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Pakistan police losing terrorism fight

Outgunned and out-financed, police in volatile northwestern Pakistan are fighting a losing battle against insurgents, dozens of interviews by The Associated Press show.
Image: Pakistan police
Pakistani police officers hold remains of rockets allegedly fired by militants at a police station in Awaid near Bannu, Pakistan, on Thursday.Ijaz Mohammad / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Brothers Mushtaq and Ishaq Ali left the police force a month ago, terrified of dying as their colleagues had — beheaded by militants on a rutted village road before a shocked crowd.

They went straight to the local Urdu-language newspaper to announce their resignation. They were too poor to pay for a personal ad, so the editor of The Daily Moon, Rasheed Iqbal, published a news story instead. He has run dozens like it.

"They just want to get the word out to the Taliban that they are not with the police anymore so they won't kill them," said Iqbal. "They know that no one can protect them, and especially not their fellow policemen."

Outgunned and out-financed, police in volatile northwestern Pakistan are fighting a losing battle against insurgents, dozens of interviews by The Associated Press show. They are dying in large numbers, and many survivors are leaving the force.

The number of terrorist attacks against police has gone up from 113 in 2005 to 1,820 last year, according to National Police Bureau. The death toll for policemen in that time increased from nine to 575. In the northwestern area alone, 127 policemen have died so far this year in suicide bombings and assassinations, and another 260 have been wounded.

The crisis means the police cannot do the nuts-and-bolts work needed to stave off an insurgency fueled by the Taliban and al-Qaida. While the military can pound mountain hideouts, analysts and local officials say it is the police who should hunt down insurgents, win over the people and restore order.

"The only way to save Pakistan is to think of extremism and insurgency in North West Frontier Province as a law-enforcement issue," said Hassan Abbas, a South Asia expert at Harvard University's Belfer Center Project for Science. "Rather than buying more F-16s, Pakistan should invest in modernizing its police."

Bombings, beheadings commonplace
In the Swat Valley, militants have turned a once-idyllic mountain getaway into a nightmare of bombings and beheadings despite a six-month military operation to root them out. About 300 policemen have fled the force already.

On a recent evening in Mardan, Akhtar Ali Shah had just slipped out of his deputy police inspector's uniform to head home. In an escort vehicle, a half-dozen of his guards had inched outside the giant white gates of the police station for a routine security check.

The bomb exploded minutes later. Through a cloud of dust and dirt, Shah saw five of his six guards lying dead near the blood-smeared gate. The head of the suicide bomber rested nearby.

"We are the ones who are getting killed by the terrorists that we are facing," Shah said later.

Al-Qaida-linked militants ferry truckloads of explosives from the tribal regions through Mardan to targets deep within Pakistan, often slipping past scores of police checkpoints. But Shah said his men lack the technical expertise, training or equipment to hunt down big-name terrorists or even identify would-be suicide bombers.

His voice laced with frustration, Shah held up his small black cell phone.

"These people are among us. Look here: Our technical capabilities are so weak that we don't even have the ability to listen or to trace these phone calls," he said. "How are we supposed to know who it is that is coming here to kill us and when?"

Surviving on $80 a month
Most of Pakistan's 383,000 police are poorly paid constables. Malik Naveed Khan, who heads the force of 55,000 in the North West Frontier Province, said he has one policeman for every 364 miles of some of the most dangerous terrain in the world.

"Insurgents can see when I go someplace and wait for me to return and kill me," he said. "It isn't my own death that I fear, but every time there is an attack, it demoralizes the whole police force."

Khan said his men fight with World War II-vintage, single-shot weapons against the rapid-fire Kalashnikov rifles carried by the militants. The police go out on patrol without bulletproof vests or helmets. And of Khan's 18 armored personnel carriers, six are 1960s-era Soviet models that break down so often he now sends a mechanic along with the police.

A Pakistani constable makes about $80 a month, compared with about $170 for a Taliban foot soldier, Khan said.

Even in death, militants do better than the Pakistani police. Militant groups pay more than $20,000 to the families of suicide bombers, compared with $6,000 given to a policeman's survivor, Khan said.

"Where is their money coming from?" he asked.

He said he believes a lot of it comes from the flourishing opium trade next door in Afghanistan, donations from devout Muslims and extortion of wealthy Muslims in the Middle East.

Lack of money, resources
Most police stations in Pakistan don't even have cameras to photograph the crime scene or criminals. There were two functioning forensic laboratories in Pakistan in 2001, and since then four more have been approved — a start, but far short of the 50 or so police say they need. Khan said Pakistani police also lack enough explosives-sniffing dogs to check the truckloads coming from the tribal region.

The Pakistani government recognizes the need to train, develop and equip local police, said Sherry Rahman, information minister. But she added that Pakistan has little money for such investment and needs help from the international community.

Most U.S. aid to Pakistan goes to the military, not the police. Washington gave $731 million for military spending last year and $862 million the year before, according to a September report issued by the Pakistan Policy Working Group, an independent, nonpartisan group. By contrast, the U.S. gave $4.9 million for law enforcement and the judicial system last year.

The crisis among the police is also hobbling the courts, said Imtiaz, a deputy jail superintendent who wanted to use only one name because he feared reprisals from militants and his bosses.

Interviewed at a central jail in northwest Pakistan, the jailer said he has been threatened repeatedly by militants who found his phone number. Late-night calls warn him to treat jailed insurgents with a kind hand.

He told of an insurgent caught by police and imprisoned for an attack on a girls' school. At the only anti-terrorist court in town, the judge — who had also been threatened — heard the case, listened to the militant's confession and then acquitted him, Imtiaz said.

"No one believes the police can protect them," Imtiaz said with a laugh. "I am part of the police, and I know they can't protect me."

Fighting back
The police are trying to fight back with citizen councils and the beginnings of an elite force of 7,500 men who will be given good salaries and trained in investigative skills, profiling and weaponry training, said Khan, the provincial police chief. The first 2,000 men are being trained.

About a half-dozen civilian forces, fashioned along the lines of Iraq's Awakening Councils, have also been enticed into taking up arms against the militants in return for more development. Some of the councils, which call themselves Peace Committees, number more than 300 villagers.

"The people of this area have learned as children how to fire a rifle, how to handle a gun," Khan said. "Everyone has a gun, whether licensed or unlicensed. They don't need to be shown how to use them."

In Badaber, a dusty village barely six miles from the provincial capital of Peshawar, a civilian force patrols the streets at night. Abdul Hafeez, who runs a gas station in Badaber, said even government or army trucks must now get permission from villagers blocking the road to pass at night.

The job of the patrols, he said, is to keep out the militants, the military — and the police.

Hafeez said he had told the police a day in advance about rumors that militants were planning to blow up an electrical tower in Badaber. The next day, they did. The police did nothing.

"No, no, no — no one will go to the police," he said. "The police can't do anything. They can't stop these Taliban even when they know they are going to attack."