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War in Afghanistan takes its toll on Pakistan's local weapons manufacturers

February 8, 2011

The local weapons industry in Pakistan's recalcitrant northwest has seen a sharp decline in the last three decades. Now, weapons from all over the world are readily available in the local market at knock down prices.

Elyas, 11, prepares the last stage for a Kalashnikov AK47 in a small arms factory in Darra, Pakistan
Elyas, 11, prepares the last stage for a Kalashnikov in a small arms factory in DarraImage: AP
It began in the 1980s when Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan. Russian weapons, far superior in their design and performance, started appearing in local markets of Pakistan's tribal areas, and demand for locally-manufactured guns fell drastically. Post 9/11, Pakistan's local manufacturers of small weapons suffered another blow.

Symbol of manliness

Darra Adam Khel is traditionally known as a centre for the manufacture of small firearms. Most of these weapons are made at home by local people. In Pakistan's northwest, particularly in the tribal areas, there is an old tradition of bearing firearms. Carrying a gun is considered to be a symbol of bravery and manliness. People also keep them for personal safety, and to settle scores with their tribal rivals. And what would a wedding in the tribal areas be like without crowds of tribesmen firing salvoes of bullets into the air in celebration?

Members of local citizens' militia in the northwest wave their riffles
Members of a local citizens' militia in the northwest wave their riflesImage: AP

Whether these weapons are legal or illegal does not matter all that much as the Pakistani government has limited authority along its border to Afghanistan. Usually, licenses to carry and manufacture such weapons are issued by government agents who enjoy a relative degree of independence from the state. In areas in which Pakistani military is in charge, licenses to manufacture weapons are issued by the central government.

But the traditional ways of life have been drastically altered by the decades of conflict in Afghanistan.

Local vs. foreign

Deutsche Welle's correspondent in Peshawar Faridullah Khan believes that the small weapons business in Pakistan suffered a huge setback in the late 1970s when Soviet weapons, especially the Kalashnikov, flooded into local tribal markets.

"The Russian weapons started coming to Pakistan via Afghanistan illegally, and the locally-manufactured weapons of Pakistan could not compete with them. Then came 2001 and Pakistan decided to join the allied forces to combat the Taliban in the war against terrorism. International weapons were illegally imported into Pakistan in large numbers, and that eventually destroyed the entire local weapons industry," said Khan.

Pakistani gunmakers are quite good at counterfeiting the Russian AK47
Pakistani gunmakers are quite good at counterfeiting the Russian AK-47Image: picture alliance / united archives

Government officials also raid local weapons shops and workshops from time to time. Apart from that, there is not much difference between the prices of illegal foreign weapons and the locally-made arms, but customers prefer the high-tech and more effective foreign-made guns over inferior local weapons. As a consequence local gunmakers are forced to look for other sources of income.

Alternative livelihood

Jamal Afridi, who lives in Darra Adam Khel, tried his hand at weapons-making. He told Deutsche Welle that most of the local weapons producers had changed their jobs in recent years.

"I know the people who used to be in this profession. Some have completely changed their occupation. Some are driving taxis, some have opened shops. Those who do not find an alternative business, or who do not possess any other skill, are still doing the same work. Most of these people are now making guns for the government-run weapon industries on commission," said Afridi.

The government of Pakistan has given jobs to the local arms manufacturers in the Wah Military Complex and other state-run industries that produce weapons for the Pakistan Army and other paramilitary forces. It is not surprising that the protracted war in Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas has also caused an increase in unemployment in these areas, and a lot of the gunmakers have been recruited by the Taliban. However, DW correspondent Faridullah Khan says that the Taliban rely more on foreign weaponry than locally made weapons. These days, Pakistani gun-makers are also counterfeiting Russian and American weapons. They are quite good at this, and some people think that it is hard to differentiate between the foreign and locally-manufactured guns. Jamal Afridi says it is a natural talent of the Pashtuns, and they are extremely good in the craft of weapons-making.

"Make it legal"

Unemployment is driving some gunmakers to Taliban militants
Unemployment is driving some gunmakers to Taliban militantsImage: dpa

Jamal Afridi says the government should make the business of weapons-making legal so it can keep track of things. He also wants the government to curb the import of illegal firearms.

"Unemployment is the major reason behind criminal activity. The government should give licences to small weapons producers so that they can earn money legally and the government will also get some revenue out of it. In foreign countries too, weapons are made and sold, but the government issues licences to these shops and to people who buy them."

He says a lack of alternative ways of earning money will only lead to a higher crime rate, as people will be forced to look for illegal ways to sustain their livelihood.

Author: Shamil Shams
Editor: Grahame Lucas