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Guns offer fast profit for Afghans

Poor soldiers are key players in a massive unregulated weapons market.

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Abdul Zahir says he's weary of war, but artifacts from Afghanistan's violent past still clutter his rickety shop.

A carpet woven with a zigzagging pattern of assault rifles hangs from the rafters. Bottles of shampoo and cartons of cigarettes are arrayed on shelves punctuated by Soviet bayonets. Hidden beneath a cushion in a sitting area is a Czech SKS rifle. A battered Kalashnikov leans in a corner.

Mr. Zahir, who spent the last five years fighting the Taliban, says he killed some 20 men. He's ready for peace. But he also says he's ready – and anxious – to put some of his guns back on the street. His Kalashnikov is on sale for $150. He's willing to make a deal on an AK-47 that has seen better days.

"When you have nothing, you need many things, and I can make my life a little bit better by selling my guns," he says. Gesturing toward the AK-47, Zahir says he'd like to keep that rifle – after all, he risked his life to snatch it off the battlefield from a man he had killed. "But if someone wants to pay me, I have to take the money."

In the wake of the Taliban's fall, Northern Alliance soldiers have become players in one of the world's biggest and most unregulated weapons markets, perpetu-ating the region's war machine. Soldiers are hardly the only ones selling firearms in Afghanistan. Traders in towns and villages adjacent to Pakistan do a brisk cross-border trade.

From the Mongol invaders to the soldiers of the American 82nd Airborne division, soldiers and strife have woven weapons into the warp and woof of Afghan society. "This particular country has an ancient history of bearing arms," says Lt. Col. Neal Peckham, a former spokesman with the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul. "The culture is such that from your age of manhood, you carry weapons.

Yet soldiers are among the poorest people in a nation where even the elite live in dirt-floored homes. The government of Hamid Karzai has not paid fighters, with the exception of those integrated into the Afghan National Army, since last October. Jobs are scarce and salaries nonexistent. Selling weapons makes good economic sense.

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