Pakistani vigilantes take on Taliban

Residents of Peshawar, the main city outside militants' stronghold in the tribal areas, are forming armed patrols to defend their villages – sometimes with official backing.

Rich Clabaugh/STAFF
Emilio Morenatti/AP
Security: Peshawar has seen several kidnappings and suicide bombings in the past year. Here, a Pakistani gets his hair cut at a refugee camp outside the city.

In the town of Budaber, six miles from Peshawar's city center, Daud Khan makes sure his Kalashnikov is loaded before stepping into the dark street. As he walks out, seven young men join him, all armed.

Mr. Khan is a member of the nighttime civilian patrols that guard the streets and escort residents home. They usually work from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., the peak time for bomb attacks, a local says.

Do-it-yourself security teams are becoming a fixture in and around Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province, as residents grow wary of the Taliban's growing presence – and doubtful of the government's ability to protect them. Some officials have backed the vigilantes, even supplied them with weapons, raising concerns they may fall into the wrong hands.

But residents are more worried about security. "It's the only way we can stay safe," says Khan. "Our survival against the Taliban lies in our personal efforts to guard ourselves."

30,000 rifles for 'patriotic people'

The Budaber operation was established at the behest of a member of the Provincial Assembly, but broader government support for such initiatives became evident last month when the provincial chief minister issued a controversial order to distribute guns for civilians to protect themselves.

In a press statement, Ameer Haider Khan Hoti directed officials to distribute 30,000 rifles among "patriotic people" and "peace loving groups" to guard their villages and help the police tackle terrorism.

The statement said that the chief minister had ordered officials to "take proper guarantees from people" before issuing the "village defence rifles" that would be used "against miscreants and anti-state elements."

Such village militias have been credited with reducing violence in Iraq. A similar initiative is being considered in Afghanistan.

Peshawar city police spokesman Ijaz Abid says he fully supports the effort. "Since the police is repeatedly being targeted by militants, we are having major problems recruiting more people into the police force," he says.

"We need all the help we can get, and if civilians can do some part of our job, nothing like it," he continues.

According to police and local media sources, on Feb. 4, residents working with security forces shot at militants attempting to abduct a local government official, Nazim Fahimur Rehman, from his office on the outskirts of Peshawar. Together they killed nine people.

"It was thanks to the efforts of local citizens that we were able to defeat the militants," the inspector general of the Peshawar police said later at a press conference.

'No-go areas' on the rise

The need for such initiatives is becoming urgent due to the growing hold of the Taliban in Peshawar, Mr. Abid says, as the militants extend their reach beyond the largely ungoverned Federally Administered Tribal Areas next door. In the south of the city, on the roads to Mohmand and Khyber agencies in FATA, residents talk despairingly about the "Taliban raj," or the rule of the Talibans.

A year ago, students here would grab their satchels and walk to school without a worry. A city of more than 1.4 million people, Peshawar has long been known as a melting pot of Afghan and Pakistani cultures and a haven for musicians, artists, and intellectuals.

"The idea of no-go areas within Peshawar is very new," says security analyst Brig. Gen. Mahmood Shah (ret.). "Peshawar bazaars used to be so famous that people from all over Pakistan would come here to buy fabric."

The situation is changing. Last August, Peshawar saw its first-ever school bombing, of a girls' high school in Budaber – the only one in Peshawar. The blast destroyed the building's 26 rooms, though there were no casualties since it happened in the middle of the night.

On the morning the school was targeted America's chief diplomat in the province, Lynne Tracy, narrowly escaped being killed when her car was ambushed. About two months later, a USAID official was killed with his driver in Peshawar. More recently, a Polish engineer was abducted while driving to work just outside the city and later beheaded.

Of the 59 suicide attacks in Pakistan last year, 32 occurred in the NWFP and four targeted Peshawar directly.

Many clerics and political leaders critical of the Taliban have been kidnapped and shot dead. Most recently, last month Alamzeb Khan, a member of the Provincial Assembly, was killed when his car exploded only a few miles from his house. Mr. Khan had promised to take a message of peace to Swat, where the Army and militants had been battling until they agreed to a cease-fire a few weeks ago.

Kidnappings of businessmen and journalists have become common in the city – even as the police's ability to prevent them is diminishing.

When Muhammed Javed Afridi, a newspaper reporter, was released in October after spending 25 days in captivity, he went to the police to request more protection. In return, they offered him four temporary permits for semiautomatic weapons.

"That's when I realized my security was in my hands," the journalist says. "Now, I never travel without carrying my Kalashnikov with me."

Mr. Afridi isn't the only one who feels the need to arm himself: The Interior Ministry issued 50 percent more licenses for pistols and handguns in 2008 than in the year before.

Guns may fall into the wrong hands

With more and more guns making their ways into residents' hands, and civilian patrols becoming more common, security analysts have grown worried about these quasi-police forces.

The greatest fear over the distribution of guns is that these arms may make their way into the hands of terrorists, says Ayesha Siddiqa Agha, a defense analyst based in Islamabad. On the other hand, she says she can understand why young men are taking up arms.

"People are picking up guns because they feel there is no law and order in the country," Ms. Agha continues. "The writ of the state is very weak and the police don't have the ability to protect its citizens. As a result, security has become privatized."

Many politicians also oppose the idea of arming Peshawar's public. Former NWFP chief minister and current opposition leader Akram Durrani says the initiative baffles him. Even with tight controls, he says, it's impossible to stop these weapons from falling into the hands of children, militants, or criminal mafias.

"This move will help us create more terrorists, not defeat them," he adds.

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