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

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    Daily life goes on in the streets of Haripur, Pakistan – though some residents say they are on edge now. The town lies between the Pakistani capital and the Taliban frontlines in Swat and Buner, and the Taliban have threatened to attack the city of 100,000 if suspected Taliban held in the local prison are not released.
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    Zeeshan Aslam, a reporter and shopkeeper in Haripur, fears the Taliban may attack his city, which sits between Buner and Islamabad.
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Shopkeeper and local reporter Zeeshan Aslam recently broke the news that residents of Haripur had been fearing: The Taliban had come to town.

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.

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"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."

US policymakers, Ms. Fair continues, are learning lessons from Afghanistan as well as historical conflicts that it's police, not militaries, who defeat insurgencies by restoring a sense of security in held territory.

For Haripur residents, that sense of security is slipping. Before the insurgency, this district capital in the North West Frontier Province bloomed because of its location on the road from Islamabad to the tourist resorts of Swat.

For 25 years, Qazi Tasleem served his signature dishes of chicken bhotti and mutton handi to these passing tourists at his Asfaq Hotel. Now he's feeling the double-edged sword of his location as the Taliban in Swat seemed to aim toward the capital by moving into Buner late last month.

"Do you see many customers?" he asks, pointing to one lonely pair of diners. "It used to be full at this time."

Less local sympathy for Taliban

Yet, unlike Aslam the journalist, he feels Haripur is safe – especially given the Army's counteroffensive launched last Tuesday in Buner. Seven militants and one soldier were killed as battles continued Monday and the Taliban threatened to scrap a peace deal with the government unless the fighting stopped.

"Where would they come from? Coming here would not prove to be that easy," Mr. Tasleem says. He adds that the Hazara region of Haripur has a different culture than Buner one he claims less sympathetic to Talibanization.

Pakistanis not living in the Pashtun frontier hold similar hopes that an ethnic and cultural firewall of sorts will prevent the insurgency from gaining much further ground, says Gen. (ret.) Talat Masood.

"The more educated people are worried [that] it will become another extremist city run by militants," says a local doctor in Haripur, who refused to give his name for the sake of his own safety. With fear lining his face, he tracked down reporters after the interview to ask for his business cards back.

If the Taliban come, he says he'll be growing a beard and cutting his trousers short – part of the dress code that the militants try to impose. The doctor worries that he may no longer be able to take his children to the playground nor his wife to the half dozen restaurants in town.

Outside Haripur's Central Prison, deputy superintendent Zafir Khan has been gradually stockpiling bricks and mud gathered "from here and there" at his government residence. The materials lie piled up in his backyard, which opens onto fields and a distant range of deserted hills. Someday soon he hopes to build a wall around the property to protect himself and his four daughters.

"We are receiving threats from dangerous prisoners and without walls or guards we are not safe here," says Mr. Khan, a barrel-chested man whose biceps bulge from his uniform. "There's a lot of tension here right now."

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