Pakistan to invite Taliban's victims to fight back

Other News Materials 17 June 2009 14:19 (UTC +04:00)

Civilians who lived under the Taliban's harsh rule in Pakistan's Swat Valley may soon be recruited to police the region - with preference going to those hit hardest during the militants' two-year campaign of terror, a top official says, AP reported.

Rebuilding the valley's decimated police force is considered crucial to bringing home more than 2 million people displaced by an army offensive and to keeping the Taliban from coming back. It's a process of great interest to the U.S., which wants Pakistan to eliminate safe havens for militants fighting in neighboring Afghanistan.

To fight an insurgency, "the people have to be actively with you," Malik Naveed Khan, inspector general of police for the North West Frontier Province, told The Associated Press in an interview Monday.

He said some 6,000 civilians would be recruited, along with a force of 2,500 ex-military personnel that lend further backing to the police. Authorities plan to open recruiting centers in camps where some 200,000 displaced Swatis and other refugees from surrounding districts are staying.

Khan said the plan needs formal approval from the provincial government, but that "everyone is on board." The goal is to have a full force ready by mid-August.

Bashir Bilour, the province's senior minister, said authorities support the idea because of the citizens' "knowledge of the area, people and local customs and traditions. They will also have a feeling of ownership and participation in the process."

Before the violent Taliban campaign took off in earnest in the valley in 2007, Swat was considered a "soft district," with low crime rates and around 2,000 lightly armed police for a population of 1.75 million, Khan said.

The better-equipped militants quickly targeted police, beheading them, shooting them, attacking their checkpoints and even forcing some officers' parents to swear on the Quran that their sons would stop patrolling. At least 120 police were killed and around 700 officers fled the force, Khan said.

Candidates for the new policing jobs need to be "able-bodied, tough people with a clear background, giving some preference to those whose houses have been burned and who have been targeted," Khan said in his office in Peshawar.

He didn't respond when asked whether the program was deliberately tapping into a desire for vengeance, but said he expected recruits to be attracted by the salaries - $125 a month, about the same as a police constable earns.

The government has already had some success in raising militias, known as lashkars, to fend off militants elsewhere in the northwest. Troops backed up a militia that arose in the Dir region this month and fought the Taliban, whom they blamed for a mosque bombing.

But similar attempts in Swat have faltered, largely because its citizens were far less likely to be armed.

Some experts caution that the new program could foster weapons trafficking and corruption.

"It could end up being a bigger nuisance," said analyst Ikram Sehgal. "You run the risk of them going rogue or going into business for themselves." He preferred the plan to recruit ex-military personnel, calling it "an excellent idea" that would give the police a psychological boost.

Khan outlined a clear plan for keeping the militias under control. He said the program would have a two-year time frame and cost at least $10 million a year. Recruits would be given a uniform, weapons and training, would report to local police commanders and would be subject to police rules, he said. Of the 6,500 recruits, around 2,000 will be in Swat, while others will be in other parts of the region.

Khan stressed it was a short-term solution, and that rebuilding the police force could take years.

The army says its seven-week-old offensive in Swat and surrounding districts has killed more than 1,300 Taliban fighters, but many have fled to safer ground, and top Taliban commanders remain at large. The army expects to stay in the valley for at least another year as police and civil authorities regain strength.

Based on what AP reporters have seen on visits to the region, some of the damage seems to have been caused by army shelling and airstrikes, not just the Taliban.

Several Swatis living in camps cautiously welcomed the idea of joining a militia, but insisted on a thorough vetting process to screen out infiltrating militants.

"If the government provides proper facilities and training, then I and some of my friends are ready to join," said 22-year-old Taj Mohammad. "After all it is our soil. We have to protect our people."