Sticking to Our Guns?

Spearhead Analysis – 22.08.2017

By Xenia Rasul Khan Mahsud
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

I had a very interesting conversation with my niece the other day. I somehow gave her the impression that I would do something that would land me in trouble with the police, and I would have to go to jail. I told her she could come and save me, and she replied: But we’ll both be in jail then. I told her that my father – her grandfather would come and rescue us. To which she replied: “Does he have a gun?’

 Why I was having a conversation about crime, law and order, and vigilantism with a five year old wouldn’t settle well with many, but the words of a child often come from a place that’s not yet tainted by biases, preconceived notions and set structures of how one ought to think and be – there lies a world of knowledge, a plethora of often repetitive questions that make you think about things that you took for granted and never gave a second thought.

What guns represent in the Pakistani society is beyond the simplistic idea that weapons make people feel safer – the entire argument of self-defense. In an earlier piece of mine, I discussed the concept of femininity and masculinity, and how Pakistan is obsessed with the idea of a hyper and militarized masculinity, one that is aligned with strength, power, bravery, and the need for violence if need be. These ‘values’ are not to be seen through a reductionist range of vision, and are not confined to the sexes, but also encompass the understanding of nations, institutions, oppressed identities, and power structures. Thus, militarism in general, as Anuradha Chenoy would put it, sanctions military values in civilian life, and favors the construction of a strong masculinity. The possession of guns, hence, ties well with these notions of masculinity, where a pistol represents power more than it does self-defense and safety.

In his first speech to parliament, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi proposed that a ban be placed on the issuance of licenses for prohibited and automatic weapons. It is rather revealing that the members of the federal cabinet opposed this, many of whom hail from either Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Balochistan, where a provincial-tribal culture of valuing guns exists. Out of the pool of people that carry guns, five are of utmost importance in this discussion: a) outlaws, b) religious groups, c) political parties and influentials, d) people under attack, e) those using guns as a cultural marker.

It is here that I’d like to set the grounds for this discussion. Many societies, where the law and order situation is much better than that of Pakistan’s, understand the need for a person to carry a gun for self-defense – just in the rare case that the law enforcement agencies are unable to prevent a one off robbery or break in where a person’s life could be under threat. It is true that feelings of insecurity are directly proportional to the possession of weapons, where a crumbling law and order situation, inept law enforcement agencies, and a hostile security climate both internally and externally, pushes one to acquire a gun for safety – but it is the nature of weapons that becomes a problem in understanding as to why political parties would need a cache which consists of grenades and rocket launchers, and why lawyers would need ak47s. The fact that a festive occasion is announced by the sound of gunfire points to the fact that the acquisition of weapons does not simply equate to safety – Pakistan has a very pervasive gun culture, and a very gun-friendly society.

Blast from the past

The Afghan-Russian war in the 1980s, and the consequent influx of Afghan refuges was the prime factor in the change of weapon culture in Pakistan. When the Bhutto government was overthrown, Ziaul Haq invited the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) to join his first cabinet – which then vowed to augment public support for the ‘Afghan jihad’, and purge all pro-Soviet and leftist elements in Pakistan’s intelligentsia, campuses, and journalistic circles. The JI established relations with Hekmatyar and opened up channels of regular channels of communication between the fundamentalist student organization Islami Jamiat Tulaba (IJT) and him. It was then that with the influx of refugees that crossed the Afghan border into Pakistan, came a flurry of black marketers dealing in AK 47s and heroin – flooding the Pakistani market, escorted by those looking to make some money.

And it started.

Student unions became violent, and had militant wings armed to establish their writ and impose their views. When these groups began clashing with progressive students, fights became more violent than ever – knuckle-dusters were replaced with guns, and stones with bullets. Till 1982, AK47s were used only by pro-Zia student organizations and consequently by anti-Zia student militants. However, by 1985 AK47s were easily available in Karachi due to the influx of Afghan refugees into the city. This created a further divide between the majority of Mohajirs, who while directing their anger towards Afghan drug and weapon dealers who primarily spoke Pashto, also extended their hatred towards the city’s Pashtun population. But that is another story altogether, however, it’s one that led to the MQM’s desire to aquire weaponry for political purposes.

Around this time, the phrase ‘Kalashnikov culture’ began to surface, where Punjab was also seduced by deadly weapons that had come into the city by members of Afghan jihad outfits, eventually sold to budding sectarian groups that started to appear in Punjab during Zia’s regime, and particularly due to his ignorance towards sectarian issues. These organizations, then, became involved in a variety of crimes and used these weapons to aid their plans.

This culture crept into the political arena, where the bullet replaced the ballot, and the rest is all history.

Then came the Musharraf regime, where gun battles decreased and the AK47 was mainly used by bodyguards and private security guards. However, as a reaction to the Musharraf regime’s crackdown on Islamist organizations following the 9/11 attacks, these organizations began building up its own cache of weapons – a display of which was seen in Islamabad’s Lal Masjid fiasco.

Today, for the lack of a better phrase, the ‘weapon buff’ does not limit himself to the world of AK47s and regular pistols; rifles and pistols from Nato trucks have a very high demand in Pakistan. Sectarian, Islamist organizations, along with political parties like the MQM have arms caches that are quite sophisticated to say the least – very lethal, and ironically very unnecessary for those seeking self-defense only.

An estimated $134 million worth of small arms are imported into Pakistan every year, not accounting the bulk of weapons smuggled through the porous Afghan border. According to reports, an estimated $200 million worth of illegal weapons and ammunition cross the borders into Pakistan and the black market, while the rest are produced by the masters in Darra Adamkhel who are skilled enough to replicate any weapon – where allegedly, a cell phone is more expensive than a gun; all in the absence of regulatory authorities set to clamp down on illegal, unlicensed, and unregulated manufacturing.

There are two types of smuggling that take place: macro, where it occurs across national borders, and micro smuggling that is inter-city and inter-provincial. While Balochistan and KPK are direct recipients of smuggled weapons, they are also take off points of this weaponry to reach other provincial markets. While cities like Rahim Yar Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan, and Dera Ismail Khan are used to transfer weapons heading towards Punjab, the areas around Jacobabad and Shikarpur are primary markets that supply arms and ammunition throughout Sindh, including Karachi where the extent of weapon possession is evident through the crime rate and violence in the city.

Up in arms

Of the many examples of a pervasive gun culture in Pakistan, ranging from South Punjab all the way to the heart of Sindh – Karachi, Waziristan strikes me the most simply for the reason that it went from an ‘IED bazaar’ to a gun free society. The South and North of Waziristan had long been the docks of the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani network, which were cleared out following the Peshawar school massacre with the start of operation Zarb-e-Azab and the promise of a National Action Plan. The Pakistani military claimed to have recovered 200 tons of improvised explosive devices, “enough for the militants to keep conducting five IED attacks [per day]…for 14 and a half years” according to Maj. Gen. Zafar Khattak; the weapons caches and the jihadi literature that was seized was “enough to arm an entire infantry brigade”.

However, it would be rather irresponsible and reductionist if one deduces that the weapons that were found lodged in the hidden compartments of homes, either in the walls, or the ground, were solely used for ‘jihaad’ and militancy. Waziristan has long had a rampant gun culture –perverse or not, is a separate debate altogether. It is rather habitual of people, lawmakers and influentials in this country to talk in terms of black and white, bookish notions of what is right and wrong – neglecting how experiences contribute to how a person or society shapes up in the long run. Guns have long been used in Waziristan as a cultural marker – a sign of masculinity in its truest form, as a means to silence blood feuds in a lawless society that has been far removed from the conventions of a functioning democratic state. There had long been an absence of law enforcement agencies, courts, infrastructure or system of any kind in the region – as there is even now, as a response to which people vested their trust in the alternative legal system of the ‘jirga’ and use of guns to settle issues of lawlessness – a law, they too, had devised according to their sensitivities and traditions: a parallel code of conduct – the Pashtunwali. The idea being, that while it is convenient to denounce prevalent cultures in the country for what they are, but it is imperative that one looks inwards at governance systems and institutions, and why they force many far-reaching areas to adopt alternate systems that are neither monitored nor regulated.

I asked some people who belong to Waziristan why they required the sort of sophisticated and rather ‘extreme’ weapons that they were in possession of, and why they never got their basic pistols and guns registered. I got three responses. First, that the prevalence of blood feuds, and the fact that there was no system to keep it in check where people sought revenge as opposed to ‘justice’ in the absence of a proper legal system – and the legal system of the ‘jirga’ condoned settling these conflicts with an ‘eye for an eye’ – required people to have arms caches in the usual occurrence where entire families became victims of these fights. Second, that there was no proper system in place – both accessible and uncomplicated in its process, that the people could go to: the same reason birth certificates, ID cards, and other documentation was considered an unnecessary burden. Getting ID cards made even today is a hassle, where there is a huge backlog, ‘sacks’ of applications, and people going in twice or thrice a month to check if they’re lucky enough to have hit the jackpot of receiving an identity card of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Third, when asked why he hasn’t gotten his simple gun registered even now, a resident of Lahore, but belonging to the tribal areas originally, replied that the Lahore office has stopped issuing licenses, and he would have to go through the hassle of going all the way to D.I.Khan to get it done. And fourth, that people who acquired weapons before terrorism struck the country, are afraid that they will be harassed by law enforcement agencies if they try to license their guns now – some even fear that they will be falsely booked under terrorism cases.

All reasons point to a crumbling state infrastructure, an inefficient – and absent law enforcement and legal system in some cases, red tapism, and a public that has lost faith in the system and looks towards alternatives to settle and manage their matters.

In terms of becoming a gun-free society, the people of Waziristan are happy. While they have lost their marker of masculinity, they have also been rid of the looming fear of indulging in blood feuds and settling disputes with the use of a gun. Gun control isn’t impossible in Pakistan – given that the forces in charge are committed to the cause. Despite its terrain that is often blamed for most of the government’s failures, and the rigidity of the people when it comes to letting go of culture and traditions – Waziristan is a gun free society today. And it is here that one realizes that aversion to gun control is often accepted when those opposing are the ones in power.

Bullet proof plans

Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s demand isn’t outrageous; he isn’t against self-defense – but a culture of guns that allows for prohibited and automated weapons to be used with impunity. It isn’t news that guns are used more for criminal purposes than they are for self-defense. Usually it turns out that someone pulled the trigger because there was an escalating argument, the need for someone to put his or her power on display be it a political figure, a mob, or a person taking the law in his own hands, or criminals dropping bodies to convey a message or make some gains. Considering the realities of the country – the intolerance and violence that plagues it, why lawmakers think that it is a good idea to allow people to use automated weapons that can cause a considerable degree of harm is unintelligible; where they should be drafting policies to rid Pakistani society of guns in general, they are fighting to keep automated weapons open for use instead.

In sophisticated societies like the U.K, individuals are required to license every gun that they own, as well as proving that they have a good enough reason to own it; self-defense along doesn’t cut it. The idea being that a layman, with no threat to his life, has no reason to keep a gun. According to DeGrazia, a utilitarian philosopher, if the state is doing an adequate job in protecting your community, one does not have an unlimited right to self-defense. In Pakistan case, with no semblance to that of the UK, the state is failing in its responsibility to keep up its end of the social contract and protect its people. And while that justifies keeping manual guns to ‘survive’, it certainly does not necessitate the acquisition of automatic weapons that are more often that not used by people for purposes other than self-defense. What cabinet members should be committed to is nurturing conditions that lead to a significant drop in crime and acts of terrorism, as opposed to sticking to their guns and fighting it out.

To rectify Pakistan’s gun culture, there’s much that needs to be done: First, to ban automated weapons effectively. This could be done through awareness campaigns highlighting the dangers of automated weapons – with lawmakers on board, and through a hassle-free mechanism where people can turn in their weapons. This will be a starting ground to rid political and religious parties, feudals, and criminal networks of their caches of arms. Second, that in the case of any weapon, a need should be established before issuing a license. Moreover, a license permitting people to use manual weapons should be reviewed after a certain period, and the ownership and sale of these weapons should also be regulated and monitored. Third, the process of licensing a gun with a proven need should be made easy in order to nurture an environment where citizens don’t bypass laws and regulations – hence, bringing them under the ambit of an accountable and legal ownership of guns. Fourth, by prohibiting open displays of guns by individuals – even if they’re security officials – to avoid the desensitization, and consequent acceptance of the public towards a gun culture. Fifth, registering cases against those who wrongfully use guns, trying and punishing them to set a precedent. Last, and the most significant, to improve the security situation of the country where people vest their faith in law enforcement agencies as opposed to succumbing to their feelings of insecurity and acquiring guns for their own survival. Once this is done, lawmakers could eventually look into making Pakistan a complete gun-free society.

Pakistan is rife with many abnormalities, at the back of which you’ll almost always find the muzzle of a gun. It is time we start addressing pertinent questions of why we use guns to celebrate events, to terrorize our opponents, to settle disputes, and silence our critics; is it self-defense, or does it reek of power?