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Guns offer fast profit for Afghans

Poor soldiers are key players in a massive unregulated weapons market.

By David BuchbinderSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 6, 2002



KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

Abdul Zahir says he's weary of war, but artifacts from Afghanistan's violent past still clutter his rickety shop.

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A carpet woven with a zigzagging pattern of assault rifles hangs from the rafters. Bottles of shampoo and cartons of cigarettes are arrayed on shelves punctuated by Soviet bayonets. Hidden beneath a cushion in a sitting area is a Czech SKS rifle. A battered Kalashnikov leans in a corner.

Mr. Zahir, who spent the last five years fighting the Taliban, says he killed some 20 men. He's ready for peace. But he also says he's ready – and anxious – to put some of his guns back on the street. His Kalashnikov is on sale for $150. He's willing to make a deal on an AK-47 that has seen better days.

"When you have nothing, you need many things, and I can make my life a little bit better by selling my guns," he says. Gesturing toward the AK-47, Zahir says he'd like to keep that rifle – after all, he risked his life to snatch it off the battlefield from a man he had killed. "But if someone wants to pay me, I have to take the money."

In the wake of the Taliban's fall, Northern Alliance soldiers have become players in one of the world's biggest and most unregulated weapons markets, perpetu-ating the region's war machine. Soldiers are hardly the only ones selling firearms in Afghanistan. Traders in towns and villages adjacent to Pakistan do a brisk cross-border trade.

From the Mongol invaders to the soldiers of the American 82nd Airborne division, soldiers and strife have woven weapons into the warp and woof of Afghan society. "This particular country has an ancient history of bearing arms," says Lt. Col. Neal Peckham, a former spokesman with the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul. "The culture is such that from your age of manhood, you carry weapons.

Yet soldiers are among the poorest people in a nation where even the elite live in dirt-floored homes. The government of Hamid Karzai has not paid fighters, with the exception of those integrated into the Afghan National Army, since last October. Jobs are scarce and salaries nonexistent. Selling weapons makes good economic sense.

No one can quantify the amount of weapons Afghan soldiers feed back into the mar- ket. Mr. Karzai's administration counts 75,000 uniformed men and another 100,000 irregular militia fighters. But if there is any truth to the conventional wisdom that firearm ownership is the norm, then the number of armed Afghans may be in the millions.

Still unanswered is who is buying the weapons. There is some small-scale trade between Afghans. Northern Alliance soldiers routinely report selling guns to Americans, though US officials deny the existence of a buyback program. Gen. Din Muhammad Jurat, the director general for security at the Interior Ministry, says that international arms dealers buy guns in Afghanistan and sell them in neighboring countries at a profit. Behind the smugglers, Mr. Jurat says, are Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants.

As one senior Western intelligence official in Kabul, who speaks on the condition of anonymity, puts it: "What used to be the old silk route is the new weapons route."

Officials haven't completely ignored the issue. In addition to the unofficial collection programs, the interim government forbids citizens in Kabul from bearing arms without a government-issued ID card. As a result, the trade in small arms has crept underground – sometimes literally. Caches of guns large and small have reportedly been buried. Haggling that once took place openly on main roads has shifted to villages.

While the threat of arrest is real, penalties are rarely meted out. "Since the interim government was established, we have arrested many people with weapons," says Jurat. "Those who were with Al Qaeda and Taliban are being prosecuted, but the ordinary people, those who were deceived by the Taliban, have been released."

Security officials seem content to stick to weapons seizures. In the past six months, the Interior Ministry says it has confiscated 10,000 illegal guns in and around Kabul. But Mr. Peckham suggests that roundups may not be the best way to deal with Afghanistan's gun problem.

"Maybe we need to get them to change their concept of what they should be doing with their lives – rather than start with handing in weapons, which is something that may well be anathema to the Afghan psyche."

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