Are the insurgents winning in Pakistan?

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 2 2009 7:09 AM

Pakistan Under Pressure

Militants are gaining territory—and strength—with astonishing speed.

Mohammad Rehan, a watchman at a transport lot attacked by the Taliban, surveys ruined
vehicles.
Mohammad Rehan, a watchman at a transport lot attacked by the Taliban, surveys ruinedvehicles

PESHAWAR, Pakistan—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.

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"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.

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