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[Custom Build] Partner Force AK-47: Afghanistan

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With an estimated 100 million units in circulation worldwide, the AK-pattern rifle has been involved in essentially every major conflict of the last 70 years.

For this feature, we look at one of the more common places to encounter an AK in the post-September 11th world: in the hands of local soldiers and militias being trained and supported by U.S. forces. 

A staple of America’s asymmetric warfare policy is building up indigenous forces with training and weapons, giving them (at least in theory) the capability to defend themselves and maintain stability after U.S. withdrawal.

Recent history has, unfortunately, shown us beyond any shadow of a doubt that there are some flaws in the system. Regardless, it has given birth to a unique class of AK. 

Despite being funded and equipped by the United States, many of these host-nation forces (also referred to as Partner Forces by some) are still carrying AKs, as opposed to M4s or AR-type rifles. There are usually a few reasons for this: in most of these countries, locals are typically more familiar with the AK manual of arms, from having grown up with AKs in prevalent use. 

Afghan Partner Force AK (4)
Accessories were often sourced from multiple companies, creating a hodgepodge look for these rifles as a genre.

In conjunction with this, ammunition and magazines are already in wide circulation. Rather than attempt to retrain guerillas on an entirely new rifle, they are (usually) supplied with AKs, modified with field-expedient accessories to bring their capability at least part way into the 21st century.

It’s important to stress the “field expedient” part because, to American consumers with the freedom of choice and luxury of time, this build will look ridiculous. Why on earth would you mount a light, laser, foregrip, and optic all onto a quad rail handguard? 

That loads all the weight right over the support hand — making the rifle harder to hold up, harder to drive across multiple targets, and offers questionable zero retention for any optic mounted on an upper handguard. 

If you thought any of those things when you first looked at this rifle, you’re absolutely right. Side scope rails, railed top covers, extended handguards, and chassis systems all exist — and all distribute the weight of accessories more effectively in a more ergonomic fashion. 

Almost every individual component of an AR, down to pins and springs, can be changed in the bed of a pickup truck with a fistful of hand tools you can store in a Solo cup. 

AKs are, by their nature, are meant to be assembled and then left unaltered. 

Even something as “simple” as removing the front handguard retainer requires a Dremel tool to remove once the rifle is fully assembled. So, for American forces who are equipping and training host-nation fighters on a short timeline with limited logistics support, there’s a premium on adding the most capability to the rifle in the fewest possible steps.

I previously spent four years as a private military contractor in Afghanistan, where my work put me in daily close contact with local partner forces, and their hastily outfitted AKs. This build isn’t a direct clone of any one particular rifle, but an amalgamation of the hundreds of variations-on-a-theme I saw while working in-country.  

Our base rifle is Century Arms’ new BFT47. This is a no-frills, blue-collar take on the Kalashnikov that attempts to learn from some past missteps, while still offering a wallet-friendly entry point into the AK ecosystem. 

Afghan Partner Force AK (1)
Optic setups on Afghan commando AKs were varied ­— including, sometimes, no optics at all.

It uses a thicker 1.5mm stamped receiver, typically found on Yugo and Chinese-built AKs, while still being able to accept Euro-pattern AKM furniture. 

There are also some “nice touch” enhancements like an enlarged mag release, safety lever with finger ledge and bolt-hold-open cutout, and their RAK-1 trigger group. While extended/enhanced fire controls were rare overseas, it was possible to find the occasional welded-on finger ledge safety tab if you looked hard enough.

Almost all the rifles encountered in theater were accessorized on the front handguard. Handguards were always quad rails and standard length, likely to avoid having to alter the retainer or add mounting/clamping mechanisms. 

The overwhelming majority of the quad rails were UTG Pro Universals — the same ones you see here. The UTG Pros are somewhat easier to spot, as the top rail extends past the retainer almost to the gas block itself. 

Optics choices were one of two: tube-style Aimpoints, typically M68 CCOs, or EOTech holographic sights. The change from AA-sized EOTechs to the shorter XPS series came toward the end of my tenure in country. 

Afghan Partner Force AK (3)
Above and below: The ability to operate at night is part of what made Afghan special police and military forces so effective. Steiner’s DBAL series of IR laser/illuminators was commonly found on their rifles.

Particularly in the case of those big AA-sized EOTechs, that extended top rail came in handy with an extra inch or two of mounting space. It was also interesting to note that when Aimpoints were used, they typically came with the taller co-witness mount issued to U.S. troops. 

On an AK handguard, this puts the optic at a significant height-over-bore but probably made passive aiming through NVGs easier, particularly considering those few host-nation fighters who did have night vision were using older PVS-7s. 

There was some use of the factory side rail to clamp a mount on the receiver itself. In these cases, Trijicon ACOGs or even the occasional variable scope would be in use. 

There’s at least one example of an EOTech/magnifier combo — the (in)famous commander of 01 Special Police Unit, Azizullah Karwan.

Azizullah Karwan
Colonel Azizullah Karwan Sept. 2010

Speaking of night vision, lasers were a mixed bag. Many — most — Afghan units didn’t have them then, though there are a significant number of open-source photos showing Afghan soldiers toting AKs equipped with FDE Steiner DBALs. Depending on the unit, some just used white light for night ops. 

In this case, our white light of choice is a Crimson Trace CWL 202 — a 900-lumen dedicated white light that can be used as a handheld light or with the included Picatinny rail mount. Most of the Afghan AKs with lights used some version of tube-in-ring weapon lights, but the odd Streamlight or SureFire Scout would occasionally show up. 

The front end was finished with a TDI Arms Short Vertical Grip. There was a variety of VFGs run by Afghan host nation forces, from Knights broom handles to a whole mess of off-brand and even airsoft knock-off grips. 

Afghan Partner Force AK (5)
Loading all the accessories on a quad-rail handguard made these rifles very unbalanced, but does help reduce muzzle rise during rapid fire.

While Afghan soldiers often traded with their American counterparts or at the local bazaar, the accessories we saw issued to them were primarily from brands who — arguably — have a more European or Eastern market focus. This brings us to the back end of this build.

There were four primary stock setups among the various flavors of Afghan commando: AKMS-style underfolders, “wire crutch” style side folders, standard fixed stocks, and the occasional AR-buffer-tube-style conversion. 

We left our stock … well … stock, as it was the most common. We finished this build with a common “OEM” style ridgeback metal AK mag that we picked up from Gun Mag Warehouse.

From the perspective of an American consumer, who currently has an ever-expanding number of options for refitting AK-type rifles from muzzle to butt plate, this is far from an ideal configuration. 

Front-loading a quad-rail aluminum handguard throws the rifle’s balance way off. In particular, putting your optic on the handguard isn’t the wisest choice — even with a quality mount, the heat from the gas tube can kill optics, especially those with batteries mounted lower in the housing. 

Afghan Partner Force AK (6)
Lights, lasers, and vertical grips can all be clearly seen on these rifles in a similar-but-different comparison even among individual soldiers in the same unit.

The rapid heat/cooling cycle also adds a lot of potential for zero shift, not that you’d notice with an AK. Furthermore, there are enough extended M-LOK AK handguards out there that a short quad rail is neither the lightest nor most ergonomic option. 

But for a U.S. government agency or military contractor looking to outfit a large number of troops as quickly as possible — with scant resources for gunsmithing and custom fitting and only a couple of weeks (or days) to mint new frontline fighters — this hodgepodge of bolt-on parts that accommodate AKs with varying provenance or tolerances was the best “good enough” option that could be had in most cases. 

While we wouldn’t carry a rifle setup in this fashion if we had another choice, it’s functional and does offer significant capability improvements over a fresh-from-the-crate AKM. All said, this build was both a study in AK setup and a trip down memory lane. For veterans, cloning the weapons we used or encountered on our various deployments is equal parts entertaining and cathartic. 

Even for civilians who have an interest in military or firearms history, this “Partner Force AK” build offers a snapshot of a chapter of American history now closed but leaves us with a functional conversation piece for the next range outing. 


  • Caliber: 7.62x39mm
  • Capacity: 30+1
  • Barrel Length: 16.25 inches
  • Overall Length: 37.25 inches
  • Weight: 7.5 pounds
  • MSRP: $830


  • UTG Pro Handguard: $90
  • Crimson Trace CWP-202: $120
  • EOTech XPS 2: $659
  • Steiner DBAL A3: $1,900
  • TDI Arms Short Vertical Grip: $15
  • FAB Defense AGR-47 Pistol Grip: $35

Total Build MSRP:


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