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Weapon of choice

December 03, 2012

CALL it a weapon, a tool, or gloss things over by referring to it as a menace, the fact is it changed Pakistan’s social fabric.

The term Kalashnikov culture appeared in the country’s popular lexicon in the 1980s. In all the literature produced in and about Pakistan in the decades since it has been decried and rejected and has yet held murderously on.

Is this culture, and the popularity of the gun, declining? A newspaper reported recently that the Kalashnikov — the AK47 assault rifle — has been replaced by 9mm pistols as the weapon of choice for Karachi’s myriad killers. In 80 per cent of the targeted killings in the city, the latter are being used.

It’s obvious why: 9mm pistols are easy to carry concealed, can fire more bullets with one magazine, and are cheap to lay one’s hands on — Rs15,000 upwards. The pistol is the official weapon of Nato troops and is reportedly smuggled in large numbers into Pakistan. The Chinese-made replica, the CF-98, is also widely available, and the pistol is being bootlegged, among other places, in Darra Adam Khel.

The Kalashnikov was designed in 1942 as the Nazi army halted at Stalingrad. The brutality of that war is well-known, with Russians sent to the front to put up resistance but actually getting shot. The losses were huge — in part because guns were in extremely short supply among the Russians. Also, the Germans had machine guns (the MP44s); the Soviets, in the main, had rifles.

So a young tank sergeant of the Soviet army, Mikhail Timofeevich Kalashnikov, designed an answer: the AK47, produced for the first time in 1947.

No patent for the gun was ever taken out, and the gun is pretty easy, technologically, to replicate. And so it was manufactured in hundreds and thousands across the world, becoming a staple for at least one of the sides in pretty much any armed conflict since 1947: the warlords in Mogadishu, the Vietcong in Vietnam, the child soldiers of Liberia, the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and the insurgents in Pakistan, even Karachi’s target killers.

The AK47, and other arms, are manufactured in a Russian town called Izhevsk, known as the ‘armoury’ of Russia, at a factory called Izhmash. For decades, the lathes and presses have thumped and clanged, forging the Kalashnikov and other deliverers of death for armies and insurgents or irregular forces around the world.

According to a report published in the New York Times, about 100 million Kalashnikovs have been manufactured, making that one for every 70 people on earth. And that’s not counting the replicas made elsewhere.

One would think that business would be booming for Izhmash, but that is not the case. At the end of October, Mikhail Kalashnikov — 92 years old, now — and 16 of his colleagues wrote an open letter to President Vladimir Putin, calling his attention to record low levels of production at Izhmash and the “catastrophic situation at what was once a manufacturing giant”.

It seems that armies are no longer buying AK47s in any appreciable quality, so the factory has had to shift its focus to sales to civilians. (The civilian version does not have the fully automatic mode, which fires bursts of bullets with one pull of the trigger.) Civilian rifles now account for 70 per cent of the factory’s output, up from 50 per cent two years ago. And of the civilian versions, some 40 per cent is exported to the US, with its well-known resistance to gun control and where the import of Chinese-made handguns and rifles has in the main been banned since 1992.

Regrettably, though, the slowdown of the Izhmash production line does not mean that the Kalashnikov culture — to which Pakistan is not alone in its affliction — is dying. This and weapons patterned on it are used every day in conflicts around the world, but few are bought from Izhmash because used and replicated copies are so easily available. The significance of their being manufactured in Darra should not be lost on anyone.

Curiously, around the Kalashnikov, a culture has developed that can only referred to as some dark version of romance. In Pakistan, there are ads for ‘Kalashnikov mosquito killers’, and ‘Kalashnikov deals’.

The weapon features regularly in a recently published book, Poetry of the Taliban. The image has been woven into carpets and rugs, and in Turkey, a prayer mat. I’ve got a feisty dance number from a Punjabi film whose lyrics translate approximately to “I am a Kalashnikov, my aim is always true; When I dance, that’s when the mujra really takes off.”

Jeremy Clarkson of the BBC’s ‘Top Gear’, in fact, argues that because of certain characteristics, this weapon is unique in that it has soul. Because “…it was born amid unimaginable strife and suffering so it has genuine working-class, hard-man origins. And … the AK has never sold out. You never find it in the pampered hands of an American soldier, boasting about how it was brought up in a cave in Saigon. It was born to help the underdog and that’s what it’s been doing, non-stop for nigh on 60 years. …

“It is, after all, one of the design classics. You could frame one and hang it on the wall, and no one would want to know why you had done such a thing. Except the police, perhaps.

“Design is rarely art because design, when all is said and done, exists purely to make money. And yet the AK was never conceived to do that. In fact, Mikhail Kalashnikov lives today on nothing more than a Soviet Army pension. And that’s why his most famous creation can be called an art form. And that’s what gives it soul.”

But things in Pakistan have moved far beyond the simplicity of a Kalashnikov, into a world where the Kalashnikov culture feels oddly — almost endearingly — archaic; even the gangsters of Lyari now have access to uranium-tipped bullets that can pierce armoured personnel carriers. How curious that contemporary violence is so harshly inventive that the AK47 feels old-fashioned.

The writer is a member of staff.