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Pakistani police a growing target, Lahore attack shows

Interior minister says the Pakistani Taliban are behind the attack.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 30, 2009

Target: A police officer aims his weapon while entering the Lahore police academy stormed by gunmen Monday, one of several recent attacks on police in Pakistan.

Emlio Morenatti/AP

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Lahore, Pakistan; and New Delhi

Pakistani commandos overpowered at least 10 gunmen Monday to retake control of a police academy near Lahore.

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The gunmen had eight hours earlier stormed the compound disguised in blue uniforms, leaving eight people dead and about 100 wounded – and demonstrating for the second time this month the weakness of police forces in the heart of Pakistan. On March 3, terrorists launched a similarly brazen attack in Lahore against the Sri Lankan cricket team, killing seven people before slipping away.

"The security guards weren't able to resist because they had no guns or no ammunition," says eyewitness M. Ilyas, a police constable.

Police have drawn the ire of jihadi groups for leading a crackdown and investigation of their suspected involvement in the attack on Mumbai in November. Analysts are divided over how much enthusiasm the Army has for tackling militant groups – even in the face of a rise in attacks – but there's consensus that it's the police who have proven the most aggressive and need the most Western backing moving forward.

"The police are the weakest link. They are both the most vulnerable and the most essential to the state if there is to be an effective crackdown" on jihadi groups, says Samina Ahmed, a Pakistan-based analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG).

She takes a dim view of the military's interest in pursuing these groups, adding that top American officials publicly expressed doubts about it as recently as last week.

Instead, civilian law enforcement is key to beating insurgents in Pakistan because the Army has done little, Ms. Ahmed says, and because establishing the rule of law is the most effective weapon against armed militancy.

But police have neither the means nor the independence to do so, she continues. Police have told ICG that since Sept. 11, 2001 the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency has been given most of the power to deal with counterterrorism.

Even before Monday's attacks, the police had paid a price for its role in the investigation of the Mumbai attacks. Last week a suicide bomber targeted an Islamabad police station at the center of the investigation. One policeman who thwarted the bomber from entering the building died in the blast.

The two Lahore attacks suggest the police are outgunned and outwitted by an increasingly sophisticated breed of militants. Monday's attack suggests careful planning, down to the blue uniforms and timing during a parade of unarmed trainees.

The cricket attacks caught police flatfooted, despite official promises there would be top-notch security for the game. Instead, nearby police failed to respond in time to prevent the gunmen from casually getting away, though police on the scene did manage to protect the cricketers.