x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Poverty, not ideology, fuels Afghan gun-running routes

Poor Afghans simply seeking to feed their families are smuggling stolen American M-16s and abandoned Russian AK-47s into Pakistan to sell them to the Taliban, nationalist militants, political gangs and criminals.

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ISLAMABAD // Gunrunners based in Afghanistan smuggle stolen American and abandoned Russian weapons into Pakistan and sell them to the Taliban, nationalist militants, political gangs, criminals and even private buyers who simply enjoy putting them on display.

A major smuggling route for arms stretches from the Afghan province of Kunar into north-west Pakistan, members of the network told The National. The weapons are stockpiled in Kunar and then shipped to the city of Bajaur, in the Pakistan tribal region, where they are stored for distribution throughout the rest of the country, said the sources, who requested anonymity.

The smugglers obtain the weapons from stockpiles that Russians left behind when they pulled out of the country in 1989 and, latterly, from storage sites western forces established near Afghan front lines. It is standard practice for retreating armies like the Russians to leave behind low-tech weaponry, said Aamir Ghauri, a London-based analyst.

The Soviet weapons account for most of the smugglers' stock. After their withdrawal, warlords fought for control of Afghanistan armed with Soviet weapons.

For the most part, the smugglers are poor Afghans and Pakistanis who have access to the arms and have no particular ideological agenda. They acknowledge that the enterprise is sheer profiteering: they sell to whomever pays the price.

One of the gunrunners, who insisted on using the assumed name Daniyal Shah, said he turned to smuggling weapons after his father took a second wife and started abusing the children from the first marriage. "One day, after he beat my brother and me very badly, I stole my father's pistol and sold it to a local trader. The money enabled me to rescue my mother and siblings from the hell at home."

In 2009, the Pakistani government banned licences for the possession of automatic weapons, except for cases approved by the prime minister. Prior to the ban, automatic rifles could be legally purchased, but at a much higher price than on the black market, the sources said. They said an American M-16 had cost about 700,000 rupees (Dh30,520) at a legal dealership in Lahore, but smugglers were selling M-16s from Afghanistan for just 250,000 rupees (Dh10,900).

The smuggled weapons may be old but they are relatively cheap and in generally good condition - they were built to last.

The smugglers' clients are not looking for high-tech weapons, because they are expensive and require training. Any recruit can quickly learn to use an AK-47.

The western weapons are stolen from sites where the arms are usually buried. Often they are left unguarded because guards would attract attention.

Spokes from the Bajaur hub run east into Swat and south to Malakand, where the remote region joins Pakistan's national motorway network at Mardan, the sources said. They said the Pakistani market has been carved into territories by different smuggling gangs. From Bajaur, weapons are loaded into concealed compartments on lorries that are covered by building materials or agricultural produce. Smugglers avoid suspicion by disguising themselves as cloth traders or labourers, the sources said.

The sources identified three geographic markets serving five types of buyers: the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Fata; militant groups associated with the TTP based in the Fata and north-west Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province; nationalist insurgents in western Balochistan province; rival ethnic militias in Karachi; and private buyers.

Sources said weapons were supplied according to orders placed by intermediaries, and that there was no interaction between the smugglers and the actual recipients. They showed The National Russian AK-47 and American M-16 assault rifles, laser-targeting scopes and bulletproof vests. Light machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades are also in demand.

The Kunar-Bajaur-Swat route is a fairly new one for the smugglers and demonstrates their flexibility. In the past, most of the arms smuggling came through the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), a semi-autonomous region in north-western Pakistan, and the districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. But Pakistani military operations against TTP insurgents in those areas have made those routes too risky.

Some 150,000 Pakistani troops are based in the Fata, but their focus has shifted south, allowing the smugglers to operate the Bajaur route.

The mountainous terrain along the Fata-Afghanistan border is a maze of valleys, gullies and tunnels and is nearly impossible for the Pakistani military to monitor.

The smuggling network also operates a route to the east, from Swat into Kashmir. Rawalakot, a southern district of Kashmir, was cloaked in unseasonal rain clouds when The National arrived for a meeting with the gunrunner, Mr Shah.

It took about three hours to descend the treacherous slopes for the rendezvous at a village. Huddled around a fire with his gang of five, he would identify himself only as a Pakistani Pashtun, the ethnic group that dominates north-west Pakistan and the south and east of Afghanistan.

"Weapons are the jewellery of the Pashtun," he declared, citing a popular saying. "Besides, it's not just weapons that we smuggle. We also smuggle hashish and opium, because a poor man has to find some way of supporting his family."

Mr Shah denied any involvement in the political violence across Pakistan.

"It's not our responsibility, but that of the people who place the orders. There's an equal chance that the weapons are used for personal protection, or against criminals," he said. "We are not preaching violence, just delivering the items entrusted to us."


* Amjad Hadayat reported from Rawalakot