Abandoned US arms fueling militancy in Pakistan

Advanced weapons left behind by US and NATO in Afghanistan are finding their way to anti-Pakistan militant and separatist groups

Sophisticated military weapons abandoned by retreating US and NATO forces in Afghanistan are now openly for sale at thriving illegal weapons markets in tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Those markets are where several militant, separatist and terror groups operating in Pakistan against state forces shop for their wares, evidenced in recent attacks on Pakistani security forces where militants used advanced Western weapons.

The advanced weapons threaten to intensify the already gathering security threat posed by militant groups opposed for various reasons to the Pakistan state. They could also put already deteriorating Pakistan-Afghanistan relations on a dangerous new footing, particularly if perceptions grow the ruling Taliban is funneling the arms to the militants.

Last year, Pakistani customs officials foiled a bid to smuggle US and NATO-issued arms into the country from Afghanistan. Officials recovered two huge catches of M4A1 carbine rifles, Glock 9mm pistols, Beretta pistol barrels and ammunition from a vehicle traveling from the Afghan capital of Kabul.

But other shipments of unknown origin are known to have gone undetected, representing a potent new security threat to Pakistan emanating from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Early February attacks on two military camps by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) separatist militant group in Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province put a glaring spotlight on the availability of US combat technology to Afghan-based armed outfits.

The BLA fighters who stormed the paramilitary camps were armed with high-tech military gear, far superior to that carried by Pakistan army soldiers who according to reports struggled to defend their positions at the targeted military camps.

Following an investigation into the militant attacks, Pakistan security agencies found that the Baloch separatists used US-made weapons, which they surmised NATO and US forces left behind in Afghanistan.

The surprising success of the Noshki and Panjgur camp attacks, where at least 12 soldiers and nine militants were killed, owed to the precision and accuracy of the weaponry used by the militants, the investigation said.

Pakistan Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, at a press conference in Islamabad in early February, acknowledged that US and NATO-issued weapons were used in the twin attacks in Balochistan.

However, the minister did not divulge how these weapons slipped to the BLA and the Afghan Taliban played a role in arming the militant group, which seeks self-determination of the Baloch people and separation from Pakistan.

A Pakistani security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Asia Times that the nature of the equipment used in the military camp attacks “shocked” military policymakers who did not foresee the assault or know who provided the arms to the militants.

Specifically, the Baloch separatists were equipped with Dual Beam Aiming Lasers (DBALs) that can be attached to any weapon for accurate fire in darkness.

DBALs produce an Infrared (IR) signature for accurate target engagement in darkness. They cannot be seen by the naked eye and only a so-called Imagine Illuminator or Infrared Night Sights can detect IR rays.

The militants were also carrying PVS 7D head-mounted night sight devices that allowed them to accurately aim at off-guard Pakistani soldiers.

The official said that the BLA militants were also equipped with Thermal Imaging Sights that can read body signatures to make firing distinctions in the dark. The thermal sights were seen attached to the rifles carried by the BLA militants, the official said.

“These modern technologies are now in the hands of these terrorists, which sent a warning bell to Islamabad. The terrorists were holding weapons far superior to the ones carried by an army soldier,” he said.

Some security analysts believe that the separatists purchased the weapons from the Afghan National Army (ANA) through Afghanistan’s now-defunct intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS). Asia Times could not independently confirm that speculation, however.

Shahid Reza, an Islamabad-based security analyst, told Asia Times that BLA militants were mostly holding M-16A4 and M-4A2 rifles during the assaults.

“These rifles were sold by Colt Arms to the ANA under a US government-funded tender. Militants in Balochistan were supplied these weapons by now-defunct NDS, from ANA stocks,” he claimed.

M-16A4 and M4A2 rifles, he said, have a quad rail system that allowed the militants to use red dot sights, lasers, magnified optics handgrips and, most importantly, night vision goggles to deadly effect.

“The militants who attacked the FC camp in Noshki were all carrying US-made M-16A4 rifles with NVGs,” he claimed.

“Taliban are using ANA stocks to equip their Red Units or Badri 313 special units. The BLA is using supplies they got from Afghan NDS and Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). The BLA was not supplied directly by Americans but they most likely knew of this activity and simply chose to ignore it,” Shahid claimed without elaborating.

In an October 2021 report, the New York Times revealed that American weapons and military accessories were being openly sold in shops by Afghan gun dealers who paid then-government soldiers as well as Taliban fighters for the equipment.

The report, which quoted weapons dealers in Kandahar, claimed that dozens of Afghans have set up shops in Afghanistan’s south to sell American-made pistols, rifles, grenades, binoculars and night vision goggles on the open market.

The equipment was originally provided to Afghan security forces under a US training and assistance program that cost American taxpayers more than $83 billion over two decades of war, the report said.

In Landikotal, Pakistan’s remotest major town along the Durand Line in the tribal Khyber district, the sale of US-made weapons is a thriving business in an otherwise moribund economy.

Guns, long-range sniper rifles, pistols, night vision goggles, binoculars, daggers, grenades, military uniforms and ammunition discarded by the US or surrendered by the Afghan troops are openly showcased in gun shops.

An M4 rifle, including the A2 and A4 types, is priced at $2,500-3,000 while the M16 rifles range between $1,800 and $2,000. The popular American-make Glock, Beretta and Smith & Wesson 9mm pistols are available for $350-$500, according to sources familiar with prevailing price tags.

Arms merchants and security officials say that weapons are often smuggled from Afghanistan into Pakistan in trucks carrying fruits and vegetables.

These trucks pass through border crossings in Torkham (Khyber Agency), Chaman (Balochistan), Ghulam Khan (North Waziristan) and Nawa Pass (Bajaur Agency), dodging the multi-layered security apparatus of border forces, customs officials and police, the sources say.

“What appeared from the video released by the BLA in Punjgor and Noshki is enough to confirm that the terrorist outfits are now equipped with advanced military gadgets to fight with the Pakistani military forces,” Mansur Khan Mahsud, executive director of the Islamabad-based FATA Research Centre (FRC), an independent think tank, told Asia Times.

“The BLA had sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Iran and it was quite easy for them to get hold of this weaponry through arm-runners or from the Taliban fighters who have just pushed behind the carpet Islamabad’s demand to take major action against the Baloch separatists,” Mahsud claimed.