Pakistan's flourishing arms bazaar (Pakistan)

"There is nothing we cannot copy," grins Haji Munawar Afridi, an arms trader at Darra Adam Khel near Pakistan's northern city of Peshawar


"You bring us a Stinger missile and we will make you an imitation that would be difficult to tell apart from the original."

It is not uncommon to come across such swagger from Pashtun tribesmen populating the lawless tribal belt along the country's western border with Afghanistan.
But it would perhaps be unwise to dismiss it as sheer bluster.

The hot, dry and dusty little town of Darra Adam Khel, barely a half-hour drive from Peshawar, is one of the major suppliers of small arms to the residents of the tribal belt.

From a distance, it looks no different from any suburban settlement in North-West Frontier Province.
The main road meanders into a market where few outlets are larger than a single room.
But the fare they flaunt is deadly: revolvers, automatic pistols, shotguns and Kalashnikovs line the shelves of a typical shop.

Only five years ago, the list would also have had items such as anti-personnel mines, sub-machine guns, small cannons and even rocket launchers.

"This farcical war on terror has been hard on us," says Haji Afridi.
"The government has forced us to stop manufacturing heavy arms. It says such weapons are used by terrorists."

For Darra tribesmen, the government's crackdown amounts to a betrayal of sorts.
They say it was the government itself that transferred heavy weapons technology to Darra in the late 1980s.

In April 1988, a major ammunition dump in Rawalpindi used for stockpiling US and Saudi-funded arms for the Afghan fighters blew up.

The entire dump, called the Ojhri camp, was gutted in a day-long inferno during which dozens of people were killed as unarmed missiles rained down on citizens living in the heavily-populated areas around.
Tribesmen say the government sold all the destroyed ammunition as scrap to arms dealers in Darra Adam Khel, a claim never quite denied by the authorities.

Haji Afridi, who has been a member of parliament and is an active player in the bazaar's politics, say it was a windfall for local manufacturers.

"From those destroyed weapons, we overnight acquired the technology for manufacturing mines, machine guns, small cannons and even multi-barrel rocket launchers."

It made Darra a household name in neighbouring Afghanistan, where the Afghans had descended into factional infighting after the Soviet withdrawal.

Amid waning international interest in Afghanistan, Darra became the focal point for various antagonists engaged in the country.

Within a couple of years, it had outgrown other tribal arms bazaars such as those in Bajaur and Jundollah.
But the so-called war on terror seems to have put paid to the glory days.

Under threat
Analysts say these open arms markets were an invaluable asset for Pakistani policy-makers before 9/11.
Influential traders in Darra Adam Khel proudly talk about their role in arming the Islamist fighters engaged in Kashmir.

Others recall the times when the Pakistani authorities would encourage them to supply more to one Afghan commander than the other.
This privileged status now seems to be under threat.

Senior military officials say open arms markets are contributing significantly to the conflict between Taleban fighters and Pakistani security forces in the tribal belt.

One official told the BBC News website that Pakistan's top army intelligence unit had recommended the immediate closure of all arms markets in the tribal belt soon after 9/11.

For several years now, the government has been seen encouraging the arms manufacturers in Darra to participate in international defence weapons exhibitions held annually in major Pakistani cities.
The idea is to introduce the tribesmen to the international arms market and create new, above-board relationships that are more easily regulated.

That was perhaps the thought behind the government's decision to route all export orders awarded to Darra arms manufacturers through the ministry of defence.

The move backfired, however, as most of the tradesmen started accusing the government of channelling international orders to their "favourites".

At present, only a handful of the 2,000-odd families involved in arms manufacturing in Darra are supplying clients abroad.

The rest continue to focus on local markets.

"Punjabis love small arms and Punjab is our major market," says Haji Afridi.

His claim is rubbished by intelligence officials, who say places such are Darra are critical in sustaining major conflicts in the region.

Whatever the reality, it is clear that the government will have to come up with a highly innovative and aggressive strategy to bring this lethal trade under control.

Von: 22.6.2006 BBC

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