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Countering terror in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

By Imtiaz Gul

The Friday Times, Dec 30,2011

"If they stop squabbling among themselves, they will have more time for fighting the religious militancy and the insurgency by small time criminals,"

- a senior official in Peshawar

When hundreds of Taliban militants, disguised in FC uniform and armed with sophisticated weapons, overran a paramilitary Frontier Corps fort in Mullazai area of Tank in the northwestern KPK province and took 17 personnel with them, they underlined their resolve to keep hitting and pricking whenever and wherever possible.

The next day, on December 24, a suicide car bomb attack killed five soldiers and wounded 12 others in Bannu. The attack took place in Bannu city, where the bomber drove his explosives-packed vehicle into the camp office of the paramilitary Frontier Corps troops. This was the 24th suicide attack in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2011, one less than that of last year.

These two incidents delivered yet another stark reminder that those opposed to the government and the army are still on the prowl. During the course of 2011, 24 suicide attacks claimed 388 lives. These included 160 police and para-military personnel. The number of human losses off suicide attacks in 2010 stood around 444, according to the statistics compiled by the Home Department in Peshawar. 

Last year, 725 people (roughly 324 security and over 400 civilians) fell to terrorist strikes all over the province, including the successive suicide attacks on an FC Fort at Shabqadar near Peshawar that claimed almost 100 lives on May 13. Cities such as DI Khan, Tank, Peshawar, Bannu, and Kohat bore the brunt of the violence, ostensibly perpetrated by TTP and its affiliates.

Senior police and government officials draw consolation from the fact that the month of Muharram passed off with no major incident. For the first time since 1990 the army, Frontier Corps, Frontier Constabulary, the civilian administration, the police and intelligence agencies acted in close unison and succeeded in thwarting dozens of potential attacks.

"Never before has the coordination among all security agencies been this good," said Akbar Hoti, the provincial police chief. He said that despite problems of capacity, the morale of the civilian and paramilitary forces was very high and this had helped fend off many terror plots.

Asked how he would rate the state of preparedness of the police on a scale of one to ten, the police chief said, "Between six and seven. We are improving and hope to be performing even better as time goes by."

On the face of it, the situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, FR Regions and parts of FATA has improved with unprecedented cases of terror plot interceptions and hundreds of arrests, yet - if judged in the current socio-political environment, administrative handicaps and institutional limitations - the police and other security forces have to go a long way.

Consider the following. For a population of almost 20 million, the total civilian security forces in the province stand at 78,625 (including 64,521 police, 8,725 Special Police Force - 6,725 in Malakand, 2,000 in Peshawar Region, and about 2,500 ex servicemen). Roughly 4,500 Frontier Constabulary - about 100 platoons - are also deployed in various parts of the province (38 in greater Peshawar region, and 30 in Malakand region). On paper, one security personnel covers about 260 citizens, but if we take out the 20 percent personnel assigned to VIPs, this ratio becomes even more alarming. For example: over 2,400 police personnel were deployed to ensure the chief minister's safety when he visited Mingora for a public meeting on December 26.

These deployments are part of the usual requirements to secure the route for the movement of the VIP. At least 20 percent of the police are assigned to VIP and protocol duty. As many as 1,000 policemen - constables and inspectors, guards, cooks, drivers - are deputed to serve at non-sanctioned places, such as at homes of, or for the safety of, retired police officials. Even serving police officials reportedly use their subordinates for personal and family security.

But, this is not typical in the KP. More than two dozen police and government officials, for instance, accompany the federal interior minister in at least half a dozen cars whenever he moves out of his office. The city police chief, his subordinates, and some of personal staff usually accompany the minister in several cars. These numbers run into hundreds when the president, the prime minister or governors are on the move.

The point is that the citizen-police ratio in a volatile, conservative region hit by militancy is adverse even in Punjab, Balochistan and Sindh, where ministers sometimes project their power by commissioning police and special forces escort for themselves and their families.

Protocol duty, to be precise, therefore eats up a substantial chunk of the civilian security forces, and thus imperils the current task at hand: countering religious radical forces and neutralising their social support networks. Besides the administrative and operational limitations, socio-political impediments also pose big challenges.

"Criminals are always a step ahead of us," says Mr Hoti, explaining the challenges that he faces as the provincial security chief. 

The government will have to create a new mechanism to prevent fertiliser from being used for improvised explosive devices. It is a tough task because without a comprehensive mechanism, the government might end up annoying legitimate users.

Based on discussions with government officials in Peshawar, one can easily infer that the counter-terror efforts still require far more attention and resources than are being dedicated at the moment.

Some of limitations that the civilian security apparatus faces are: 

1. Attacks on pylons/gas pipelines/public places in KP and Frontier Regions continue to hurt public interest and instigate public anger against the government (a notorious militant tactic)

2. Militants' supply of weapons and money continues and intelligence agencies are still clueless as to where exactly these resources are coming from (laser guns for target killings of strict commanders/officers, also apparently used in the aforementioned attack on the FC Fort in Tank)

3. Public disinterest and lack of cooperation. Most people don't report the presence of aliens, although the situation in Malakand and Swat region has turned around, with a lot of militants being arrested on tips by locals

4. Poor governance and poverty continue to cast shadows on counter-terror efforts. Certain people within the community take aliens - potential terrorists - as paying guests, without knowing who they actually are

5. Security forces continue to remain under-strength

6. Insufficient monetary resources

7. Deficiency of electronic surveillance devices

8. Legal restrictions (under the Anglo-Saxon Law), whereby this legal framework restricts quick administrative action (we cannot fire first, says a senior police official)

In this context, it seems that the counter-terror war, and by implication the counter-radicalisation efforts, require a greater and more coordinated response, backed by administrative, financial and technical resources as well as a legal framework. Obviously, such an approach also runs the risk of giving a "carte blanche" to a force that is known as one of the most corrupt institutions. But finding a balance between efficient use of available resources and preventing their abuse is not impossible. All we need is the civilian and military cooperation and a consensus on how to supplement each other, rather than pursuing same goals with a narrow institutional outlook. 

Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and is currently a Fellow of International House of Japan/Japan Foundation, Tokyo

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk