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Peshawar on the brink


By Imtiaz Gul

 The Friday Times,Dec 21, 2012


Peshawar is in the eye of the storm. Regardless of whether the orchestrators belong to Al Qaeda or Taliban, they have demonstrated that the old plan of laying siege around greater Peshawar is still very much in place. Back in early 2009, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had upstaged the entire security apparatus in and around the provincial capital, triggering fears of an impending siege of the city.

"The deadly string of attacks throughout 2009 - on the average a suicide bombing or ambushes every 36 hours - had upset the civilian and the military apparatus to the extent that the ISI and the Peshawar Corps officials had begun playing with the idea of creating a security ring to protect the main town of Peshawar," a former intelligence official had told me then. 

Recounting one of the meetings attended by all security agencies and the military, the official had expressed his displeasure over what he called the "defeatist mindset" of the military institutions. I asked the proponents of the security ring around Peshawar how they would stop militants if they converged on the city from three sides - ie Khyber, Darra Adamkhel, and Charsadda/Shabqaddar/ Orakzai - in large numbers; and whether we would then wait for them to attack us, he had said. 

This, said the official, I asked being conscious of the fact that the TTP and other militant outfits have already infiltrated the greater Peshawar region and those "sleeper cells" would in fact provide the social cover in case of a physical invasion of the city. 

On December 15, we probably witnessed glimpses of such a commando attack - a combination of rockets as a means of distraction, followed by a physical, multi-pronged heavy-armed assault on the premise that houses both the commercial airport and the aviation base of the Pakistan Army. For several hours, city residents shivered in anger, grief and fear, followed next morning with a renewed wave of violence in the form of a shoot-out between police and the five suspects, who it appeared were linked to the raiders of the airport and had managed to slip through the security cordon in the dark of the night. 

In the end, police and military commandos of the Quick Reaction Force (QRF), which is part of the 11th Corps, put down all ten assailants but not before they had terrorized the entire city, and also exposed the serious preemptive security lacunas that continue to beset responses and question the security establishment's state of preparedness.

Military and civilian officials associated with the investigation tell us that the dramatic attacks probably were part of a strategy that would first surprise the security cordons on ground and then activate their assets within the city to mount a rebellion against the state through occupation of strategic locations such as hospitals, airport, and key police stations besides numerous hostage-takings.

Officials often dismiss such a scenario, arguing the presence of the entire 11th Corps, backed up by the Frontier Corps, and several thousand police will not allow such an eventuality. Terrorists may disrupt life and security arrangements but cannot hold on for long, they insist. Theoretically this argument holds water. Also, realistically a few hundred terrorists cannot take-over the entire city. But the events between December 15 and 19 - several attacks including the one on the airport, one near the military academy in Risalpur, and several on polio vaccinators in three cities of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa - clearly underscore a stark reality that stares the entire security apparatus in the face. The terrorists are on the loose, many of them nestled inside or around the periphery of Peshawar (where scores of TTP and like-minded terrorists had descended after the Swat and South Waziristan operations in 2009).

The airport attack bore the hallmarks of yet another shocking commando raid, reminiscent of the strikes on PNS Mehran Base (May 22, 2011), the GHQ (Oct 20, 2009), the Parade Lane Mosque (Dec 4, 2009), and Kamra airbase (Aug 16, 2012). It left the city of Peshawar in a state of shock and fear, and also raised many questions as to how several layers of preemptive security ie intelligence (both civilian and military) as well as multi-layered physical protective barriers comprising the political administration of tribal regions, Frontier Corps, Frontier Constabulary, and Levies failed in preempting such a brazen raid?

Apparently a contingency plan for such an eventuality was missing and hence the chaos on roads leading to and around the areas under attack.

People have also begun asking whether the army and the paramilitary are supposed to only protect the Peshawar Cantonment area and whether the police alone can handle a region surrounded by FATA and PATA and the Frontier Regions?

Senior police officials believe that the aberrations such as PATA must be abolished. Terrorists, criminals, proclaimed offenders and anti-state elements all use these regions for shelter, training and planning. Strangely, the 2002 Police Order extends to PATA but practically the policing there remains dismal. That is why you find scores of smuggled vehicles and other goods in the PATA areas.

Akbar Khan Hoti, the outspoken Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police chief, believes abolition of PATA regions can hopefully help curtail, if not eliminate, crime and terrorism. We also need additional human and material resources. Currently, the strength of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police stands at around 68,000, backed up by some 10,000 contract employees (largely retired army personnel).

The second major handicap is the absence of quality training and the equipment required for it. The police, we are told, is acquiring heavy arms to fight the heavily-armed terrorists but training on these weapons is an expensive business. Every single round for a heavy machine gun costs several thousand rupees. The heavy cost-factor essentially limits the training opportunities, say officials.

While the authorities may be focusing more on the supply side of the issue ie improving human resources and acquiring modern heavy arms aside, the demand side, ie a comprehensive counter-terror strategy, still remains an elusive goal. Civilian and military officials insist they have a policy but they perhaps confuse training and equipment procurement with a strategy. The response to attacks on several police and strategic installations so far suggests that while the forces manage to kill the attackers, they lack the preemptive capabilities as well as the ability to catch some terrorists alive. How long would the forces need to devise means and develop capabilities to get to the core of terrorists or get them alive when confronting them? 

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk