Hand-made AK47s for sale at an illegal workshop near the Afghan border.
Credit: Tahira Sarwar/IRIN
Activists have called for alternative jobs for those involved in Pakistan’s illegal arms manufacturing industry, located mainly in northwestern parts of the country.
“Tribesmen involved in illegal arms manufacturing already have basic skills, raw materials and their places of work. The government and international agencies can assist them in switching to making other things such as agricultural tools, surgical goods and car parts,” Raza Shah Khan, head of the Peshawar-based Sustainable Peace and Development Organisation (SPADO), told IRIN in the provincial capital of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Khan noted that illegal arms manufacturers were getting squeezed out of business by the propensity of smuggled weapons available in the region. “This is the time that the government can support them in regularising and diversifying the industry,” he added.
Pakistan, according to anti-arms campaigners, has one of the greatest per capita rates of gun ownership in the world. Though there are no official figures, rough estimates put the total number of small arms at large in the country at more than 20 million, with about half of them illegal. NWFP alone is believed to have nearly half a million illegitimate small arms and light weapons.
The severe proliferation of small arms in Pakistan began after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In addition to the crossborder flow of weapons, an estimated 30 percent of the weapons funnelled by US and Pakistani intelligence services to the Afghan resistance during the conflict were diverted for other purposes, according to anti-small arms activists.
In Pakistan, the illegal arms market supplies militant sectarian groups, terrorists, drug cartels, criminals and those seeking protection from such groups. In addition, tribal disputes in the frontier provinces of Balochistan, Sindh and Punjab are perpetrated by the abundance of cheaply available firearms.
In the southern port city of Karachi, nearly 18,000 people fell victim to gun violence between 1992 and 1998.
More recently, in March 2006, at least 25 people were killed and 30 hurt in the tribal area of Bara in NWFP during clashes over preaching rights between supporters of two rival clerics, where the rival factions fought pitched battles with automatic weapons.
Like many areas of Pakistan, neighbouring Afghanistan also struggles to shed its gun-culture after decades of fighting and the traditional male custom of bearing arms.
Along with extensive smuggling of weapons – mainly from Afghanistan, the small arms menace in Pakistan is also the result of both legal and illegal arms manufacturing units in various parts of NWFP and the neighbouring Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan. While some arms workshops in NWFP are registered with the government, the infamous industry in the FATA, including the main hubs of Darra Adam Khel, Bara and Jamrud, are unregistered.
A 2003 survey by SPADO found there were 1,200 shops selling guns in Darra Adam Khel alone. These were supplied by nearly 1,500 small workshops and more than 50 medium-scale manufacturing units employing over 6,000 gunsmiths.
Small arms have long been a part of traditional Pathan society in NWFP. “Guns have remained an embodiment of physical power in this male-dominated tribal culture and the Darra [Adam Khel] manufacturers basically catered to this market,” Khan said.
Gunsmithing was effectively a cottage industry with marginal profits, but was transformed during the Soviet invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan, when demand for weapons from Muhjadeen groups soared. The weapons – everything from a pen that doubles as a pistol to a copy of an AK-47, or even an anti-aircraft gun – are made by hand, but carry no serial numbers and are often or poor quality.
Programmes to reduce the number of small arms in Pakistan have had little success, particularly in parts of the country where Islamabad has little authority.
But in 2000, state arms manufacturer, Pakistan Ordinance Factories (POF) managed to dent the illegal trade by recruiting some of the skilled artisans from the tribal areas to POF’s main manufacturing unit in Wah - a cluster of 14 factories 40 km north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
“So far, we have brought in around 100 skilled artisans to the complex. Their absence from the market and their presence here is certainly making a big difference,” POF Chairman Lt Gen Abdul Qayyum was quoted as saying in August 2003.
But analysts say that giving jobs to a few gunmakers will not end small arms proliferation.
“One knows stopping illegal production of arms in Pakistan is not an easy task. It’s a question of providing alternative means of income to illegal manufacturers and ending the extensive smuggling [of guns],” said Islamabad-based security and defence analyst, Ayesha Siddiqa Agha.