IN SEARCH OF ILLEGAL ARMS TRAFFICKERS IN AFGHANISTAN

Guruko, Nangarhar, Afghanistan – An array of armed actors in Afghanistan – from insurgents to pro-government militias and ordinary locals trying to defend their homes – are said to acquire and resupply their arsenal by buying weapons and ammunition on the black market. Exclusive reporting from Afghanistan, in particular from the eastern province of Nangarhar, gives a rare insight into some details of these shadowy arms dealings. It shows that weapons that are smuggled into Afghanistan or have already been there since long are re-sold. This happens through a network of independent brokers that set up small transactions of a handful of weapons rather than sales in actual bazaars.

CROSS BORDER SMUGGLING

Only a short drive away from Torkham, the official main border crossing between the Afghan province of Nangarhar and the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwah, lies Guruko – a lawless area where smuggling thrives. The people of Guruko run everything, from air-conditioners over marijuana and other narcotics to weapons and base chemicals for home-made explosives. Depending on the kind of contraband, it either gets out of or comes into Afghanistan. Weapons come in.

A young man who had served in the Afghan National Army before turning to smuggling in Guruko, including gun running, said that he usually crosses the border about thrice a week – on foot on hardly, if at all marked stony paths that wind up the valleys into the mountains and over the border descending to the valleys on the Pakistani side. Reaching pre-arranged pick-up points on the Pakistani side – remote single houses near the border – takes him and others about four to five hours. “When I am smuggling weapons, my load is about 10 to 15 pieces in one run,” he explains. The weapons – mostly Kalashnikovs and pistols, but sometimes also heavier PK machine guns and RPGs – are stashed in simple bags and carried on the back, he added.

“We usually go in groups of five, six men and get paid 4,000 to 5,000 Pakistani Rupees [about 27 to 33 US $] per run and man,” the young gunrunner explained. For local standards, this is no small amount (as comparison: a guard in the considerably more expensive capital Kabul earns about 200 US $ per month). Others cross the border back and forth with caravans of camels to transport more goods in one run.

They usually conduct their smuggling trips during the night, under cover of darkness. Government forces have not much, if any permanent presence along this section of the border, but the young man and others in Guruko recount incidents, in which smugglers were arrested by patrols. The Taliban reportedly man some posts along the border. 

“But they only take some toll from us and otherwise leave us alone,” the young gunrunner said. 

According to men in Guruko, the Taliban – in cooperation with bigger arms dealers – also arrange larger weapons shipments themselves. Only days before this author’s visit to Guruko in late December 2018, the Taliban and a Pakistani arms dealer by the name of Muslim had transported 200 to 250 Kalashnikovs, 2 DShKs and 4,000 mortar shells over the border, the men in Guruko insist. This could neither be verified nor disproved; however, it should be kept in mind, that Afghans often recount doubtful hearsay as fact and inflate numbers.

In any event, once the weapons arrive in Guruko, they are reloaded into cars and brought by other men to Marko, an area under insurgent control in Nangarhar’s district of Ghanikhel (also known as Shinwar),where they are stashed before getting on the market or transported elsewhere.

The young man and other small-scale smugglers have nothing to do with the payment to the providers in Pakistan or the subsequent transport and sales of the weapons they carry over the border. This is allegedly the business of larger traders on both sides of the border that hire the smugglers. As such purported bigger players are extremely paranoid, none of them could – despite numerous efforts – be contacted.

On another front, other sources from different provinces alleged that in northern Afghanistan Afghan smugglers run weapons over the river Panj that marks the Afghan-Tajik border, often in exchange for opium and/or heroin. However, while there have been credible reports that at least some weapons came into Afghanistan over said border river – in particular into the districts of Darqad and Chohob in the province of Takhar and seemingly also in some spots in the province of Badakhshan, all bordering Tajikistan – details remain scarce and could not be definitively verified.

WEAPONS ORIGINS 

According to the young man and others in Guruko, all weapons smuggled there are Pakistani copies. This could not be confirmed though. The smugglers in Guruko claimed that weapons are immediately transported further and that they could not show any of the merchandise. In the alleged caches in Marko, weapons or rather their stamps and serial numbers could be checked to determine at least their place of manufacturing. However, ongoing fighting in said area during this author’s visit prevented to do this. Such clashes could have also been a welcome excuse though, as all involved actors – even the few that agree to talk about arms trafficking – are more than reluctant to show their goods.

Be that as it may, two Kalashnikovs seen by this author in late December 2018 in two different spots of Khogyani, another district of Nangarhar, that were reportedly recently acquired on the local black market, bore the stamps of the Izhevsk factory in Russia – i.e. they were seemingly originals, not Pakistani copies. 

Similarly, there were some original Russian Kalashnikovs among dozens of such rifles that were captured from insurgents by Afghan government forces in early January 2019 in the district of Kharwar in the neighbouring province of Logar and also seen by this author. Several of those Kalashnikovs were apparently also copies from other countries though. In addition, there were tens of Turkish TISAS Zigana 9mm pistols among the weapons seized in Kharwar. Another such pistol was also seen on sale by this author in Khogyani in late December 2018 – along a Pakistani handgun of the sort that are manufactured in Darra Adam Khel, a Pakistani town located between Peshawar and Kohat that is infamous for its crude production and copying of weapons.

This said, the place of manufacturing does not say much about the immediate origin of the weapon – all the more in case of Kalashnikovs that are (also in Russian originals) widely available in numerous countries. Hence, allegations brought forward by many Afghans according to which the original Russian Kalashnikovs came from Russia via the Central Asian republics have to be viewed with suspicion, as this is, to paraphrase one observer, like saying that all the in Afghanistan ubiquitous Toyotas came more or less directly from Japan.

This problem is further compounded by the fact that a considerable number of the weapons on the Afghan black market seem to be rather old and have likely changed hands multiple times.

Asked about the immediate origin of these weapons, different sources offer different assertions – none of which could be verified.

In Nangarhar, various sources pointed to the almost fabled weapons factories of Darra Adam Khel or the similar infamous Tirah weapons bazaar, located in the valley of the same name in the former tribal agency of Khyber just on the Pakistani side of the border.

Regarding the weapons smuggled over the border river in northern Afghanistan, several sources alleged that they come from “Russians.”This should be viewed with caution though, as locals often attribute any such or similar involvement north of the border river to “Russians” as if the days of the Soviet Union had not passed, making such assertions unreliable. Furthermore, an observer noted that such illegal weapons dealings might well be the work of members of Tajik organised crime and/or corrupt Tajik officials.

Yet another frequently heard story is that such weapons come from the vast caches that date back to the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s, when the United States of America and other countries provided the Afghan resistance with large numbers of weapons to fight the Soviets. This was doubted by a diplomatic source of a country in the region though, who argued that such caches must had been exhausted a long time ago.

In a possible explanation for this, some sources in the province of Laghman alleged that some Afghans from the province of Panjshir – who, as part of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, gained significant influence in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Taliban regime in late 2001 – had managed to keep and/or amass vast numbers of weapons that were supposed to have been decommissioned in post-2001 disarming programmes and are selling them ever since in smaller batches. The same sources from Laghman further claimed that, during the tenure of former Afghan President Karzai (2004 – 2014), the Afghan Ministry of Defence has “lost” about 20,000 Kalashnikovs. While the latter was a quite clear reference to embezzlement and sales by corrupt government officials, other sources also indicated that insurgents sell weapons that they capture from government forces in fighting.

Finally, one former insurgent who now resides in Laghman, asserted that insurgents would – when they, for whatever reason, move to farther away places – usually sell all their weapons and then buy new weapons in the new place, as this would be easier than transporting significant amounts of arms over longer distances.

BROKERED SALES

Wherever the weapons come from, many end users buy them from individual small dealers inside Afghanistan. Also those small scale dealers hardly, if ever agree to talk about their business. However, one of them, an older man with an already white beard from Khogyani, explained that he and others like him are brokers that set up transactions. This means that those dealers themselves usually do not have weapons in stock, but that they, when approached by buyers with requests, obtain the amount and type of weapons ordered.

The man remained vague on how he and other brokers get the weapons, saying that they would know “who would be selling,” referring to other small or larger dealers or people that sell their private weapons. Larger dealers would have depots of up to 100 to 200 weapons, the man asserted. The transactions with the end users are then arranged in random and changing spots between the buyer and the broker. To set things into relation: the referred to dealer estimated that he sells an average of about 100 weapons per year, mostly Kalashnikovs and pistols and only rarely heavier arms like PKs and RPGs.

Who exactly the larger dealers with weapons depots are, remains unclear. Sources from different provinces openly implied several specific insurgent commanders or Afghan politicians as being behind the larger weapons depots and sales from them. Such accusations seemed, however, to be rather targeted at the implied persons than be based on evidence or indications of actual links between the accused and the weapons. Hence, such assertions appear – although they cannot be ruled out – questionable. In fact, one former insurgent, who in this manner pointed the finger at a number of insurgent commanders from other factions in the province of Kunar, stated that these commanders would not be directly involved in arms dealing but use other men for this. This paired with the fact that the source could not indicate the names of the latter men raises doubts about his allegations.

More credibly, some other sources – after being pressed – mentioned one or two names of such alleged larger dealers in a hushed way, without providing many, if any details. Given that the indicated individuals reside in deep Taliban territory and could not only not be visited, but also not be reached otherwise, their alleged involvement could neither be verified nor disproved.

In any event, multiple sources indicated that there are no physical weapons-only bazaars. While some reports imply the existence of such bazaars in even for Afghan standards dodgy areas, in one such example referring to a “weapons bazaar” in the area of Nookr Khel in upper parts of Khogyani, remarks of the mentioned local arms broker qualified this. According to said broker, only a handful of weapons dealers are operating inside the bazaar of Nookr Khel that first and foremost sells an array of regular goods. The fact that the broker put the number of such arms dealers in Nookr Khel at about 20, while indicating that the bazaar there comprises countless ordinary sellers and customers, implies that weapons dealing is only a tiny fraction of the overall trade in said bazaar.

The transactions themselves are often limited to mere handfuls of weapons per deal. This was not only stated by the mentioned broker, but also confirmed by Malek Maki, the commander of a pro-government militia operating in Khogyani. “During the past year, my uprising unit bought about 75weapons on the local black market; always only one or two pieces at a time,” Makitold this author in late December 2018. Most of the time, Maki boughtKalashnikovs, two of which hung on the wall in the bare room that serves as his headquarter in Kaga, the centre of Khogyani.

This said, some sources talked about larger sales of twenty or more pieces per transaction. While such larger transactions likely exist, no example could be corroborated, implying that they are rather the exception than the rule. This is also in line with the fact that there are only rare reports about larger weapons seizures by government forces, such as a haul of over 400 weapons in Gardez, the capital of the province of Paktia, in May 2019.

Prices differ vastly, depending on the type and quality of weapons. The mentioned crude Darra Adam Khel pistol seen on sale by this author would change hands for as few as 7,000 Pakistani Rupees (about 47 US $); better pistols reportedly cost between 15,000 and 50,000 Pakistani Rupees (about 100 to 340 US $). According to various sources from eastern Afghanistan, Kalashnikovs are priced anywhere between 60,000 and 170,000 Pakistani Rupees (about 400 to 1,150 US $); PKs between 200,000 and 500,000 Pakistani Rupees (about 1,350 US $ to 3,385 US $); and one can acquire an RPG for between 50,000 and 100,000 Pakistani Rupees (about 340 to 680 US $). (Of note: the indication of prices in Pakistani Rupees rather than Afghan currency is nothing peculiar, as in many parts of eastern Afghanistan Pakistani – and not Afghan – currency is the norm.)

Some of the sources also indicated prices for US made guns, such as M16s, M4s and M240s. While this suggests that also such guns are on the Afghan black market, likely coming from Afghan government stocks, the vast majority apparently remains Russian/Soviet weaponry or copies thereof.

AMMUNITION

Black market dealings with ammunition are even shadier than the ones with weapons. A former insurgent claimed that ammunition would hardly be sold. He explained that this is caused by the fact that weapons are available in abundance and can therefor be spared and sold, while ammunition that is consumed and does not last is usually safeguarded by armed actors for their own use.

On the other hand, the mentioned arms broker claimed that there is a market for ammunition, but that prices broke down. As reason for this he indicated that insurgent, who used to buy a lot of ammunition, would not do so anymore, implying that they mainly supply themselves with battlefield captures from government forces by now. Yet other accounts alleged that the majority of black market sales of ammunition comes from government stockpiles via corrupt officials.

Be that as it may, various sources in eastern Afghanistan indicated that a Kalashnikov bullet costs between 30 and 100 Pakistani Rupees (about 20 to 70 US ¢), depending on the type and quality. Bullets for pistols are reportedly similarly priced. PK cartridges go for around 45 Pakistani Rupees (about 30 US ¢) per piece. And RPG rounds can, depending on type and other circumstances, be bought for 2,000 to 7,000 Pakistani Rupees (about 13 to 47 US $).

In any event, and although the details of black market weapons dealings in Afghanistan remain murky, in a country awash in weapons it is not at all difficult to acquire quite some firepower. Of course one has to have the cash to put on the table, as otherwise arms dealers are unlikely to show or say anything. But with comparatively affordable prices, also this is not an unmanageable obstacle.


Follow Franz Marty on Twitter: @FranzJMarty


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