Backwash of arms in Pakistan


Weapons: As America considers arming the Northern Alliance, Pakistan's president is trying to gain control over the mammoth arsenal the U.S. helped create in the '80s.

October 25, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Some countries would be pleased to get an assortment of handguns and rifles when offering an amnesty to anyone willing to turn in their weapons. In Pakistan, they get rocket launchers and even the odd armored personnel carrier.

In this part of the world, men are born to the gun. The Pashtun people in Afghanistan and Pakistan fire rifles into the air when a son is born so that gunfire will be the first sound the baby hears. They grow up with their weapons.

So when Pakistan offered an amnesty this year, perhaps the cache turned in was not surprising. The hardware included 28 anti-aircraft guns, two 25-pound cannons, three missiles, 803 hand grenades and 35 multibarrel rocket launchers -- rocket launchers so large they have to be transported by truck. Someone also handed in an armored personnel carrier.

"You could equip a brigade with the weapons recovered," says Brigadier Javed Iqbal Cheema, overseer of the government's domestic arms control program.

The weapons, however, represent just a tiny fraction of the total number in the hands of civilians.

As the United States considers arming Afghanistan's Northern Alliance to topple the Taliban regime, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is trying to gain control over the mammoth arsenal the United States helped create in an earlier conflict. In the 1980s, the CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency supplied millions of weapons to the mujahedeen, the Islamic fighters battling the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

The mujahedeen won, but Pakistanis paid a heavy price. Weapons filtered back across the border and helped fuel political, ethnic and religious rivalries. They created a climate in which shootouts, kidnappings and bombings are commonplace. And they helped arm the Taliban, who inherited, among other weapons, the shoulder-held Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that helped defeat the Soviet army.

Some of the weapons are in the hands of groups that have waged war in Afghanistan, in Indian-administered Kashmir and against one another. They include tribal chiefs who rule the Khyber Pass in Pakistan's northwest, Islamic political parties sympathetic to the Taliban, and Shiite and Sunni Muslims who have been battling each other since the 1980s.

It's in the dry, rugged mountains of the Khyber Pass that the influence of armaments is most evident. This is the territory of drug barons who live behind the towering walls of adobe forts with helicopter pads, a place where aimless men wander with AK-47s hanging from their shoulders.

But the backwash of arms from the mujahedeen changed the scale of weaponry. Today, tribal chiefs settle scores with rocket launchers. Some use anti-aircraft guns as cannons.

Musharraf has tried to solve the problem since coming to power in 1999 by halting all gun licenses. And in June, the amnesty program netted about 87,000 weapons. But the impact has been small.

Last week, five major tribes said they would ignore a government prohibition on the manufacture of heavy weapons, and they pledged to continue production to help arm the Taliban.

"The government is not showing enough will," says Ayesha Siddiqa-Agha, a defense analyst and adjunct professor at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University.

Some gun makers in Pakistan's northwestern city of Peshawar say the halt to gun licenses has forced manufacturers to close. The whine of drills still rises from behind the blue metal gate of Habib Ullah's gun factory, but the product has changed. Ullah, whose name means "Friend of God" in Arabic, used to make pistols and shotguns. Since the license ban, he says, he has switched to textile machinery.

The workshop where he made firearms sits empty. The barrel of an unfinished pump-action shotgun rests against a brick wall next to a vise.

"It's just like a graveyard; nobody is here," says Ullah, who says he's out of the arms business now. Even so, he can still quote the price for a used rocket launcher: $230.

Ullah thinks Musharraf's gun control policies won't work. The ban on licenses, he says, hurts law-abiding citizens while criminals are free to obtain weapons illegally.

He insists that all Muslims have a right to bear arms and defend Islam, as he says Osama bin Laden has done.

Ullah sits at his desk and unfolds a map of Saudi Arabia. The map shows the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina and marks the presence of U.S. military forces with American flags. Every Muslim would die for these shrines, he says. If you want the friendship of Muslims, you have to leave these places.

In Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, Brigadier Mohammed Yusuf describes how the campaign to defeat the Soviet Union turned his country into an armed camp.

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