Pakistan Under Pressure
Militants Are Gaining Territory—And Strength—With Astonishing Speed
The fields stretched to the horizon beneath a mild winter sun. A stream ran through them, and somewhere off in the distance, behind a stand of apricot trees, smoke curled from the chimney of a mud-walled house. A narrow lane connected the house and the village life it evoked to the loud, modern asphalt highway skirting Peshawar. We stood alongside this highway, in one of the transport-company parking lots that have become the de facto boundary between Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal belt and the city.
This wasn’t always the boundary. The tribal lands don’t officially start for another few milesbeyond the outer edge of the highway, and those lands haven’t always been thick with insurgents. But a series of violent attacks in December on shipping containers bound for NATO troops in Afghanistan are just one sign that the boundary between militant-held land and government-controlled territory is creeping inward with astonishing speed. One night last month, hundreds of Taliban fighters armed with rocket launchers crouched behind the apricot trees, moved purposefully through the grass, and finally, crying, “God is great,” they launched a barrage of heavy artillery at the concrete wall that separates the lot—where the NATO shipping containers were parked—from the countryside. The wall came down, fighters streamed through the opening, and more militants appeared on the highway.
“I was on duty, but when I saw such a large number of militants, I ran,” said Mohammad Rehan, a 21-year-old night watchman. “If you fire at them, it just creates a problem for you.”
Militants have launched six such attacks in Peshawar since the beginning of December, destroying some 300 Humvees and other military vehicles as well as supplies worth millions of dollars. While these raids have obvious consequences for international troops in Afghanistan, they also mark a new level of insecurity for Peshawar, a city of universities, kebab stands, and carpet dealers that has always had an edgy border-town vibe but that now seems increasingly vulnerable to a Taliban takeover. Mahmood Shah, a retired army brigadier who lives in Peshawar, estimated that, based on the scale of the attacks on NATO supplies, it would take the Taliban as little as 20 minutes to gain control of the city’s key administrative offices and essentially conquer it.
“It’s just a question of time,” Shah said. “Either the government becomes serious, or if the Taliban do it, I’m sure they will be faced …with a civil war sort of condition, because the people are arming themselves quietly. So you will find that the people will start resisting, thinking that the government is doing nothing.”
Suicide attacks in Peshawar killed nearly 100 in 2008 and injured more than 200. In November, a U.S. aid worker and his driver were shot dead, two journalists were wounded in another shooting, and an Iranian diplomat was kidnapped. A December car bombing near a Shiite shrine at a busy market killed at least 18 and wounded dozens. Before dawn on Dec. 22, masked men attacked three of the city’s elite English-language schools, two for boys and one for girls, tossing petrol bombs into classrooms, burning buses, and wounding several staff.
Since late summer, the Pakistani military has been fighting insurgents in the Bajaur Tribal Agency northwest of Peshawar, which lies on a key militant transit route between the Afghan province of Kunar and the disputed territory of Kashmir. It is also battling militants in the nearby Swat Valley, once a tourist destination, where insurgents recently declared a ban on female education and where reports of beheadings and public executions are frequent. The fighting has forced at least 200,000 people from their homes in Bajaur and pushed militants into areas that have historically been more stable, including Peshawar.
Malik Naveed Khan, inspector general of police for the North West Frontier Province, has primary responsibility for protecting Peshawar, a city of about 3 million. From his office in a compound straight out of the British Raj—white columned buildings, clipped lawns edged with chrysanthemums, servants bearing tea—he commands a force of 48,000 whose territory is effectively at war.
“I don’t see this as a problem of the province, of the frontier, of Pakistan,” Khan said. “I see it as a very, very serious international problem.”
A gray-haired grandfatherly man who chain-smokes Dunhills, Khan estimates the enemy force at 15,000 to 20,000 fighters. But the problem is not so much numbers as resources. A police officer is paid $100 a month at most, Khan said, while the militants get about $165. Of the 1,000 police in the city of Peshawar, fewer than 100 are trained in counterterrorism tactics, only 300 have bulletproof vests, and one-third lack automatic weapons. Because of a shortage of ammunition and training, many police have not fired a bullet for the last four or five years. (For the sake of comparison, the New York Police Department requires officers to requalify on their weapons twice a year.)
“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,” Khan said. “It will grow into the rest of Pakistan if it’s not stopped here.”
In 2007, Khan lost 72 police officers. By mid-December 2008, the annual toll was 148. More than 500 others have been injured, many seriously, losing limbs or eyes. Khan tries to raise morale by appealing to his officers' tribal pride, reminding them that the force has a long and brave history. Nevertheless, hundreds of cops have deserted in recent months at the urging of their families. Khan has raised death benefits for the relatives of officers killed in the line of duty from $6,300 to nearly $19,000 per cop, including insurance payouts, he said. Families of the dead are given a plot of land, and the sons and brothers of slain officers are offered jobs in the force.
To fund this, Khan persuaded the provincial government to raid its development budget, an unprecedented move. Like many, he sees development as key to countering the insurgency. He speaks of creating a version of Roosevelt’s Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps in the tribal areas to educate people and put them to work.
“They’ll have something to lose, and then they’ll stand up to these Taliban,” he said. “They have nothing to lose.”
The attacks on NATO supply convoys have other consequences for Khan and his police. The containers aren’t just being burned, Khan said; some are being raided by militants and thieves. In the markets of Peshawar, anyone can buy military uniforms, helmets, night-vision goggles, and high-tech weapon scopes, he said. He himself had bought 500 or 600 pairs of U.S. military boots, at $30 a pair, for use by his traffic police. (He had considered buying bulletproof vests, too, but they weren’t the right grade for the weaponry his men faced.)
When I visited Karkhano market a few days later, I saw what he meant. The market stalls lead up to the arched gate that separates Peshawar from the tribal areas, lining the road to the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. A cop stood in front of the archway waving traffic through, while another, strapped with ammunition, eyed passengers sharply as they approached. The shops offered toy guns, toasters, and flowered bedroom slippers as well as a camouflage patrol cap made by Southeastern Kentucky Rehabilitation Industries, a nonprofit that employs people in work release and welfare-to-work programs, as well as the physically and mentally challenged, and describes itself as the “manufacturer of a multi-layered cold weather system … developed for Special Operation Forces.”
We sat in the shop of a man named Mohammad Baz Afridi, whose shelves and display cases held DeWalt drill sets, various pieces of military gear, and, somewhat incongruously, a box of OB tampons. He showed me a Liberator II Soldier System Headset, covered in camouflage, with a mouthpiece and attached cord and plugs. The model is especially efficientbecause it can be used “with practically any portable radio model,” according to the Web site of its manufacturer, Tactical Command Industries. (On the night of the attack at the transport lot I’d visited, the Taliban spoke constantly over wireless radios, and the night watchmen could hear commanders urging the militants on.)
Afridi served us tea in flowered china cups. He confirmed that some of his wares had probably been stolen from the NATO supply convoys.
“What will the transporters do if the Taliban come in their way and put guns on them and either kill the driver or the conductor?” he asked. “The transporter can’t do anything, because the Taliban will kill him.”
Among the more interesting items in Afridi’s display case was a thick operator’s manual for a laser aiming device that could be attached to a gun barrel, its cover marked “Department of the Army and Headquarters, Marine Corps.” The manual described the product as “Class IIIb laser devices that emit a highly collimated beam of infrared light for precise aiming of the weapon.” It continued: “The Aiming Lights are for use with Night Vision Devices and can be used as either handheld illuminator/pointers or can be weapon mounted with the included brackets and accessory mounts. In the weapon mounted mode, the Aiming Lights can be used to accurately direct fire as well as illuminate and designate targets.” Afridi had sold the device, but whoever bought it had left the instruction manual behind.
Khan, the police chief, estimated that he would need about $300 million over the next three years to build a force that could stave off the militant threat to Peshawar. He said he would happily accept equipment in lieu of money, promising to return it when the fight was over. He had made his case to the government, members of parliament, think tanks, and the media.
“They come here, they listen to us and get very alarmed, but they do nothing,” he said.
Indeed, the government in Islamabad seems numb to the threat. The day after the Dec. 22 school attacks in Peshawar, amid editorials calling them a milestone in insecurity for the city, the News, a Pakistani English-language paper, ran a story in which President Asif Ali Zardari declared that the situation in the North West Frontier Province was “improving.” Last week, amid rising tensions with India in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan moved troops from the tribal areas to its eastern border. Although officials said the troops weren’t engaged in combat, the areas they reportedly left behind—including South Waziristan, a tribal agency on the Afghan border southwest of Peshawar—are rife with insurgents.
On Tuesday, Pakistan shut down the road between Peshawar and the Afghan border while paramilitary forces raided the hideouts of criminal gangs and Taliban militants who officials say have banded together to carry out kidnappings and attack NATO supplies. But when the operation ends, the police will be on their own again. Peshawar is home to a military garrison and is considered well-defended, though the military presence seems to have had little effect on the deteriorating security situation. If Khan doesn’t get more resources and training for his men, he fears that he won’t be able to hold the militants back. And if he doesn’t get help soon, it may be too late.
“These requests we fast-track, otherwise we don’t need them,” he said. “We lose the game.”