PESHAWAR – A week-long campaign of suicide bombings that killed more than 130 people across Pakistan, has seriously demoralized security personnel in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, that have become a safe haven for the Taliban and the al-Qaeda.
Directed at police and army targets, the bombings are believed to have been carried out to avenge last week’s storming of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad killing 75 pro-Taliban militants, and also to protest against the support given by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to the "war on terror" prosecuted by the United States and NATO in Afghanistan.
After suffering the heaviest casualties ever sustained by Pakistani security forces during peacetime, many security personnel fearing attacks have gone away on long leave or go about their work in plain clothes.
"We are scared to be seen in our uniforms. The militants are better-equipped than we are. And there is no way to stop suicide bombers," a police constable in Swat told IPS. He said the threat was real enough for senior officials to approve the idea of policemen performing their duties in plainclothes.
The North West Frontier Province (NWFP) has a total of 35,000 policemen for a population of 22 million while the Federally Administered Tribal Agency (FATA) has 7,000 "khasadar" (local police) for about four million people. These forces are considered inadequate, although, the NWFP can also call on the services of the 17,000-strong Frontier Constabulary.
About 80,000 regular army troops are also currently deployed along the Pakistan border with Afghanistan to check cross border movements by militants. But the army is being held back by a ceasefire agreement with tribal leaders in September that the government is keen to keep going.
"Our forces lack proper training, equipment, vehicles and weaponry due to which their preparedness is very low," a high-ranking police official told IPS. He confirmed that hundreds of policemen have applied for leave out of fear for safety.
Most of the attacks over the past week have taken place in the NWFP with at least 70 of the 110 people who died being army soldiers. "It is mostly in the tough areas of Swat, Tank and Dera Ismail Khan that our men have to avoid wearing uniforms,” said a police official.
On Thursday, in the latest attack, a bomb-laden car went off in Hub, about 30 km west of Karachi, killing 26 people, seven of them policemen. Six more policemen and civilians were also killed at a police training center in the town of Hangu in the NWFP, officials said.
The bombings are the most serious challenge yet to the eight-year-old military government of President Pervez Musharraf who seized power in a coup and has successfully staved off domestic and international demands for the restoration of democracy through his usefulness in the Afghanistan campaign.
The attacks on troops in the northwest came after tribal leaders unilaterally renounced the September peace deal under which the Pakistan army was withdrawn from the tribal areas in return for pledges to stop Taliban and al-Qaeda militants from carrying out cross-border raids into Afghanistan.
This year, Pakistan has seen 21 suicide attacks that have killed 225 people. Going by the record the suicide bombers have targeted police, army and other paramilitary personnel with some degree of precision.
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has time and again accused Pakistan of being covertly involved in training and sending suicide bombers into his country, but increasingly targets are being sought within Pakistan.
The United Nations recently asked its staff in FATA and NWFP to avoid getting close to the installations of the police or the army. All the UN bodies have restricted their movement and halted their activities.
Pakistan’s interior minister Aftab Sherpao had a narrow escape when a suicide bomber blew himself up at his public meeting on Mar. 18 in Charsadda, NWFP. Earlier in the year, two top police officials were killed in separate incidents in Peshawar, the capital of the NWFP.
"The militants want to scare policemen and army soldiers and they have succeeded in their mission," said Ashraf Ali, who is working on a doctorate on the Taliban at the Area Study Center, University of Peshawar.
He said Musharraf now feels politically isolated and is now trying desperately to please the U.S. "The only way for Musharraf to get U.S.’ pleasure is to fight the militants,” said Ali.
The Awami National Party (ANP), the pro-Pashtun political outfit, on Wednesday appealed to the militants and the Taliban to stop suicide attacks on innocent people and members of the law-enforcement agencies.
"This situation is the handiwork of Pakistan’s secret agencies. They had planted the Mujhideen (Taliban) against the Russian army in Afghanistan. Now, the Taliban are being targeted in the name of war on terror," said Ghulam Ahmad Bilour senior vice-president of the ANP.
The political analyst Afrasiab Khattak, who is also an acknowledged expert on Afghanistan affairs, told IPS that ideally the government should take the local population into confidence by engaging them in talks if it was serious about tackling militant activity in their midst.
"All the decisions regarding the war on terror are being taken by few individuals in Islamabad. People in NWFP and FATA are not taken into confidence, which is why the situation has come to such a sorry pass," Khattak said.