Monday, November 30, 2009

Police return to former Taliban haven

Police are once again visible on the streets of Mingora, the main town in Pakistan's Swat valley. Just months ago many had been driven out of their jobs by Taliban militants.

But things changed after Swat became the centre of a major three-month military offensive to drive the insurgents from their regional stronghold.

And as Pakistan's army continues its offensive against militants elsewhere in South Waziristan, a certain kind of normality is returning to the Swat valley.

On the surface everything looks as it should.

But an AK-47 draped over the shoulder of a traffic warden shows that things are not yet completely safe.

The police have been the main target of the Taliban in this area for years. The latest attack on police recruits in neighbouring Shangla district in October killed about 45 people.

Restoring calm

But the area has moved on some way from a few months ago when people were forced to flee the intense fighting between the Taliban and government forces.

The authorities say they are now in control of the region and they are trying to rebuild a seriously depleted police force.

To avoid being attacked, some officers had even placed advertisements in local newspapers publicising the fact that they no longer were associated with the police.

Many who stayed refused to wear trousers for fear of being targeted by the Taliban for being in western dress.

But the offensive against the militants has now created opportunities for the police to return - and with some confidence.

"Our morale is definitely improving. We're getting what we need in terms of finances and weapons," Swat's district police officer Qazi Ghulam Farooq says.

But he warns more has to be done.

"We have made some additional demands such as the provision of armoured personal carriers for each police station. This will further make us stand on our own two feet."

Taking control

In his office is a framed certificate of appreciation from the government, a clear signal that boosting morale in this region is the main focus of the authorities.

Out on the streets there also visible signs that the government has invested in improving security.

Police stations are now fortified by strong walls, barbed wire and blockades.

Nine old and five newly established police stations are now functional and the authorities have set up four new police sub-divisional offices to restore peace in the valley.

Mingora was the scene of intense fighting but is now calm
Outside the District Police Officers office, a dozen youngsters were queuing up to join the police - an encouraging sign.

Initially there were not enough applicants, so the department had to re-advertise for recruits.

But Qazi Farooq says the shortfall was because the police changed the criteria that new recruits had to meet.

Some of these new recruits, mostly in their early 20s, seem undeterred by the fact that they are choosing a dangerous career.

Take for example Abdus Sattar, who asks the question - if young people like him don't join up to bring peace then who will?

Unemployment is high in the region and he admits that "'yes, unemployment was a factor, but with this job I am able to manage my finances.

"The real issue though is peace and for that someone has to come forward," he adds.

The youths are not the only ones who are volunteering; retired soldiers are also being re-employed.

"We received five platoons of retired army officers a few days back," exclaims a delighted Qazi Farooq.

Taliban revenge

The Taliban though have not completely gone away.

October's blast targeting a security convoy occurred in Shangla - an area previously thought to be clear of militants.

The Taliban have vowed to avenge the killing of Pakistan's Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud and to retaliate against the current offensive in South Waziristan.

The Taliban leader in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, had earlier issued a message to the media warning people not to join government departments that do not adhere to Sharia or Islamic law.

He also said "those already in government service should also reconsider their options".

The army are also patrolling the streets of Mingora
On the streets of Mingora, residents who endured years of Taliban rule say they are happy to see the police back on duty.

"It is a reassuring sight," says one local shopper Zahid Khan.

"But I don't know whether they have the ability to stop the Taliban from resurfacing or not. I hope they do have it."

The government seems determined not to let the region fall back into the hands of the Taliban.

Several important installations which were once controlled by the militants are now being manned by the military, who can also be seen patrolling the streets.

However many people here think it will take a long time and a lot of investment before the police can really operate independently with strength and effectiveness.

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