Pakistani police a growing target, Lahore attack shows

Interior minister says the Pakistani Taliban are behind the attack.

Emlio Morenatti/AP
Target: A police officer aims his weapon while entering the Lahore police academy stormed by gunmen Monday, one of several recent attacks on police in Pakistan.
Emilio Morenatti/AP
Hostages: Police officers held hostage at the academy were freed Monday after an attack that killed at least 8 people and wounded about 100.

Pakistani commandos overpowered at least 10 gunmen Monday to retake control of a police academy near Lahore.

The gunmen had eight hours earlier stormed the compound disguised in blue uniforms, leaving eight people dead and about 100 wounded – and demonstrating for the second time this month the weakness of police forces in the heart of Pakistan. On March 3, terrorists launched a similarly brazen attack in Lahore against the Sri Lankan cricket team, killing seven people before slipping away.

"The security guards weren't able to resist because they had no guns or no ammunition," says eyewitness M. Ilyas, a police constable.

Police have drawn the ire of jihadi groups for leading a crackdown and investigation of their suspected involvement in the attack on Mumbai in November. Analysts are divided over how much enthusiasm the Army has for tackling militant groups – even in the face of a rise in attacks – but there's consensus that it's the police who have proven the most aggressive and need the most Western backing moving forward.

"The police are the weakest link. They are both the most vulnerable and the most essential to the state if there is to be an effective crackdown" on jihadi groups, says Samina Ahmed, a Pakistan-based analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG).

She takes a dim view of the military's interest in pursuing these groups, adding that top American officials publicly expressed doubts about it as recently as last week.

Instead, civilian law enforcement is key to beating insurgents in Pakistan because the Army has done little, Ms. Ahmed says, and because establishing the rule of law is the most effective weapon against armed militancy.

But police have neither the means nor the independence to do so, she continues. Police have told ICG that since Sept. 11, 2001 the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency has been given most of the power to deal with counterterrorism.

Even before Monday's attacks, the police had paid a price for its role in the investigation of the Mumbai attacks. Last week a suicide bomber targeted an Islamabad police station at the center of the investigation. One policeman who thwarted the bomber from entering the building died in the blast.

The two Lahore attacks suggest the police are outgunned and outwitted by an increasingly sophisticated breed of militants. Monday's attack suggests careful planning, down to the blue uniforms and timing during a parade of unarmed trainees.

The cricket attacks caught police flatfooted, despite official promises there would be top-notch security for the game. Instead, nearby police failed to respond in time to prevent the gunmen from casually getting away, though police on the scene did manage to protect the cricketers.

"It's a new generation of terrorists – better equipped with better planning and better coordination," says Pakistani security expert Ayesha Siddiqa. The attack "makes a case for better equipping the police and training them."

Injured police in hospitals remain in shock over the attack, which took place close to the Indian border in the town of Manawan.

"Eight hundred of us were parading the ground when the attack began. I was injured in my leg and just ran for my life," says constable Abid, speaking from his hospital bed.

As with the Mumbai attacks of November, television stations beamed live images of security forces caught in a protracted standoff against a handful of terrorists. Pakistani Interior Ministry advisor Rehman Malik boasted that the commando counterstrike ended "in four hours" compared to the Indian response in Mumbai, which took more than three days.

The standoff ended after Pakistani forces killed three gunmen and captured at least three more. Three of the gunmen blew themselves up.

Mr. Malik said at a press conference that the attack was carried out by fighters of Pakistani Taliban leader Beitullah Mehsud, and that one of the assailants captured was an Afghan national. "A foreign hand may be involved, though it's a matter of ongoing investigation," he said. "Where did they get so many grenades, rocket launchers, and vehicles?"

In the northwestern valley of Swat, a Pakistani Taliban group targeted security forces so ruthlessly until a peace deal was forged a month ago that police began taking ads out in newspapers announcing their resignation. (See related story here.) Although there's little danger of mass desertions of police in major cities like Lahore, the attack could jeopardize the force's morale.

"These kinds of systematic attacks would quite obviously deter some at least from trying to counter the terrorists," says Ahmed, with the ICG. She notes that during the cricket attacks, police from a nearby station didn't bother to respond.

However, the ability of the elite Punjab Police to regain control of the situation after less than a day "suggests that the Pakistani security establishment could be going on the offensive," according to an email report from Stratfor, a security analysis group in Austin, Texas. Others agree that the attack could become a rallying point for police.

"The jihadis may have stirred up the hornet's nest," says Rifaat Hussein, a defense expert at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. "The police will call for more resources, more reinforcements, [and] the police in Punjab is a much bigger and stronger force than its counterpart in Swat."

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