Militants have Pakistan's police in their crosshairs 

A police officer looks outside the window of a gate at Achini's outpost, in the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan, February 9, 2023. (Photo courtesy: REUTERS)
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Updated 27 February 2023

Militants have Pakistan's police in their crosshairs 

  • Killings of policemen in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa rose to 119 last year, from 54 in 2021 and 21 in 2020
  • Some 102 have been slain already this year, most in a mosque bombing but some in other attacks

BARA, Pakistan: Atop a police outpost in northwest Pakistan, Faizanullah Khan stands behind a stack of sandbags and peers through the sight of an anti-aircraft gun, scanning the terrain along the unofficial boundary with the country's restive former tribal areas. 

On this cold and rainy February morning, he was looking not for aircraft but for fighters behind attacks against his force, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial police. 

It was daytime, so he could relax a bit, said Khan, an assistant sub-inspector, as he sat down on a traditional woven bed. But night was a different story, he said, pointing to pock marks left by bullets fired at the outpost, named Manzoor Shaheed, or Manzoor the Martyr, after a colleague felled by insurgents years ago. 

The outpost is one of dozens that provide defence against militants waging a fresh assault on Pakistan's police from hideouts in the border region adjoining Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The area, part of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, is a hotbed for fighters of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella organisation of militant groups.

The threat the insurgency poses to nuclear-armed Pakistan was illustrated last month when the bombing of a mosque in Peshawar killed more than 80 police personnel. A faction of the TTP, Jamat-ul-Ahrar, claimed responsibility. 

Visiting northwest Pakistan this month, Reuters gained access to police outposts and spoke to more than a dozen people, including senior police officials, many of whom described how the force is suffering increasing losses as it bears the brunt of insurgent attacks while contending with resourcing and logistical constraints. 

Pakistani officials acknowledge these challenges but say they are trying to improve the force's capability amid adverse economic circumstances. 

A police officer rappels off a building during a practice session at the Elite Police Training Centre in Nowshera, Pakistan, February 10, 2023. (Photo courtesy: REUTERS)

'Stopped their way' 

Police here have fought militants for years -- more than 2,100 personnel have been killed and 7,000 injured since 2001 -- but never have they been the focus of militants' operations as they are today. 

"We've stopped their way to Peshawar," assistant sub-inspector Jameel Shah of Sarband station, which controls the Manzoor Shaheed outpost, said of the militants. 

Sarband and its eight outposts have suffered four major attacks in recent months and faced sniper fire with unprecedented frequency, according to police based there. 

Killings of police in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa rose to 119 last year, from 54 in 2021 and 21 in 2020. Some 102 have been slain already this year, most in the mosque bombing but some in other attacks. Elsewhere, militants stormed a police office in Karachi on Feb. 17, killing four before security forces retook the premises and killed three assailants. 

The TTP, known as the Pakistani Taliban, pledges allegiance to the Afghan Taliban but is not directly a part of the group that rules in Kabul. Its stated aim is to impose Islamic religious law in Pakistan. 

A TTP spokesman, Muhammad Khurasani, told Reuters its main target was Pakistan's military, but the police were standing in the way. 

"The police have been told many times not to obstruct our way, and instead of paying heed to this the police have started martyring our comrades," he said. "This is why we are targeting them." 

The military has conducted operations alongside the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa police and faced TTP attacks, with one soldier confirmed dead in the province this year, according to data released by the military's public relations wing, which did not address questions from Reuters about military casualties. 

In December, the TTP released a video purportedly recorded by one of its fighters from mountains around the capital, Islamabad, showing Pakistan's parliament building. "We are coming," said a note held by the unidentified fighter. 

The TTP wants to show that its fighters can strike outside their current areas of influence, said Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank. While their ability may be limited, he said, "propaganda is a big part of this war and the TTP are getting good at it". 

Police officers hold their weapons during a training session at the Elite Police Training Centre in Nowshera, Pakistan, February 10, 2023. (Photo courtesy: REUTERS)

'Sitting ducks' 

The police in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which neighbours Islamabad, say they are up for the fight, but point to a lack of resources. 

"The biggest problem is the number of personnel, which is a little low," said Shah, of Sarband station, which has 55 people -- including drivers and clerks -- for the station and eight affiliated outposts. "This is a target area, and we're absolutely face-to-face with (the militants)." 

Days before Reuters visited Sarband, a senior police official was ambushed and killed outside the station during a firefight with militants. The attack demonstrated the firepower of the insurgents, who, according to Shah, used thermal goggles to target the officer in darkness. 

It wasn't the first time. About a year ago, the TTP released a video of its snipers using thermal imaging to take out unsuspecting security personnel. 

Pakistan Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, who did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters about the insurgency, told local TV this month that militants saw the police as "soft targets" because their public-facing role made it easier to penetrate their facilities. 

Zahid Hussain, a journalist and author of books on militancy, said the police were more vulnerable than the military, given their resources and training. 

"I mean, they're sitting ducks there," Hussain said. 

People pray for the victims who were killed in a suicide bombing in January, in a mosque that was partially damaged during the attack in the Police Lines area in Peshawar, Pakistan, February 9, 2023. (Photo courtesy: REUTERS)

'Lethal weapons' 

Moazzam Jah Ansari, who was chief of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa's police when he spoke to Reuters this month but has since been replaced, said militant strategies had been evolving.

"They try and find more effective ways to conduct military operations, more lethal weapons," he said. 

Militants have procured U.S.-made M4 rifles and other sophisticated weapons from stocks left by Western forces that exited Afghanistan in 2021, police officials said. Some police guards told Reuters they had seen small reconnaissance drones flying over their outposts. 

Khurasani, the TTP spokesman, confirmed that the group was using drones for surveillance. 

Several police officials at Sarband station said the provincial government and military provided them and other outposts with thermal goggles in late January to aid the fight. But they encountered another problem. 

"About 22 hours of the day we have power outages... there's no electricity to charge our goggles," Shah told Reuters at Sarband. 

The station has one rooftop solar panel, which officers paid out of their own pockets to install, according to station chief Qayyum Khan. One policeman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of disciplinary action, said police use their vehicles or go to a petrol station equipped with a back-up generator to charge their goggles. 

Police said they had taken other protection measures, including erecting rudimentary walls to guard against sniper fire, and procuring bulletproof glass from a market that sells equipment left behind by U.S.-led forces. 

Imam Noor ul Ameen, 35, who is also a police employee, holds his palms as he leads a prayer for the victims who were killed in a suicide bombing in January, in a mosque that was partially damaged during the attack in the Police Lines area, in Peshawar, Pakistan, February 9, 2023. (Photo courtesy: REUTERS)

Economic conditions 

Reuters spoke to four other senior officials and more than a dozen lower-ranking officers, all of whom said the provincial force was neglected despite its key role. They spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of disciplinary action. 

Required resources were not forthcoming, and their pay and perks were inferior to that of counterparts elsewhere in Pakistan, let alone the military, these officials told Reuters. 

"Do the police need more resources? They absolutely do," said Taimur Jhagra, who was provincial finance minister until January, when a caretaker administration took over ahead of elections. 

Jhagra said his government helped the police as much as it could with pay raises and procuring equipment such as goggles, despite fiscal constraints. Pakistan's debt-ridden economy has been in a tailspin for over a year, and the country is trying to slash spending to avoid default. 

"Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa pays a greater price for that" because of its exposure to the militants, he said. 

Ansari, the former police chief, said resources had improved, but tended to come reactively when a threat emerged, rather than as sustained support. He, too, attributed this to economic circumstances, but added that things were not as bad as some suggested. 

'Seething anger' 

After Western forces left Afghanistan in August 2021, Pakistan sought a truce with the TTP, resulting in a months-long ceasefire and negotiations brokered by the Afghan Taliban. As part of the effort, many militants from Afghanistan were resettled in Pakistan. 

The TTP ended the ceasefire in November 2022, and regrouped militants restarted attacks in Pakistan soon after. 

Following the Peshawar bombing, police personnel held public protests where some voiced anger against their leadership, the provincial and national governments, and even the military, calling for more resources and clarity on the policy of fighting the militants. Ansari acknowledged a "deep sense of loss" and "seething anger" in the force in the wake of the attack. 

At the site of the blast, police personnel gathered on a recent day to remember their fallen comrades. The imam, a police employee who lost his brother in the attack, prayed for the success of the force. 

Behind the mosque, Daulat Khan, an assistant sub-inspector, and eight relatives live in cramped police quarters comprising a 25-square-metre space with only one room. Around him are crumbling, blast-damaged walls. 

"Everyone can see the sacrifices of the police, but nothing is done for us," he said, pointing to rows of century-old, British-colonial era quarters. "You see the conditions in front of you." 

Outside, open sewage canals lined the alleyways. 

A billboard with photos of police officers who died in the line of duty is seen in the Police Lines area, Peshawar, Pakistan, February 9, 2023. (Photo courtesy: REUTERS)

Different battle 

Pakistan's military effectively dismantled the TTP and killed most of its top leadership in a string of operations from 2014 onwards, driving most of the fighters into Afghanistan, where they regrouped. 

But the nature of the fight has changed in recent months, which partly shows why the police, not the military, are at the forefront. The militants were now spread in smaller groups across the country and among the civilian population, instead of operating from bases in former tribal areas, analysts said.  

The military has also been stretched by another insurgency in the southwestern province of Balochistan, where separatists are targeting state infrastructure and Chinese investments. 

The defence ministry did not respond to requests for comment about the armed forces' role in resisting militants in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. 

Miles from the flashpoints, meanwhile, police graduates receive six-month crash courses in anti-militant operations at the vast Elite Police Training Centre in Nowshera. 

The personnel, including women, learn how to conduct raids, rappel from buildings and use rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns, which they unleash on a model of a militant training camp. 

But beyond the training school's walls, there is no stationary militant camp, attacks come at night, and police are often on their own. 

Faizanullah Khan said that, on some nights at his outpost, militants call out to him or his fellow guards. "They say 'we see you; lay down your arms'," he said. 

The guards sometimes reply, he said, by firing their guns into the darkness.

Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan sign deal with China's Gansu for transfer of high-mountain agriculture technology

Updated 15 sec ago

Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan sign deal with China's Gansu for transfer of high-mountain agriculture technology

  • Only one percent of land in the northern Pakistani region has been used for agriculture, according to the UNDP
  • Officials say the move will ensure food security by helping farmers increase production of wheat, maize and potato

GILGIT: The government in Pakistan's northern Gilgit-Baltistan region has signed an agreement with China's Gansu province for the transfer of high-mountain agriculture technology and machinery to mountainous region northern that will help local farmers increase their production of various crops, the GB agriculture minister said on Saturday. 

GB has not officially been part of Pakistan but forms part of the portion of disputed Kashmir that is administered by Pakistan. The region is Pakistan’s only land link to China and is at the heart of the $65 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure development plan. 

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the GB government and China's Gansu province was signed on Friday during the visit of an eight member GB government delegation, led by GB Agriculture Minister Muhammad Anwar, to China's Gansu province. 

The transfer of technology will modernize the GB agriculture sector and help local farmer increase production of wheat, maize, potato and buckwheat, according to officials. 

“The objective of the cooperation is to promote agriculture, food security, livestock and human development in Gilgit-Baltistan,” Khadim Hussain, a coordinator of the GB Economic Transformation Initiative who was also part of the delegation that visited Gansu, told Arab News. 

“From the Chinese side, Gansu province is the centre of the Belt and Road Initiative and Gilgit-Baltistan is the gateway of CPEC. So, to improve communication between these two regions, the Chinese government will help the government of Gilgit-Baltistan for the development of agriculture, food security, and human and livestock development.”  

Hussain noted the geography and weather of China’s Gansu was quite similar to GB, which is home to five out of 14 world peaks above the height of 8,000 meters. 

However, only one percent of GB land has been used for agriculture, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the GB agriculture department. The rest of nearly 72,000 square kilometers of administrative territory consists of 52 percent rangelands, four percent forests, while the remaining portion has mountains and barren land. 

“Under this agreement, Gansu Agriculture and Mechanical Company will provide machinery to the [GB] agriculture department that could be used for sowing, harvesting and silage. The company will train local farmers in running the machines. They will also provide technical and vocational training to locals,” Hussain said.  

“The cooperation will be boosted in the future and R&D (research and development) in the field of agriculture, livestock and fisheries will also be strengthened with the help of China.” 

Ghulamullah Saqib, a deputy director at the GB agriculture department, described the move as a "good omen" for the region. 

“The commitment of Gansu province to uplift the agriculture sector by transferring technology to GB is a good omen and welcoming thing,” Saqib told Arab News.  

“Only two percent area of the whole GB is arable. Of which, farming is happening at only one percent and the rest one percent is facing a water crisis.”  

The official said only one percent of agricultural land was not enough for the region, which was why the government had been purchasing wheat from the Pakistan Agricultural Storage & Services Corporation (PASSCO). 

“GB can produce food for its population for two months only and if we do not pay attention to the agriculture sector and modern farming, we will have to face famine in future,” Saqib said.  

“After this MoU, a ray of hope has emerged because it will help grow the agriculture sector in the region.”

Designated banks in Pakistan to receive Hajj applications on Saturday, Sunday

Updated 09 December 2023

Designated banks in Pakistan to receive Hajj applications on Saturday, Sunday

  • Pakistan has invited Hajj 2024 applications under the government’s scheme till December 12 
  • The South Asian country has a quota of 89,605 individuals for the Hajj pilgrimage next year 

ISLAMABAD: Designated bank branches in Pakistan will remain open on Saturday and Sunday as Pakistan continues to receive applications for next year’s Hajj, Pakistani state media reported on Saturday. 

The Pakistani religious affairs ministry invited Hajj 2024 applications under the government’s scheme from November 27 and the process will continue till December 12. 

The quota for Pakistanis performing the pilgrimage under the government’s scheme next year is 89,605, with the pilgrimage expected to cost Rs1,075,000 [$3,769] per person. 

“The designated banks will remain open on Saturday and Sunday for the receipt of Hajj applications,” the state-run Radio Pakistani broadcaster reported, quoting a religious affairs ministry spokesperson. 

Hajj, an annual Islamic pilgrimage in practice for over 1,400 years, is one of the five pillars of Islam, and requires every adult Muslim to undertake a journey to the holy Islamic sites in Makkah at least once in their lifetime (if they are financially and physically able). 

This year, Saudi Arabia has also included Karachi in its Makkah Route Initiative, following successful operations in Islamabad. The initiative allows pilgrims performing Hajj under the government scheme the convenience of undergoing all immigration requirements to enter Saudi Arabia from their home countries’ airports. 

Applicants for next year’s Hajj would also not be required to submit COVID-19 immunization certificates as the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the disease no longer a public health emergency. 

Pakistan military exercise with special forces contingents from Bahrain, Iraq and Kuwait concludes

Updated 09 December 2023

Pakistan military exercise with special forces contingents from Bahrain, Iraq and Kuwait concludes

  • The two-week exercise commenced on Nov. 27 at the National Counter Terrorism Center in northwest Pakistan 
  • The exercise, attended by contingents from Bahrain, Iraq and Kuwait, helped nurture joint employment concepts 

ISLAMABAD: Fajar Al Sharq-V, a multinational joint special forces exercise, concluded on Saturday at the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) in northwest Pakistan, the Pakistani military said, with participation from multiple Arab countries. 

The two-week exercise commenced on November 27 at the NCTC in Pabbi in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, according to the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s media wing. 

The exercise was attended by special forces contingents from Bahrain, Iraq and Kuwait. 

“The exercise was aimed at further harnessing the historic military to military relations among brotherly countries and helped nurture joint employment concepts against counter terrorism, besides identifying areas of mutual interest for future military collaborations,” the ISPR said in a statement. 

Besides the participating troops, officers from the brotherly nations also witnessed the closing ceremony on the final day of the exercise. 

Pakistan, which has proven its mettle in the field of counter-terrorism, routinely holds joint military exercises with friendly states to foster joint employment concepts. 

These exercises help the participating nations enhance their combat capabilities to thwart any threats and ensure peace in the region. 

Minister acknowledges threats to politicians ahead of Pakistan national elections

Updated 09 December 2023

Minister acknowledges threats to politicians ahead of Pakistan national elections

  • The statement comes amid surge in militant attacks across in Pakistan’s western regions bordering Afghanistan 
  • Pakistan is scheduled to go to hold national elections on February 8 after months of delay and political uncertainty 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Caretaker Interior Minister Sarfaraz Bugti on Friday acknowledged that there were threats to political leadership in Pakistan as they gear up for national elections, scheduled to be held on February 8. 

The development comes amid a surge in militant attacks across in Pakistan’s western regions bordering Afghanistan ever since a fragile truce between Islamabad and the Pakistani Taliban broke down in November 2022. 

Recently, the Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam Pakistan (JUI-F), a prominent religious party, urged the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) last month to delay polls till the security situation in the country improves and the cold in Pakistan’s northern areas dissipates. 

The interior minister agreed there was a “general threat” to public rallies in the country, but no specific threat to a political leader, except for the JUI-F chief. 

“Definitely, there are threats to the political leadership,” he said. “There is definitely a general threat to public rallies.” 

Bugti said the caretaker government had the “capacity and will” for the conduct of a peaceful election. 

Bugti’s statement came a day after the head of Pakistan’s election regulator said it would issue a schedule for the upcoming national elections “in few days.” 

A senior official of the ECP this week requested the government for the deployment of armed forces and other law enforcement agencies personnel at polling stations during the February 8 polls. 

“Whatever requirement the election commission would have with regard to paramilitary forces, we will provide that,” Bugti said at the press conference. 

“We will try providing maximum security.” 

He, however, said the deployment of army was a domain of the country’s defense ministry. 

Documented Afghan migrants in Karachi say suffering fallout of Pakistan’s deportation drive

Updated 09 December 2023

Documented Afghan migrants in Karachi say suffering fallout of Pakistan’s deportation drive

  • Government says registered refugees can stay but many complain of losing jobs and homes, police intimidation
  • Top officials have openly said Afghans were behind terror attacks in Pakistan and a drain on the economy

KARACHI: Rubina Hidayatullah has seen it all since she moved to Pakistan from neighboring Afghanistan with her three-year-old son to seek medical treatment for her ailing husband in 2005.

She has lived the difficult life of a refugee in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi. Her husband passed away just a few years after she moved to Pakistan. She raised her three children, two of them born in Pakistan, alone. And she worked long hours as a housemaid to make ends meet.

But nothing could have prepared her for the challenge that came two months ago. 

Just as her two sons both got jobs and she hoped she would get a chance at some respite in life, the Pakistan government on Oct. 3 announced a deportation drive against “illegal immigrants,” calling on them to leave voluntarily by Nov. 1 or face forcible expulsion. Although the government says the policy is targeted at all undocumented foreigners, it has disproportionately hit Afghans, who form the largest number of migrants to Pakistan. Since the announcement of the expulsion drive, over 370,000 have returned to their country or been deported.

Many of those who have left have told Arab News they had documents but were fleeing out of fear of arrest and persecution. Many Afghans who have stayed behind have gone underground. Reports of police harassment and arrests have been widespread, while many Afghans say they have been sacked from their jobs or asked by landlords to leave their homes.

“I had one boy working in a restaurant, and the other, at the age of nine, became an apprentice at a workshop,” Hidayatullah, 50, a registered refugee, told Arab News, at her tiny apartment in Karachi. “Since the Afghan [deportation] issue began, both of them have been laid off from their jobs.”

Many Afghans have also lost their homes.

Maulana Ikramullah Khan, another registered refugee, said he had lived in the city’s Ancholi neighborhood for nearly a decade before losing his home and moving to the Sohrab Goth slum.

“The landlord came and asked for my identity card,” Khan said. “When I showed him my [refugee] card, he said, ‘You are an Afghan, and we will not rent the house to Afghans.’ So, he told me that the month was almost ending, and I should vacate the house.”

“It is very distressing for a person to live in one place for 31 years, where you get married, have children, and then, after 31 years, you face a situation where you’re treated in a manner where [you’re told], ‘Leave from here, we will not give you a house, or evacuate our house’.”

The already precarious state of education for refugee children has also been hit.

“Our school has been impacted, we had 300 students enrolled, and now the number has dwindled to less than a hundred,” Syed Mustafa, principal of the Jamal Uddin Afghani School in Karachi, said. “Most landlords are not renting to Afghans now.”

The difficulties come against the background of various government officials, including the prime minister and the army chief, openly saying Afghans were behind terror attacks in Pakistan and a drain on the economy. The interior minister has accused Afghan nationals of being involved in organized crime and responsible for 14 out of 24 suicide attacks in Pakistan this year. Last month Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar said the move to expel hundreds of thousands of undocumented Afghans was a response to the unwillingness of the Taliban-led administration in Kabul to act against militants using Afghanistan to carry out attacks in Pakistan.

Hajji Abdullah, the chairman of the refugee council in Karachi, confirmed Afghan nationals were losing jobs and facing midnight raids due to the government’s new policy. 

“Afghan refugees who were legal and used to work in companies, those companies have now sacked them, saying that the government has urged [Pakistanis] not to employ Afghans,” he told Arab News. 

“Unemployed, they are now sitting at home hungry … They should be allowed to resume their work and earn for their children.”

The Sindh home ministry could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts. A spokesperson for Karachi Police, Abrar Hussain Baloch, said the state was only fulfilling its responsibility to “act against Illegal immigrants.”

He denied “any sort of action which may cause harm or affect the lives of legal refugees.”

In the meantime, refugees like Hidayatullah continue to live in uncertainty and fear. 

“I have neither gone to Afghanistan, nor can I go there,” she said when asked if she would be leaving for Afghanistan because of the difficulties created by the expulsion drive.

“I don’t have anyone whom I would visit … I have no brothers in Afghanistan and no father.”