Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Peshawar Smuggling Boom

Roaring smuggling trade across Afghan border keep Peshawar markets humming.
By Abdul Ahad

In the teeming smugglers' markets on the margins of Peshawar you can find anything from drugs, guns to air conditioners.


If Peshawar is Pakistan's Wild West, then the Karkhano and Barra markets are outlaw country where police know better than to interfere. This is the domain of Pashtun traders who wander back and forth across the border with Afghanistan, just a few kilometers away, at will.


"Police are trying their best to arrest the smugglers and send them to jail - but we haven't got plans to do anything about the local people who run the stalls," said one officer asked about police efforts to stamp out the trade.


The tribal areas of northern Pakistan begin at the edge of Peshawar. The ferocious independence of local Pashtuns that so impressed their former British colonial adversaries has not faded and Islamabad has followed the practice established then of minimal interference. By agreement, the tribesmen follow their own customs and laws outside Pakistani jurisdiction.


Carrying weapons - officially illegal in Pakistan - is part of that tradition, and markets are full of arms shops. Some of the guns are made in the tribal areas - perfect replicas right down to serial numbers and "Made in Italy" engravings on hand-made pump-action shotguns. Others have flowed from Afghanistan, where tradition and a quarter century of conflict have left the country awash with weaponry.


A copy of the Soviet-era AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle, the commonest weapon, costs only 3,000 rupees (50 US dollars). There are doubts about the quality of steel in replicas, whose barrels reputedly have a tendency to warp and explode. But even the real thing is inexpensive. A Russian original costs only 6,000 rupees. There are also shotguns, Smith and Wesson pistols and a range of M-16s, the standard US assault rifle.


Just as illegal - and common - in the markets are drugs. Pakistan banned poppy cultivation in the 1990s, winning international praise. In Afghanistan, the ruling Taleban did the same before they were driven out last year. Now production there is soaring and refining of poppy resin into opium and heroin is underway on both sides of the border.


"Opium is cultivated in Afghanistan and refined into heroin in Tera," said Mohd Arif, a trader, referring to a tribal area that straddles the Afghan-Pakistan border. "There are some heroin companies in Tera and then it is brought to these markets and later it is taken to other areas."


Narcotics appear to flow unhindered back and forth to Afghanistan and further afield. "Drugs from Barra and Karkhano markets are sent to Tajikistan, Russia, Iran, Turkey and the European countries," said Gul Noor Shah at the Barra bazaar.


However, the bulk of smuggled goods in Peshawar's markets are consumer items, from tea to televisions. From here they filter across the rest of the country. Almost all Pakistani cities have Barra-like bazaars.


The irony is that most goods smuggled into Pakistan are merely returning. Islamabad has in the past allowed goods destined for Afghanistan to enter the port of Karachi duty free, under a long-standing agreement. The merchandise is ferried north across the border, but because demand has tailed off so much since the escalation of violence in 1992, the goods are routinely smuggled back and sold in Pakistan at higher prices.


"Cloth is brought to Afghanistan from Japan, China and Korea via Karachi by big businessmen and then they use Afghani and Pakistani traders to bring it to the Khyber Agency [a tribal area under the control of the Pakistani government]," said Mohammad Anis, who sells clothes in the Peshawar markets. "From here, smugglers take the cloth to Karkhano and Barra, which sell it on to other areas of Pakistan."


Islamabad pays a high cost for its freewheeling markets. The debit-ridden government loses out on customs duties. The supply of weapons has contributed to high levels of violence across the country. The trade in drugs not only alarms foreign governments, it has contributed to increasing addiction among Pakistanis.


But there is unlikely to be any clampdown. One smuggler said the police sometimes stop goods from the markets as they head deeper into Pakistan, declaring them - correctly - to be smuggled. However, he said, once a bribe is paid the goods are released.


They risk bloody confrontations if they try to confiscate the merchandise. Earlier this year, customs officials confronted smugglers from the Afridi tribe, which controls the Khyber Pass. When the shooting stopped, three smugglers and seven officials were dead. Since then, customs officials have steered clear of the markets.


Abdul Ahad, an Afghan journalist, attended the IWPR reporting course in Peshawar.