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Insurgency takes heavy toll on Pakistani police

Most days, the police chief of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province feels more like the commander of an unwieldy counterinsurgency than a cop. In the last year, Taliban militants have overrun the territory his men patrol, a province of 23 million that skirts Pakistan's lawless tribal belt along the Afghan border. Kidnappings, beheadings and suicide attacks have grown common. • One morning last month, Inspector General Malik Naveed Khan leaned back in a leather armchair in his office and lit a Dunhill. As a boy he'd been drawn to the glamor of the gun and the badge; 36 years he'd been doing this, he said with amazement, exhaling smoke. Then a yellow telephone near his right hand rang. • "Hello," he said. "Oh God. Oh God. Okay." • A police sub-inspector had picked up an oilcan full of explosives, but it had slipped from his hands and detonated, killing him. In 2007, Khan's force lost 72 police. In 2008, the number more than doubled, with more than 500 injured, often seriously, losing legs and eyes. In the first few weeks of 2009, more than a dozen police have been killed and wounded in bomb blasts or kidnapped by insurgents. Several nights a week, Khan is awakened by one of his aides and told of another attack, another dead officer. "It's like losing a part of your body," he said. • The insurgency's toll on the police is a sign of its evolution from a border uprising — confined to Pakistan's lawless tribal areas and targeting U.S. and international troops fighting in Afghanistan — to one that preys on the country's urbane middle class.

The front lines in this war are increasingly manned by police as well as army troops, and the battlegrounds are shifting to small towns and big cities like Islamabad, where the Marriott Hotel was torn apart by a gigantic car bomb last fall, and Peshawar, the gritty capital of the North West Frontier Province, where bombings and shootings have cost hundreds of lives and kidnappings for ransom have more than doubled in the last year.

This is what it looks like when a nation falls apart. The fabric of Pakistan is straining at its seams, and each new attack makes it more likely to tear down the middle. Rising insecurity hurts an already sluggish economy and threatens to drive people into the militants' arms. Pakistanis mistrust their government and feel increasingly alienated by the West. Walking the halls of Parliament or fighting the Taliban in homegrown civilian defense squads, people are engaged in an existential battle. They see this as a historic moment that will determine Pakistan's ability to survive as an independent nation.

In the coming months, the number and deadliness of militant attacks — and government and security forces' agility in responding to them — will be key predictors of Pakistan's course. Violence isn't just physical; much of its toll is psychological and builds over time, eroding hope, deepening anxiety, making people doubt the value of anything but the locks on the door that separates them from gunfire in the street. They become less interested in the ideology of their governors and more likely to support whomever can guarantee their safety. That might mean a return to military rule in Pakistan, something that civil society, political and even some military leaders say could spell an end to Pakistan's ambitions as a modern, independent nation.

Pakistan's political parties, beset by infighting and poorly developed after years of military rule, will either put their differences aside or use the deteriorating security situation for short-term gain. The success of the Pakistani army against the militants will also have a great impact on the country's fate. Having simultaneously supported U.S. policy against al-Qaida while pretending not to notice — and even in some cases, aiding — a resurgent Taliban, the military and intelligence establishment is under pressure to choose a side and stick with it, once and for all.

If the country implodes or is overrun by the Taliban, consequences for the region and the United States will be severe. Pakistan has nuclear weapons and a long-simmering enmity with its neighbor, India. It has been a linchpin of the U.S. war on terror, sharing intelligence, coordinating military efforts and allowing supplies to be trucked over its roads to U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan until a spate of recent Taliban attacks on convoys forced the United States to seek alternate supply routes. Its army has little counterinsurgency training, and as the country edges toward failed statehood, the police are among its last lines of defense.

Since Pakistan's fragile civilian government took power less than a year ago, the army has stepped up attacks on militants in the tribal areas, creating waves of refugees and forcing Taliban fighters into what are known as the "settled areas" — cities and towns well into the government-controlled areas of Pakistan that have historically been more stable.

The military incursions, as well as a growing number of attacks by unmanned U.S. drones in the tribal belt, have angered militants who once saw the Pakistani army as a protective force. Elements of Pakistan's military and spy agencies created and nurtured some of these same groups to fight against Indian troops in the disputed territory of Kashmir, and staunchly supported the Taliban. Now the militants are targeting Pakistani civilians and institutions, and some in Pakistan feel that the roles have been reversed: Instead of Pakistan supporting the Taliban to fight in Afghanistan, insurgents are now moving east to Talibanize Pakistan.

“I want the West to know what we are in and to sound a bell of warning, because I have been telling everyone that this is not going to stop here," said Khan, the police chief. "It will grow into the rest of Pakistan if it's not stopped here."

• • •

Khan's force of 48,000, known as the Frontier Police, patrols a huge swath of Pakistan's northwest, but does not enter the tribal areas, where paramilitaries and the army are responsible for security. His police have been targeted in the Swat valley, a once-idyllic resort area less than 120 miles from Islamabad that the Taliban have effectively conquered. Public executions have become common in Swat, and the insurgents have burned more than 180 schools and banned female education. Locals have reportedly renamed the main plaza "Bloody Square" because so many bodies have been found there in the morning, hanging from trees and lying in the streets.

The army is also operating in Swat, though some say it's doing nearly as much harm as good. Dozens of civilians were killed when they were caught in crossfire between the army and the militants there early this month, CNN reported. Since the Taliban started beheading police in Swat, hundreds have deserted. Insurgents threaten their families, Khan said, forcing cops to publicize their resignations in the local press.

"At times there's a sense of helplessness … at things which you cannot control," Khan said. "Like when they take your people away and slaughter them and throw them on the streets. These are things which bother you."

Pakistan's leaders seem to be in denial about the seriousness of the threat. In December, amid reports of militant atrocities in Swat and nighttime attacks on elite schools in Peshawar, President Asif Ali Zardari told a group of parliamentarians that the situation in the North West Frontier Province was "improving." Frustrating as this is, it is in some sense a plausible response for a government facing so many problems on so many fronts, with so little ability to counter them. Taliban violence, heightened tensions with India, an economy hobbled by a global recession and riots over power outages at home have left the government staggering under the weight of a seemingly unbearable burden.

Khan estimates the enemy force at 15,000 to 20,000. But the problem is not so much numbers as resources. A rookie police officer is paid $100 a month at most, while the militants reportedly get about $165. Of the 1,000 police in the city of Peshawar, fewer than 100 are trained in counterterrorism, only 300 have bulletproof vests and a third lack automatic weapons.

A recent spate of assaults on supply convoys bound for NATO troops in Afghanistan has further enriched the militants. Insurgents have torched hundreds of supply containers, trucks and Humvees as they sat in lots in Peshawar awaiting transport to Afghanistan, and raided others en route. In Karkhano market, a smugglers' bazaar near the edge of Peshawar, a buyer can find U.S. military gear ranging from bulletproof vests and service medals to communications equipment and gun sites. Khan himself bought 500 to 600 pairs of U.S. military boots there, at $30 apiece, for his traffic police. But his need for more armored vehicles and high-level training is not so easily met.

The United States has given billions to Pakistan's military since 2001. Support for police has been much more modest, but last month officials announced the United States would provide $4.1 million in security equipment for Khan's Frontier Police, including troop carriers, motorcycles, ballistic helmets and bulletproof vests; an ambulance and a tow truck are promised soon. (Khan estimates it would cost about $300 million to train and equip his force to fight the insurgency.) Officials also pledged $1.5 million in U.S. aid for security equipment for the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that patrols the tribal areas.

As the chief sat in his office last month, he seemed pleased by the effects of a recent army crackdown in the Khyber Agency bordering Peshawar. The operation destroyed 200 houses, recovered ammunition and yielded nearly 300 arrests, including some Taliban "big guns," Khan said. In Peshawar, police had busted 67 kidnapping gangs and arrested more than 500 people. Perhaps most encouraging, there had been no kidnappings for several days.

In Hayatabad, a Peshawar neighborhood of big, sparkling houses that borders the Khyber Agency, acting police commander Shahid Ahmad was grateful for the respite. Hayatabad is among the areas most prone to kidnappings and attacks. It is home to some of the city's affluent businessmen, doctors and political leaders — prime kidnapping targets — and its proximity to the tribal areas makes it especially attractive to criminals or insurgents looking to jump a wall and make a quick getaway. Ahmad acknowledged that the rise in militant activity was straining the police.

"We are dying," he said. "But we are not running."

• • •

On the dusty roadsides, police in sweaters and berets checked cars, guns in hand. Near the entrance to the Khyber Agency, police snipers stood on a rooftop. The cars made the cops nervous. Anything could be inside: explosives, suicide vests, weapons. Nearby, over a hill beside some railroad tracks, wild-looking men hunched in circles, smoking heroin.

"Yes, there are worries," an officer with a sunburned face and a thick black moustache said. "My family's worried about me, I'm worried about my family and my kids. But even so, I have to serve. To protect our country."

Nearby, Adnan Zeb, 20, peered into the windows of passing cars. He had been a cop for 21/2 years, and still lived with his parents. His days were long and tense, he said; if he found a better job he would take it.

Zeb's father was a police officer, and joining the force had been something of a dream for him. But that was years ago, when the police fought crime, not war.

"The situation was different," Zeb said. "It seemed like a good opportunity."

Vanessa M. Gezari is a former Times national correspondent who writes frequently about South and Central Asia.

Insurgency takes heavy toll on Pakistani police 02/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 13, 2009 6:21pm]
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