June issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

At 10:20 a.m. on May 27, Khaver Abbas, a 25-year-old constable of the Lahore police, was guarding the Rescue 15 building when an unmarked white van pulled up to the security gate, about 10 feet from where he was standing. He saw two young men, dressed in white, with automatic rifles, jump out the van. “They began firing into the air for five to 10 seconds, then at other policeman guarding the building and me. Some of us tried to fire back but we were shot. They seemed very well trained as it took them only a few seconds to overpower the police.” Abbas himself suffered a gunshot wound to his left arm and is now recovering at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.

Abbas says that after the gunfire, one of the gunmen tossed a grenade towards the police. “I had already been hit by a bullet and fell to the ground when they threw the grenade. First there was a small blast; then five seconds later a massive blast. Everything around us started shaking. I felt like I was at the centre of the blast. It was only Allah who saved me.” Fourteen of his colleagues and 16 other people were killed in the attack, while more than 300 people were injured.

The massive explosion left a 20-foot-wide crater and the Rescue 15 building was razed to the ground. Even buildings hundreds of yards away, including glass-walled buildings and car showrooms, were destroyed. The location of the blast was particularly sensitive as the provincial headquarters of the ISI are located opposite the Rescue 15 building. The office of the Lahore police chief, residences of many top police officials and the chief minister’s secretariat are also nearby. Many security experts believe that the ISI office, which was partially destroyed, was the main target. Five ISI officials, including a colonel, were killed in the attack. Hundreds of suspects were arrested in the wake of the attack but the police have been unable to find any clues about the real culprits.

Not only was this the third terrorist attack in Lahore in the past three months, it was the fourth attack within this one-and-a-half kilometre radius, which houses all major government offices, since 2008. According to police officials, this attack had the potential to be the most dangerous as more than a 100kg of explosives were used. Many experts believe that the attack is in retaliation against the ongoing military operation in Swat.

A group calling itself the Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab claimed responsibility for the attack in a Turkish-language statement posted on jihadist websites. The group was quoted as saying that the attack targeted “the nest of evil” in Lahore and was a “humble gift to the mujahideen suffering attacks from Pakistani forces in Swat.” One person, identifying himself as Hakimullah Mehsud, a deputy to Baitullah Mehsud, called the BBC and said that the attack was in retaliation against the operation in Swat valley. He also threatened similar attacks in other cities.

The question of the efficacy of the security forces and intelligence agencies has also been questioned, especially given that the interior minister had already informed the Punjab government and the Lahore police of a possible attack on the ISI building at least one month before the attack. On April 18, the interior ministry wrote a letter to the Punjab home department about the suspicious activities of one Rana Afzal near the ISI headquarters. A recommendation was given that security in the area should be beefed up and the activities of Rana Afzal should be closely monitored. According to the former interior minister Aftab Khan Sherpao, Pakistani security forces should have been better prepared given the military operation. “This attack is the result of a security lapse. That’s why so many people died. The police should be ready to face the terrorists.”

Over the past few years, Pakistan’s police force has been thrust into the frontlines of the war on terror, as the hunt for terrorists has become a police operation inside the urban centres of the country, as well as a military war fought near the Afghan border and FATA. But former interior minister Lt General (retd.) Moinuddin Haider feels that the police is not up to the task. “The police force in Pakistan neither has the capacity nor the training or resources to combat terrorism. They are fighting this war against terrorism without the proper equipment and skills.” Along with providing resources and training to the police force, he said, “We will also have to develop a very sophisticated intelligence network to fight terrorism.”

Police officials admit that the task is a difficult one. A senior official of the National Police Bureau, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “The terrorists consider the police as a symbol of the state and are targeting them like never before. In 2005, there were 113 attacks on the police in different parts of the country in which nine policemen had been killed, but the number of attacks soared to 1,820 in 2008. The death toll [of the policemen] alone was 575 in these attacks.” He also added that the terrorists are better-equipped and better-trained than the police. “Financing is available to them and their morale is quite high.” According to him, of the 380,000-strong police force in Pakistan, only the elite force (which is only a few thousand) is trained enough to fight the highly skilled terrorists.

Another high-ranking police official further explained the shortcomings faced by the police. He said that the police do not even have an automated system to check fingerprints and have to place a request before the intelligence agencies if they want to trace a mobile phone call. There is also a severe shortage of forensic laboratories, and those which are there do not have the proper equipment or trained staff. Most police stations in the country, according to him, do not even have cameras to photograph the crime scene. He further says that the Punjab police have only one-tenth of the resources it requires to perform routine law and order work. “Only 25% of the Punjab police have automatic guns.” This was confirmed by the Assistant Inspector General Jawad Ahmed Dogar, who says that logistic funds for purchasing ammunition are so limited that the department has not been able to hold its annual firing practice for the constabulary for many years. He added, “The police needs modern equipment such as light machine guns, helicopters, video surveillance systems, sniper rifles and the latest wireless sets, just to discharge its routine duties. In the present scenario, every police station in the province should have at least one armoured vehicle, but at present we have less than 50, some of which are very old.”

The police are also facing many constraints on the training front. In the Punjab, due to a lack of resources, the duration of a police constable’s training has been reduced from nine months to six months and there are no courses to combat terrorism. During six months of training, a constable fires only 65 rounds of different guns. There are no refresher courses available to them. According to a senior police official, “It was only after the attacks at a Mianwali checkpost in early February that a short training course in firing machine guns was introduced for the police guarding the important checkposts.”

Senior analyst Rahimullah Yusufzai is of the view that terrorists have proved to be more intelligent than the security forces. “They have kept changing their modus operandi to launch attacks on their targets. It is obvious that the terrorists think ahead of the security forces, especially the police, because they are better trained than the police and also have more sophisticated weapons. Their trainers and commanders are very skilled and have 30 years of experience in guerrilla warfare both in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Their motivation is also very high as they are fighting for religion or to take revenge for the deaths of their loved ones, while on the other hand police officials are fighting, only because they are paid,” he said.