Pakistan considers anti-Taliban militias
By Jill McGivering
BBC News, Mianwali
Mianwali in Pakistan’s western Punjab lies in the shadow of rugged mountains. On the other side of the range lies the North West Frontier Province where the army is engaged in a bloody offensive against the Taliban.
In the last few months, that militancy has crept into Mianwali – with shootings and bomb attacks and the arrest of several suspected militants, including a would-be suicide bomber. The local police force is struggling to face the new challenge. It was already understaffed and its officers were trained to fight crime, not to cope with an insurgency. They are also ill-equipped to match a force which uses rocket launchers, suicide jackets and improvised bombs. Akbar Nassir Khan, the district police officer, looks exhausted.
He is trying to fill the gap by exploring new ideas, including setting up a special police force. It would be made up of local people – but with the same powers as the police. Their main role would be to help with anti-terrorist activities. These recruits would be issued guns licensed by the government and authorised to use them in pursuing suspected militants. “Their prime task is anti-terrorist action,” he explained. “Giving them guns is a message of trust, that we know that you are with us, that you are patriots and you are able to defend yourself till the time we come to you.” Spreading the wordI asked what the legal status of these civilians would be if they killed someone with their government-issue guns.
“If that [person] is an outlaw and they’re doing it in the line of duty,” he said, “they will have the same protection as a police officer does have if his own life is threatened.” The new plan is in its infancy and needs government approval – but there is provision for it in Pakistan’s constitution. There is no doubt the security forces need public support in tackling this massive new problem of creeping militancy. I attended one outreach meeting in Mianwali at which religious leaders and police officials tried to spread their core message: • The Taliban are agents of destruction • The state represents law and order • Security is everyone’s responsibility. The whole idea of civilians wielding guns raises some troubling concerns. “It’s a very, very problematic idea,” said Ali Hassan, senior South Asia researcher for the US-based organisation Human Rights Watch. “On the one hand, the government can raise any kind of armed force provided it has the mandate of the state – and it operates under legal authority and safeguards,” he says. “But there is a problem with the idea of government-backed vigilante groups, as the Taliban once were. That’s in contravention of international law and not something to be encouraged.” Battling for survivalElsewhere, some local people want to join the fight without authorisation, using their own weapons.
Mohammed Ajmal Khan and his extended family of 30 people fled from Swat in NWFP when the Taliban came. Now he is planning to go back and fight. “I’ll move with the army on the ground,” he said. “If the army opens fire, we’ll also fight with the army, shoulder to shoulder.” I asked him if he thought some people might use the general lawlessness as an opportunity to settle old scores as well. “Yes,” he said. “There will be some things that happen like that. But it’s part of our traditions, our culture. It’s not that big an issue.” The state is battling for its life and, to keep public confidence, it must prove it can maintain security. But handing out guns to civilians and inviting them to join in does raises serious concerns, both about the nature of justice and about the possibility of fuelling the violence, instead of ending it.