In Pakistan, Swat Valley police give up in face of Taliban attacks

Taliban struck a police station Wednesday. Many police are resigning because of death threats.

Tariq Mahmood/AFP/GEtty Images/NEWSCOM
Leaving: A policeman stood guard in Pakistan's northwestern Swat Valley in 2007. Taliban threats have sharply reduced police ranks.

Fazal Rehman's childhood dream was to be a police officer. But after a dozen years on the force in Pakistan's Swat Valley, he has finally turned in his badge.

During his training, Swat, which is located in the North West Frontier Province, about a five-hour-drive from Islamabad, was an idyllic place. Known as the "Switzerland of Pakistan," it was renowned for lush valleys, ragged mountainsides, and snowcapped peaks.

But in the past two years, Swat has been caught up in the throes of a violent insurgency that has repelled tourists and is forcing locals to manage their lives around curfews and bans – and prompting many to leave the area.

The latest violence struck Wednesday, when militants attacked and destroyed a police station, capturing – and later releasing – some 30 paramilitary soldiers and policemen. A Taliban spokesman said the Taliban had gotten promises from the men that they would quit their jobs.

Mr. Rehman resigned about four months ago when, he says, the situation became unlivable for him and other police officers. "My colleagues were being targeted and beheaded," he says. "I thought enough was enough, and decided to switch careers."

The local Taliban, who have organized themselves into a party titled the Tehrik-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, are targeting all pro-state elements – police, government officials, the Army. Led by radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah, the Taliban have issued repeated warnings to police officers. Last October, the Taliban distributed several pamphlets urging policemen to resign or face the consequences.

"We don't want to fight you [local policemen] as you are our own people," read one.

The Taliban advised policemen to advertise their names in a local paper if they quit.

Retired Army Gen. Talat Masood says that police officers will stay on the job only if they see government efforts to assist them.

"The militants have become very powerful, and the police, given their lack of anti-insurgency training and weapons, are helpless in front of them," he says. "The solution is for the government to establish some control in the valley and to provide the police force with the equipment and leadership needed for them to do their job."

But in the absence of required facilities, many police officers are following the path chosen by Rehman. Those who are not complying are paying a heavy price. In the last 10 months, more than 100 policemen have been killed in Swat, a district of 1.7 million people, by militant attacks. Many were kidnapped and then killed, their bodies publicly displayed.

As a result, nearly 800 policemen – half the authorized force in Swat – have either resigned or gone on long leave. Only one of the 600 recruits trained by the military at the Punjab Regimental Centre in Mardan volunteered to serve in what is becoming known as the "valley of death," according to a local newspaper.

Today, Rehman runs a small general store where he sells toffee and household items. He says he is making less than what he was earning as a constable, but is happier.

But his store is in Mingora, where the central square, the Green Chowk, has now become known as Chowk Zebakhana, or "slaughter square." On one day in December, militants dumped 27 corpses in the square. The square is also the location for numerous sniper attacks, often aimed at traffic cops. Police officers have refused traffic duty in this area, prompting the military to impose a night curfew.

Like Rehman, around 400 cops resigned in the last year in Swat. Fazal Khattak, police commissioner in Swat, says they are encountering major problems in recruiting officers. "We recently advertised ... for police constables," he says. "Only seven people applied and on the day of the interview even these people didn't show up."

Khattak says that there are more than 100 vacancies. "I don't have hopes of filling these up soon," he says. "Hardly anyone wants to become a police officer nowadays."

Another officer, who wished to remain anonymous because he feared being punished for talking, says he took out an ad announcing his resignation two months ago. "I was too scared, and with all the kidnappings going around, I decided not to continue," he says.

This constable blames the Pakistani Army for not making adequate efforts. "If the Army was more aggressive in Swat, the police would feel safer working here," he says.

Retired Brig. Gen. Mahmood Shah agrees that the Army is at fault in the valley. "It's a question of will," he says. "Militants are successful in demoralizing the law enforcing agencies, and the deteriorating law-and-order situation in Swat is another incentive for police officers to resign. The Army has to act more aggressively, squash the militants, and provide some protection to the police."

Currently the Army has four brigades in Swat and has promised to add more boots on the ground if need be.

Rehman and other police officers say they will be happy to go back to their old jobs if they regained confidence in the government. "I want nothing more than to be a police officer," he says.

"But I have a wife and children," he adds, "and don't want them to be deprived of their only earning hand. If Swat becomes peaceful, I will go back immediately – without question."

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