Americans moved to standardize the army with NATO weapons.
Made by Fabrique Nationale Herstal, the M249 weighs around 15 pounds, and more if loaded with its typical belt of 100 to 200 rounds of 5.56×45-millimeter ammunition. The U.S. military suggests keeping the M249’s rate of fire below 200 rounds a minute to prevent the barrel from melting. The weapon is prone to jamming, but if cared for by a trained operator who knows the strange intricacies that are common to open-bolt machine guns, it can distribute an unrelenting amount of bullets.
At the site where Sergeants Gutierrez and Rodriguez were killed, The Times identified at least 43 bullet holes on the concrete wall behind the Americans, and eight more on a taller empty oil tanker behind the wall. Sergeant Jawed fired for only a matter of seconds, before he was shot and killed by an American guard in a nearby tower.
The circumstances of why he turned the rifle on his American and Afghan counterparts remain unclear, as do the details of the machine gun he used: its serial number, when it was sent to Afghanistan, or if it was issued to him, given to him by a comrade or picked up in the moments before the killing.
But little information is needed to convey the sorrow of two American deaths caused by the very weapon that their government supplied, the latest in a war that looks little like what its organizers predicted.
Mujib Mashal and Zabihullah Ghazi contributed reporting from Nangarhar, Afghanistan.