To keep Taliban away, Pakistan recruits 25,000 retired soldiers

They will protect residents returning to Swat and Buner. Some have fled again after seeing Taliban in the area, despite a major Army offensive.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The government is recruiting 25,000 retired Pakistani soldiers for police duty in war-torn Swat and Buner districts to protect millions of displaced residents as they return home.

The idea is to triple the number of police stations and bolster the force above levels present before the Taliban drove them out. The extra manpower would serve as an additional shield against militants returning to launch raids or influence the population.

Early reports point to just such a resurgence in Taliban activity there. Returned residents and local journalists say that Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah has been heard on FM radio. In Buner – the first region that the military moved in to clear – the Taliban are setting up fresh checkpoints, pressuring refugees for money, and have burned the home of an outspoken journalist.

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To quickly put more police on the ground, officials are turning to retired soldiers, who require less time to train and are less skittish about dangerous assignments. The strategy carries some risk given the differences between soldiering and police work.

"The best option is to train fresh people, because the nature of the job is different," says security analyst Gen. Talat Masood (ret.). "But the circumstances are such that [officials] have to fill in the gaps" in available recruits.

Hundreds of militants still in Buner

Time is of the essence, given that returning residents are already encountering problems with militants.

Several families who returned home to Buner three days ago fled again after finding the Taliban in the area. They estimated some 250 to 350 Taliban remain, and sometimes appear in groups as large as 60 at one time. The militants were threatening people and demanding payments of 25,000 rupees ($305), which happens to be the amount the government is giving displaced people on ATM cards as they head home.

The Taliban are "threatening people, and some of them were beaten for getting assistance from the government," says Ikhtiar Bacha, who left Buner with his family two days after arriving.

Three family members of an influential local in Buner were killed by militants in the past week, according to Ikhtiar's brother, Mukhtiar Bacha. "More people will flee the area in the coming days," he predicts.

Taliban chief returns to radio, briefly

Taliban leader Mr. Fazlullah's voice on FM radio early this week in Swat was an echo of days when the Taliban controlled the population through such broadcasts, which often included warnings or threats. His speech, which reports say was jammed within several minutes, raises doubts about military claims that Fazlullah had been injured in an airstrike.

According to General Masood, it could have been an old cassette recording.

Another sound returned to Mingora, the main city in Swat, recently: music, which militants there had banned. Abdullah, a student, said it was strange to hear music again in the city, where displaced people began returning Friday.

Security forces may have a huge task awaiting them. According to Hamidullah Khan, a reporter based in the city for the Pakistani daily newspaper Dawn, the military has held off from searching homes for fear of being blamed for looting. Instead, he says, the plan is to wait for residents to return so they can witness the searches.

During the fighting, the Taliban have taken over homes. In the case of prominent reporter Behroz Khan, suspected Taliban first looted, then took over his home in Buner. Then, last week, masked intruders burned it to the ground. Given threats the Taliban have made against his family, he suspects the home was targeted because of his reporting.

"As a journalist I am trying not to take sides, but the thing is I cannot, and journalists as a community should not treat the militants and the state on equal footing," says Mr. Khan. "It's glorifying them."

The area of Khan's village, near Pir Baba, remains in control of the Taliban he says. On Wednesday, the Taliban set up a checkpoint in his village – less than a mile from a route the military claims is cleared, he says.

Wooing retirees

The retired soldiers who agree to be police in these areas will be paid significantly more than their old salaries, says Jamal Nasir, who heads civilian security as the special home secretary for the North West Frontier Province, where Swat and Buner are located.

Additional police recruitment is part of a larger effort to muster a 400,000-strong antimilitant force, according to Abdul Wahid Khan (no relation to Behroz), a spokesman in the Ministry of Information.

He says the recruiters will first draw from retired police, then pull the remaining from the ranks of the retired military.

"In the Army, even the police, very young people get retired," says Mr. Khan, though neither he nor Nasir could say if an age limit has been set.

Nasir says the retirees would be under contract for two years and would undergo a training lasting "maybe a week or 10 days."

That's far too short, cautions Masood, who says they would need at least three months' training. However, former soldiers do bring some built-in skills, including physical toughness, basic education, knowledge of how to patrol, and experience with firearms.

"And of course, they won't run away. They will stand up to the militants," says Masood, who counts this as the most important qualification.

Before the military offensive, militants had killed more than 100 policemen and warned others not to serve. As a result, hundreds of police officers had resigned or taken leave.

Daud Khattak contributed from Peshawar.

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