For people who openly sell night-vision goggles, grenades and even the occasional RPG, the dealers at the American Market in Peshawar are remarkably reluctant to talk about their clientele.
Eventually, a laptop dealer, selling Dells and HPs at knockdown prices, explains who the dealers here sell their weapons to.
“Most of the arms here will end up with the Taliban. Some people come to buy these weapons for themselves but mostly they are bought by militants,“ he says.
He explains that the area has come to be known as the American Market because it sells US goods that have either been stolen and transported from Afghanistan or captured from Nato trucks being transported from Pakistan to Afghanistan.
While everything from scanned goods to electronic equipment is available at the American Market, the majority of the items on sale are weapons. The laptop dealer says the American Market is only the third largest of its kind in Pakistan, and similar markets in Bara, Jamrud and Dara Adam Khel offer a greater variety of weapons, although he adds that there has been an army clampdown in Dara Adam Khel.
Despite the abundance of arms available in these markets, this is only the tip of the iceberg for the Taliban.
“The Taliban are the United Nations of weaponry,“ says Lee Wollonsky, an arms-smuggling expert who has worked with various think-tanks in the US.
“They have arms from the US, China, Russia, Iran and just about every other country you can think of.” How the Taliban became an essential chain in the global arms trade, is a fascinating story. Wollonsky says that the Taliban linked into arms smuggling networks that originated from Russia.
“You have dealers in Russia with their own private chartered airlines that they use to smuggle arms around the world. The Taliban get arms from charter airlines that are registered in the UAE, where there is very little oversight.” According to Wollonsky, there airlines shuttle poisonous chemicals, arms, ammunition and sometimes even operatives to Taliban operatives in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The planes that are used are usually the discarded ones from the days of the Soviet Union.
Another source of Taliban arms in Pakistan, says Shanaka Jayasekara, is the LTTE in Sri Lanka. Jayasekara has done academic research into the Tamil separatist group and believes that the LTTE had front groups in Sharjah that smuggled weapons into Karachi, from where they would be distributed to the Taliban.
The US, meanwhile, believes that the Taliban may be getting weaponry from Iran.
Militant safe houses raided in the tribal areas have revealed the presence of Iranian-made AK-47s but it is not known if these have been smuggled out of Iran or provided by the government of Iran.
Taliban videos posted on jihadi-websites, meanwhile, show them carrying Chinese anti-aircraft missiles which, most arms-control experts believe, have come through the international smuggling network and not from the Chinese government.
Ultimately, though, the greatest provider – though inadvertently – of weaponry to the Taliban based in Afghanistan may be its greatest target: the US. As the laptop dealer at the American Market in Peshawar says, “The US gives weapons to people in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and they just go and sell it to people here who then sell it to the Taliban.”
Published in The Express Tribune, June 15th, 2011.