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Pakistan police are on the front line against terrorism

As the army drives Taliban fighters from their strongholds in the Swat Valley and elsewhere, the militants have shifted their attention to Pakistan's cities, especially poorly equipped police.

July 19, 2009|Alex Rodriguez

MATTANI, PAKISTAN — Naseem Hayat fights a war he knows police shouldn't be asked to fight.

With just a handful of officers, the 48-year-old police subinspector spends his days and nights opening car trunks, never knowing whether the next vehicle that pulls up is the one primed to explode.

Two months ago, that's exactly what happened. A white pickup pulled up, then rammed a police truck around which several of Hayat's officers were standing. Before they could react, the suicide bomber at the wheel detonated his explosives. Three of Hayat's men died.

When the funerals were over, Hayat and his men made the berm in front of their dilapidated police building a couple of feet higher, added a wall of sandbags, and resumed checking cars for bombs.

"We are on the front lines," Hayat said. "We know this is not our job. But we have been ordered to do this, to check every vehicle. That's why we do it."

Underpaid, poorly trained and ill-equipped, Pakistan's police ranks nevertheless have become crucial fighters in the war to rid the country of Taliban militants.

As the army drives Taliban fighters from their strongholds in the Swat Valley and surrounding regions, the militants have shifted their attention to Pakistan's cities, where civilian law enforcement must shoulder the burden for fighting terrorism.

"The police in this situation are not trained, equipped or geared to fight insurgency," said Malik Naveed Khan, inspector general of the North-West Frontier Province police and the conflict zone's top cop. "It's a very serious war. You're fighting the shadows of an invisible army."

For a force of 50,000, Khan's department has 7,500 bulletproof vests and 17,000 automatic rifles. The department lacks explosives-detection equipment, a computerized fingerprint database and updated forensic equipment. The microscopes that technicians use to conduct ballistics examinations, Khan said, "are the same ones used in high schools."

The department has 12 armored personnel carriers, only three of which function. They are Russian-made and from the 1960s.

"They're so old that we have to put a mechanic inside while they run," Khan said. "Every three kilometers, they break down."

Pakistani police have no choice but to better train and equip themselves, if only for self-defense.

Militants have zeroed in on police as targets in recent weeks.

On May 27 in Lahore, attackers detonated a van filled with explosives at a police emergency center and intelligence agency building, killing more than two dozen people.

The next day, the attack at the checkpoint here in Mattani was followed by a bomb blast at a checkpoint in the city of Dera Ismail Khan, near Pakistan's lawless tribal areas.

A police officer and two civilians were killed in the third attack. In early June, a suicide bomber scaled a wall at a police building in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, killing two officers. And on June 11, a suicide bomber attacked a checkpoint in Peshawar, killing one officer.

Experts say militants have stepped up attacks on police because they find them far easier targets than the military, which has relied on helicopter gunships, tanks and heavy artillery to push the Taliban out of Swat.

So far, said Talat Masood, a military analyst and retired Pakistani army general, the government has been slow to train and equip police for a wave of attacks that he said authorities should have foreseen.

"The police aren't giving the impression that they are fully prepared for any eventuality," Masood said. "Police aren't wearing body armor. Some of the officers at checkpoints aren't armed. Funding needs to be made available to improve the police, because it's the police that are going to prevent terrorism and stand on the front line."

Police say the will to fight the Taliban isn't in question. The June 6 attack on the Rescue 15 building in Islamabad could have been far more devastating if it weren't for Imtiaz Ahmed, 25, an officer who spotted the oncoming suicide bomber and shot him from 20 feet away.

The attacker's explosives detonated before he could get inside the building.

"It was my job -- I had to do that," said Ahmed, who was injured in the attack. "The role of police is the backbone in this fight against terrorism."

But as the Taliban focuses its sights on police stations and checkpoints, police commanders know it takes more than fighting spirit to fend off terrorists. Khan's officers work 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

They receive a few days off each month to return home to see their families, Khan said. The average provincial cop makes about $120 a month.

In Mattani, officers say they keep working for two reasons: There is no other work, and no one will take their place.

Malik Khan Wali, 42 and on the force for 21 years, says he's biding his time until he can retire with a pension in two years.

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