Life

A Dangerous Trip to Pakistan’s Lawless Borderlands: My Close Call in an Infamous Arms Market

  I have been involved in the overseas interest protection industry for more than 10 years and was stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan for nearly 5 years. In 2019, due to the rapid deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan, I returned to Beijing to work for a domestic overseas security company, and served as the head of a functional department of the company until August 2023.
  Due to work reasons, I have inevitably traveled to some high-risk countries or regions over the years. The facts recorded in this article took place on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in September this year. Although this experience is not the most dangerous for me, it is the most recent adventure since the publication of this article.
Planning a trip to the border tribal areas

  Since returning to China in 2019, I have not set foot in Afghanistan and Pakistan, ancient lands that seem to always be in bloodshed and conflict, for four consecutive years. After international flights resumed at the beginning of this year, due to business needs, I finally put down my work in Beijing in early September and boarded a flight to Islamabad again.
  After the plane landed, I found that the bright and spacious airport hall was quite modern. After exchanging rupees at the airport, I took a taxi to my hotel in the city. Islamabad is a “garden city”. Although there are occasional warnings about “violent terrorists sneaking into the capital” in the security warning, the security situation is generally controllable. In the first two weeks after arriving in Islamabad, in addition to having dinner and chatting with local friends, I would walk in markets, antique streets, art galleries and other places on weekdays. I feel that apart from the depreciation of the rupee, soaring prices, and the increasingly obvious gap between the rich and the poor, the entire city is quiet and peaceful.
  Fast forward to the end of September. Due to the fierce fighting between the Pakistani military and the Afghan Taliban on the border around the “Durand Line”, there has been no progress in the main business of my trip. All kinds of calls urging me to speed up my progress come in from China almost every hour. It can be said that the pressure is increasing day by day. After much hesitation, I finally made up my mind: I would no longer just rely on the connections of the local people, but go to the Pashtun tribal area on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan in person, trying to achieve the purpose of the trip as quickly as possible and alleviate all aspects of the problem. of anxiety.
  The Afghanistan-Pakistan border resembles an “enclave.” Al Qaeda and its former leader bin Laden once hid here, and for more than a decade, the United States and its NATO allies were helpless. From the map, although there is a clear border line between Afghanistan and Pakistan, this line only exists on the map. Except for port towns, the actual border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is blurred. The border area between the two countries is one after another of Pashtun and Baluch villages, stretching between endless mountains.
  Adjacent villages often belong to the same large tribe or family. These villages have strong folk customs and possess a large amount of ordnance. In addition to light weapons such as AK-47, some villages also have their own anti-aircraft guns and armored vehicles. The military and police of Afghanistan and Pakistan do not have complete actual control over the border areas, and they even have to rely on tribal armed forces along the border to control the local area.
  For thousands of years, the Pashtuns have relied on their own tribal armed forces and under the leadership of the tribal “Jirga” (Jirga) to survive tenaciously based on the model of “village autonomy and every family as king”. Some tribal villages and towns make a living through smuggling, drug making, and gun making. Even today, “whole-village drug-making” and “whole-village gun-making” situations still exist widely.
  As the decades-long war on the Afghan side created huge demand for weapons, the largest “arms black market” in South Asia was born on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Sporadic reports from the outside world show that the arms black market in the region openly sells various firearms, bomb vests, night vision devices, sniper scopes and other weapons and equipment in the open air. Among them, there are both arms flowing in from Afghanistan and those produced by local underground arsenals. Imitations of weapons from various countries.
These villages have strong folk customs and possess a large amount of ordnance. In addition to light weapons such as AK-47, some villages also have their own anti-aircraft guns and armored vehicles.

  Al-Qaeda, the Khorasan branch of the Islamic State, the Pakistani Taliban and the Balochistan Liberation Army and other violent terrorist organizations entrenched around the market can rely on the protection of Pashtun tribal armed forces to move freely in this black market and purchase various products at will. arms. In 2014, after the Pakistani military launched a large-scale anti-terrorism operation code-named “Sharp Sword” in the region, the arms black market was suppressed to a certain extent, but the situation of such black markets selling various types of arms in broad daylight has not been completely eliminated. .
Preparation before departure

  The people in the tribal areas are a mixed bag, with Pakistani military informants, Afghan Taliban, various violent terrorists and local underworld gangs slipping out. In order to avoid leaving my real name in the local area, before going to the tribal area, I temporarily purchased a disposable mobile phone and a SIM card that could not trace my real identity in Islamabad, and registered a WhatsApp social account under a pseudonym. After the communication equipment was ready, I went to the clothing market to purchase clothing commonly worn by Pashtun people – commonly known as “Apao” or “Bapao”.
  Since the Hazara people of Afghanistan (legendarily descendants of the Mongols) also often appear on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and this ethnic group looks exactly like the Chinese, the advantage of the Chinese wearing local clothes is that unless they are observed at close range, they will be spotted. Some locals mistook them for Hazaras, thereby reducing the risk of kidnapping to a certain extent.
  As a foreigner, traveling alone to high-risk areas, blending into the surrounding environment as much as possible, and being “invisible” to the maximum extent are the golden rules to reduce safety risks. Because the local violent terrorist organizations have strong firepower, once they are “targeted”, no matter how many bodyguards they bring with them or how many local military police they invite to accompany them, it will be difficult to escape from the violent terrorist organizations that are armed to the teeth. Acts such as renting bulletproof vehicles or hiring a large number of bodyguards to travel with great fanfare will actually increase security risks.
  After the aforementioned “outfit” was prepared, I asked a friend to find a “Fixer” or “guide” who had been in the border area for a long time and could speak English. I also invited a man who retired from the Pakistan Army and whose hometown is in Peshawar. Officer, I asked him to accompany me with a pistol concealed in his civilian clothes, acting as driver and bodyguard. At noon on the day of departure, the guide introduced by a friend hurried over on a motorcycle. After reconfirming the commission amount in person, we drove off.
  Along the way I tried to strike up a conversation with the guide. The guide’s name was Fahim, and he wore a little white hat and a beard like many Pakistanis. Fahim said that he can speak Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Urdu and English. He once worked in Dubai and has been doing small business on the border in recent years. Because he has worked abroad and knows multiple languages He also understood the situation of the tribes on the border and often served as a guide for foreigners.
  Through conversations, I learned that one of Fahim’s proudest experiences was when he took a Western reporter from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) deep into the hinterland of a tribal area. The local gang was willing to pay him a sum of money to hand over the Western reporter, but He firmly rejected the gang’s offer. He vowed to me: “Unlike other guides, I will not only translate and guide you foreigners, I will also ensure your safety.”
  After Fahim told me about this experience that I didn’t know was true or false, I inevitably felt a little complicated. If what he said is true, it means that he has gang connections on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. How can we guarantee that he will not sell me to the gang? But then I thought about it, if he didn’t even have any gang connections in the border area, how could I dare to use this “newbie” to lead the way?
all the way west

  Starting from the capital of Pakistan and heading west, the scenery outside the window becomes increasingly dilapidated. Especially after driving through Peshawar, the last important town in the border area, there are fewer and fewer modern facilities around. The asphalt road gradually transformed into a loess road, and high-rise buildings were nowhere to be found. Most of the buildings we saw were mud houses with no more than two floors, and all the houses were dilapidated, as if the civilized world had been left far behind. The only eye-catching sights are the colorful hand-painted trucks, busy traveling between Abar and Pakistan.
One of Fahim’s proudest experiences was when he took a Western reporter from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) deep into the heart of a tribal area. The local gang offered him a sum of money to hand over the Western reporter, but he resolutely refused. proposal.

  As the vehicle approached a small town called Bala, our guide Fahim said that we had basically entered the tribal autonomous area. He spoke vividly: “About ten years ago, this town was not only inaccessible to foreigners, but even locals from other parts of Pakistan did not dare to set foot.” According to Fahim, there were gangs on the road. Set up roadblocks and inspect vehicles one by one. If foreigners are found, they may ask for tolls or directly rob them. If foreigners are found, they will most likely be detained and asked for ransom.
  I asked by the way: “How high is the gun ownership rate in this area?” Fahim said that the gun ownership rate is 100%, and everyone has at least one gun. When I asked about the per capita income, Fahim said that the per capita monthly income is about 300,000 rupees, which is nearly 8,000 yuan. This answer really surprised me. I never expected that the income of these unkempt Pashtun villagers living in simple mud houses could reach such a high level.
  Fahim said that the reason why such border villages and towns are dilapidated is that they have been in a state of anarchy all year round and public services are better than nothing. As a result, the roads have not been repaired and the scenery on both sides of the roads is unsightly. However, because most of the local people are engaged in cross-border smuggling and other hugely profitable industries, the seemingly primitive villages and towns actually have a high per capita income.

  After the car drove into the market in the center of Bara town, the guide suggested that we find a place to eat first and ask the locals about the route to the final destination. Our friends from the Pakistan Army suggested that we eat in restaurants with fewer people to avoid overcrowding and increasing safety risks. Fahim, who has been active in the tribal area all year round, complained that restaurants with fewer people were not tasty, but he still took us to a more deserted restaurant.
  During the meal, Fahim also talked endlessly about his views on Pakistani politics, complaining about corruption and the powerlessness of ordinary people. Fahim said that if you ask the diners in this restaurant, 9 out of 10 people will tell you that former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was arrested by the Pakistani military, is innocent, but the people’s voice is worthless. It’s worth it, because Imran Khan has offended the military and the United States, so what awaits him is a life behind bars.
  When I asked him what he thought of the United States, Fahim sighed: “We ordinary people love China, but Pakistan is ruled by the ‘three A’s.” I asked him what the “three A’s” are. ”, he said “Allah, Army and America.”
Frontier enclave

  After having a meal in Bala Town and asking about the road conditions to our destination, we bumped along the rugged loess road for nearly two hours, and finally arrived at our final destination—Dala Adamkel—when it was almost dark.
  With the last ray of sunlight at dusk, you can see that this is more like neighboring Afghanistan than a Pakistani town. Except for the sporadic Border Corps personnel, there are not many traces of Pakistan on the streets. There are almost no women in the entire town, and even if you can find one or two here and there, they are all wearing Afghan-style “burkas” (burkas).
  With Fahim’s coordination, we stayed at a local B&B on the edge of town. Being physically and mentally exhausted, I did not go to dinner with them. After agreeing on a travel time the next morning, I fell on the bed.
In addition to small shops selling fruits, dried fruits and various daily necessities on the street, the simple door signs of “XX Ordnance Company” and “XX Gun Company” are quite eye-catching.

  In the blink of an eye, the next day came. Based on the information we had previously obtained, the three of us drove to the local market called Dara Bazar. On both sides of the street in the market, there are two or three-storey rows of khaki brick houses, and the streets are covered with domestic garbage. In order to prevent sand dust from getting into the mouth and nose, the Pashtun young man wearing a robe wrapped half of his face with an Arab-style turban, leaving only his eyes and the upper part exposed. In addition to small shops selling fruits, dried fruits and various daily necessities on the street, the simple door signs of “XX Ordnance Company” and “XX Gun Company” are quite eye-catching. Seeing this kind of door, I know that we are very close to the rumored “arms black market.”
  With the help of Pakistani guides and army friends, we followed these gun shops, door to door, asking where the people I needed to find lived. When talking to us, the young owner of one of the stores said: “If you had come a few years earlier, you would have seen the ‘golden age’ of our town, because this market used to be much more prosperous than it is now, and there were even products sold in the market. An entire US military Black Hawk helicopter was launched.”

  I don’t know whether what he said is true or false, but when the Afghan Taliban seized power with a thunderous force in 2021, the emergency withdrawal of the US military and its NATO allied forces did leave a large amount of Western weapons and equipment in Afghanistan. The only thing that makes me question this story is: Unless there are pilots and crew members from the former Afghan National Defense Forces, how can the local arms dealers get a whole Black Hawk helicopter to the Pakistani side with the cultural level of the local arms dealers?
  Under the guidance of the local arms dealer, we walked deeper into the market. The further away from the main road, the more “exposed” the shops around you are. Gradually, the surrounding shops were filled with firearms from various countries imitated by local people. Based on my limited knowledge of weapons, I can tell that more than half are Soviet AK-47s, and some look like American M-16s, as well as other types of firearms. Suicide explosive vests are also displayed on the counters of some stores.
  Some small firearms processing factories also gradually appeared in front of us. The workers were dressed in Pakistani robes, sitting cross-legged in front of various primitive small lathes, skillfully using various tools covered with oil to tinker with weapons parts and the like. When some workers or bosses of weapons processing factories raised their heads and met my eyes, they seemed to realize that I was a foreigner. They stared at me in surprise while smiling and whispering to the people around them.
Some store owners would occasionally drag customers from their stores to the alley, and fire a few “bang, bang” shots into the air with the guns in their stores. Whenever I encountered someone shooting in the air very close to me, I would pretend to be calm and continue walking forward without squinting.

  If it weren’t for the various types of guns hanging in these small shops, at first glance, these shops might look like motorcycle repair shops in remote areas of the country. Some store owners would occasionally drag customers from their stores to the alley, and fire a few “bang, bang” shots into the air with the guns in their stores. I guess they are showing the quality of the product to their customers. Whenever I encountered someone shooting in the air very close to me, I would pretend to be calm and continue walking forward without squinting.
Surveilled by informants

  After successfully meeting the person I was looking for and sitting there for a few hours, I completed my mission and decided to return to Islamabad immediately. I was in a much better mood on the way back after taking off my mental burden. I also bought some preserved figs that I hadn’t eaten in many years, which were hung on hemp ropes. After returning to the capital, in order to reward Fahim, I gave him some more US dollars in cash in addition to the originally agreed commission amount.
  A few days later, just as I was about to board a flight back home, a friend from the Peshawar Police Station sent me a photo on WhatsApp. I was stunned for a moment when I saw the photo, because it was a photo of myself chatting with someone in Dara Adamkar’s arms store. Through the angle of the photo, I vaguely recalled the person who took the photo. He seemed to be the guy next to the owner of a gun shop.
  A friend in Peshawar told me that this photo was issued by the MI of Khyber Province (an intelligence department under the Pakistan Army, which is not the same unit as the famous Inter-Services Intelligence Agency), and gave me a friendly warning not to go there again in the near future. Tribal area. In other words, this adventure to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border led to an unexpected surprise: he was photographed by an informant from the Pakistan Army.
  After a few minutes, my mood gradually calmed down again. After all, this kind of thing was expected by me. Because if a foreigner appears in a border town, Pakistani officials have no idea what’s going on, which is actually abnormal.
  Before boarding the plane, I used the temporary mobile phone I purchased before to call my guide Fahim for the last time and said to him: “If someone from the Pakistani army comes to you after I leave and asks about accompanying me to the border, please ask me Ask the Pakistani personnel how much money they need to forget about this matter.”

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