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Pakistan: Illicit Market On Afghan Border Has Weapons For Any Need

  • Charles Recknagel

In Pakistan's Pashtun tribal belt on the border with Afghanistan, there is no shortage of weaponry. Some of it comes from Afghanistan, but much of it also is manufactured locally in a valley that holds one of the world's largest illicit arms bazaars. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel visits the arms market at Dara Adamkhel to learn more about how the weapons are produced and why.

Dara Adamkhel, Pakistan; 12 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- You know you are entering Pakistan's autonomous tribal area on the Afghan border when the mud-and-brick-walled family compounds that make up the villages begin sprouting fortified towers.

The towers are stubby and thick and crenellated with slits for firing down upon unwanted guests. They are a reminder that here the law is in the tribesmen's hands and that any disputes will be settled locally, well outside the authority of the central government in Islamabad.

A little farther along, the men on the roadside are openly carrying weapons as they go about their business. Their favorites are easily portable Kalashnikovs, folded down to machine-gun size, and hanging as familiarly off their shoulders as handbags.

It's no surprise that soon a visitor feels he might need a collection of guns, too. And that's easily arranged. One only has to follow the road to the village of Dara Adamkhel, an hour and a half south of the northwestern city of Peshawar and home to one of the world's largest illicit arms bazaars.

Here in a mountain-ringed valley 16 kilometers long, there are some 900 factories of all sizes producing weapons ranging from pistols, to shotguns, to assault rifles, to mortars, to heavy machine-guns. Anything that cannot be made locally can soon be brought over the mountains from Afghanistan, including rocket-propelled grenades, light artillery, and even anti-aircraft guns.

The arms bazaar has a variety of purposes. It provides the large numbers of Pashtun tribesmen who live in Pakistan's autonomous tribal areas with everything they need to protect themselves in their frequent clan disputes. It supplies the automatic weapons that are held by many of Pakistan's armed militant and extremist organizations. And it offers simple sportsmen inexpensive shotguns and other rifles for hunting.

Recently, Pakistani newspaper reports have also suggested that groups of Pashtun tribesmen and Islamic militants who are crossing into Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban might also be stocking up at the bazaar. In response, the government recently said it has stepped up the presence of its undercover intelligence agents in the market to prevent them from doing so.

Inside the village of Dara Adamkhel, there is the constant busy whine of machine tools in operation. In one workshop, the workers are smoothing and polishing a stock of shotgun barrels that have just been welded to their firing mechanisms. The shop's foreman, Mohammad Riaz, says the 18 men working here produced 60 shotguns last week, which he describes as a slow period. He says all the gun parts are locally forged from steel rods purchased at construction sites and scrap yards across Pakistan. The metal he uses comes from the industrial areas around the eastern city of Lahore. Mohammad Riaz says: "The scrap metal brought here is produced in Lahore. And it is then melted here and given shape here."

Much of the scrap metal used in the arms factories is also reported to come from Afghanistan and what used to be Afghanistan's industrial base -- now totally destroyed and stripped after two decades of war.

This recycling of scrap metal has always raised some questions about the quality, and even safety, of the guns produced in Dara Adamkhel. But despite occasional reports of barrels accidentally exploding during shooting, the weapons are generally considered to be reliable and highly desirable.

Certainly, the prices are attractive. A Dara-made copy of a Chinese automatic pistol costs just $50, compared to some $230 for the imported original version. Similarly, a Dara-made double-barreled shotgun can be had for as little as $50, while imports start at 10 times that much.

Many of the skilled workers who make the guns have migrated here to the Afghan border from Pakistan's eastern province of Punjab. They are brought to the village by the Pashtun tribesmen who own the factories and the retail gun shops along the main road. The craftsmen make up a total work force in the valley that is reported to number in the tens of thousands.

Nearby, in a much smaller workshop, four men are producing one of the bazaar's best-sellers, an exact copy of a Chinese military pistol. The copy of the Chinese pistol, known locally as a 30-bore, is absolutely identical to the original model except for a small logo that this shop proudly engraves on each barrel. Elsewhere, other shops copy originals even to the point of duplicating a foreign manufacturer's markings and serial numbers, making their products indistinguishable from their models to all but serious connoisseurs.

Across the courtyard, yet another shop is turning out ammunition casings. Its raw materials are the spent cartridges littering the endless battlefields of Afghanistan, which have been scavenged by adults and children despite the danger of mines.

The spent shell casings usually arrive here squashed and smashed like cigarette butts. But the workmen -- who buy the empty casings for about 30 cents per kilogram -- open up their ends and remold them to their original shape using a specially adapted machine press.

The workshop's owner, named Mumtaz, says that the Russian-made cartridges can be recycled over and over again. Mumtaz says: "This is Russian metal and it is very strong and safe. It can be used again and again, maybe 400 times."

Mumtaz is from one of the few families of local Pashtun artisans who still operate small workshops as the bigger factories import their labor. He knows the market well and says that since the 11 September attacks on the U.S. -- and the American response in Afghanistan -- the bazaar has seen several changes.

He says that since the American air strikes began on 7 October, many skilled workers here have temporarily shut their shops and gone to work in Afghanistan to repair weapons for the Taliban. Mumtaz says the Taliban are paying them more they would earn locally: "These workers are very skilled technically, they know how to repair artillery pieces and mortars and such things. So they are now working in Afghanistan with the Taliban."

At the same time, Mumtaz says the Afghan crisis has cut off most of the inflow of weapons from Afghanistan and sent the prices of ammunition and weapons in the bazaar skyrocketing. He says the price of cartridges and bullets is up 100 percent. Used Kalashnikovs, which previously were available for the equivalent of $100, are up to $150. And new Kalashnikovs, which used to go for $300, now cost more than $600.

The weapons are for sale in a seemingly endless line of one-room shops that shoulder each other for space on both sides of the road cutting through the valley. The road is part of the Indus Highway that links Peshawar and the north of the country with Karachi on the southern coast.

Shop owner Awal Khan sits surrounded in his store by rows of shotguns in display cases and drawers full of pistols. Customers making a purchase often demand a test firing of the guns and the shop owners are happy to oblige. Asked to test one of his automatic pistols, Khan steps to his door, aims across the street, and fires over the heads of the opposing shops.

A buyer could take his purchase away with him immediately, except for the small problem of the police roadblocks at either end of the valley road. They are at the points where the Indus highway enters and exits the tribal area and they are heavily manned. The police pull over any vehicles they deem suspicious and search them completely, even to the point of unloading entire trucks -- sack by sack -- and reloading them again.

The police work is in line with a ban that the government of President Pervez Musharraf put on issuing new gun permits immediately after it seized power in a bloodless coup in October 1999. The ban means that none of the guns here in Dara Adamkhel can now be purchased legally.

Still, journalists who know the bazaar say that -- thanks to smuggling -- business remains brisk. One is Sami Paracha, bureau chief for the English-language national daily "Dawn," who works in the nearby town of Kohat.

Paracha and other journalists say that it is enough for a buyer to place an order in any of the gun shops in Dara and then go home to wait. In a few days, the item will delivered clandestinely anywhere in Pakistan.

The local journalists say the smuggling is virtually impossible to stop because the mountains around the valley are extremely rugged and impossible to fully patrol. And the police receive very low salaries, suggesting that some may be susceptible to payoffs.

The easy availability of the automatic weapons at the Dara bazaar worries many people in Pakistan, because the untracked arms are believed to help fuel the continuing ethnic and sectarian-based strife in the country that regularly kills dozens of people each year.

Paracha says that many of the members of the country's militant and extremist groups would be too poor to afford imported weapons for their feuds. But they easily can afford the prices of the locally-made products. Paracha says: "In the past 20 years [there] has been a very sharp increase in the number of extremist organizations. And mostly, the extremist organizations exploit the students in seminaries [religious schools, or madrassas]. They cannot afford to buy costly weapons that are imported from Russia or China or the U.S. Yes, the leaders have got such weapons, but in the lower ranks of the organizations the people can only afford the locally manufactured weapons, which are cheaper and which can be supplied in bulk."

One worry for the government is that Islamic militant groups eventually might use their weapons to cause unrest as they press their demands for a fundamentalist Taliban-like system in Pakistan. But despite such possibilities, there is little Islamabad can do to close down the arms bazaar.

The reason is the legal status of the tribal areas themselves.

Under an arrangement inherited from the British, the tribesmen have the right to substantial self-rule and are entitled to make and carry arms. The tribesmen also have the authority to settle their all their own internal disputes by calling their own tribal council, or Loya Jirga, and handing out their own harsh discipline for crimes. In exchange, the highly independent mountain tribesmen recognize Pakistan's sovereignty, hold Pakistani identity cards and take part in Pakistani elections.

That system has endured because Pakistan fears that trying to bring the tribes any further under its authority would spark a rebellion. And the thought of facing a guerrilla war in the border region's inhospitable mountains is enough to give any government pause. The areas make up a continuous band of territory which runs most of the length of Pakistan's border with Afghanistan and, in places, is up to 50 kilometers wide.

There is also the fear that trying to bring the Pashtun tribesmen more directly under Islamabad might fan separatist sentiment among them. The tribes share close cultural and linguistic links with Afghanistan's Pashtun majority, and Afghan rulers have sought to encourage just such separatism in the past. The boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Durand Line, remains disputed and has yet to be recognized by any Afghan regime.

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