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Next Taliban conquest? A view from Pakistan's frontline.

Residents living between the militants and the capital worry their understaffed security forces can't defend their town.

By Staff writer / May 4, 2009

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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Haripur, Pakistan

Shopkeeper and local reporter Zeeshan Aslam recently broke the news that residents of Haripur had been fearing: The Taliban had come to town.

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These Talibs came in shackles, headed for cells in the local prison. But for residents of Haripur – one of the last outposts between the Taliban frontlines in Swat and Buner and Pakistan's capital – the news quickly got darker. Newspapers in recent days carried a Taliban warning: Release those prisoners, or we'll come to town and do it ourselves.

Surprisingly little would be stopping them if they did, highlighting a wider problem of weak police and paramilitary forces in Pakistan. Despite lying just 25 miles by mountain footpath from Buner, where nearly a week of fighting has left at least 80 Taliban and three security personnel dead, Haripur residents say the city and prison are poorly defended.

"We are already living in fear," says Mr. Aslam, flanked by visitors to his corner stationary shop. He lays down a newspaper carrying photos of masked Taliban fighters. Additional security forces have come to this city of 100,000, he says, but too few. "The cordon is porous, and they [the Taliban] can easily come in."

Military spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas offers a different assessment: "There is absolutely no threat to the city of Haripur given the military operation, and all the out routes from Swat [are sealed]."

Needed: electric fence for prison holding Taliban

Still, on the outskirts of the city, close to wheat fields full of freshly bundled bales, nerves are high at Haripur's understaffed Central Prison where the Taliban are held.

Guards carry World War I-era .303 rifles. Night watchmen in the towers don't have search lights – just some small energy-saver bulbs hanging from the 18-foot ramparts built by the British. Traffic whizzes by on a public road 100 yards from the prison's front gate, hindered by little more than a hedge.

An internal memorandum shown to this reporter pleads with provincial officials that, given the "war footing," the "security of the jail needs to be beefed up urgently." The $12,000 wish list calls for another 50 guards, an electric fence, and a perimeter wall, among other upgrades. A prison official says the document went to Peshawar a month ago, and he's heard nothing back.

"We do not have a choice, we are working with limited resources," says Akhbar Khan, the inspector general of prisons in Peshawar who confirmed receiving the prison's memo and the holding of some Taliban suspects there. "Hopefully we'll deploy more guards at the prisons in the next couple of weeks."

Police: outgunned, undermanned

As Congress readies an aid package to Pakistan, counterinsurgency experts are urging that more of the funding go toward the country's security forces besides the Army.

"We have to invest in the police," says RAND analyst Christine Fair, who plans to bring this same message before Congress in testimony on Tuesday. "The police are thoroughly exposed, they are poorly equipped, they are outgunned, they are undermanned, they are poorly trained, and they are sitting ducks for the insurgents."