PESHAWAR, Pakistan: The price of a Kalashnikov assault rifle is soaring as militant groups and private militias mushroom in an increasingly battle-torn northwest Pakistan, arms dealers and buyers say.
Civilians too, frightened by the upsurge in violence and citing a lack of government protection, are also forking out to arm themselves with a weapon that has come to symbolise violent struggle the world over.
Easy to use, hard to jam and the preferred killing machine of guerrillas, security forces and terror merchants, the humble Kalashnikov has never been more highly prized in the wilds of Pakistan.
As a result, in the northwest capital Peshawar, and Darra Adam Khel, outside government control in the tribal belt on the Afghan border, prices have jumped as much as five times in a year, to up to 1,500 dollars (125,000 rupees).
“You see there is war in the tribal areas. The Taliban need this weapon and tribesmen need this weapon against Taliban,” said Habib Khan, a Peshawar arms dealer.
The military is currently engaged in a major offensive in the northwest against Taliban amid fears in Islamabad and ally Washington that the militants were gaining increasing influence and ground in Pakistan.
At Darra Adam Khel, home to one of the biggest private arms’ markets in Asia, prices vary according to quality: German-made is most expensive, local produce cheapest.
“There was a time when a Chinese-made Kalashnikov was available for 25,000 to 35,000 rupees. Now the price has risen to 100,000 rupees,” Qalandar Shah told AFP by telephone from his arms shop in Darra Adam Khel.
“The main reason, in my opinion, is the war-like situation. Secondly, the gap between supply and demand widened because of Talibanisation,” he said.
Shah has been selling guns in Darra Adam Khel for 25 years, he said. When he started out, Peshawar was seething with US and Pakistani spies bankrolling and arming the mujahedeen to evict Soviet occupiers from neighbouring Afghanistan.
It was during those years that the Kalashnikov, also referred to as the AK-47, flooded into Pakistan.
After the 2001 US-led invasion evicted the Taliban from government in Afghanistan, hundreds of Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked radicals seeped across the border into Pakistan, culminating in April in the current government offensive.
Around 2,000 Pakistani troops have died fighting Islamists opposed to Islamabad’s alliance with the United States, and another 2,000 people have been killed in an escalating bombing campaign across the country in two years.
“If the situation carries on like this, demand for this weapon will rise and prices will go up more and more,” said Shah.
The AK-47 was developed in the Soviet Union by Mikhail Kalashnikov in the 1940s and since then has been produced all over the world.
In Peshawar and Darra Adam Khel, a German-made AK-47 retails at 125,000 rupees, the Iranian version goes for 35,000 rupees and the Darra Adam Khel-made Kalashnikov a bargain 13,000 rupees.
“All these weapons used to be available on the local market at very low prices, but in just a year it shot up like a bullet,” Shah said.
“I remember a time when 10 bullets were only 10 rupees. It was some years back,” he said. Today, 10 rounds cost 285 rupees (four dollars).
The Taliban and Al-Qaeda adherents in Afghanistan and Iraq, and even groups fighting in Indian-administered Kashmir, have taken the gun to their hearts.
“This is a key weapon for Taliban and other militant groups because it is lightweight and gets good results,” said Roohullah, a Peshawar arms dealer.
Residents have also armed themselves, either to fight in tribal militias against rebels or to protect their properties and families.
“Although it’s costly, I bought it. It’s a must to keep a weapon at home and a Kalashnikov is the best choice for me. No one will want to attack you,” said Kabir Khan, a customer at one shop in Peshawar.
“I know it’s illegal to keep a Kalashnikov without a permit, but what’s legal in this country? The government has failed to provide us security.”
Officials openly recognise many do not bother with a licence.
“One reason for the price rise is demand. People buy it for protection while militants use it because it is easy to use, easy to clean and easy to carry,” Abdul Ghafoor Afridi, a senior police officer in Peshawar, told AFP.