x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Rising violence threatens Peshawar

Concern grows as officials say Pakistani authorities fail to react quickly to militants' pinprick attacks.

A man walks past lorries loaded with supplies for US and Nato forces in Peshawar yesterday.
A man walks past lorries loaded with supplies for US and Nato forces in Peshawar yesterday.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's frontier city of Peshawar has recently been beset by militant violence. Peshawar, the capital of the troubled North West Frontier Province (NWFP), is a key garrison town from where Pakistan and the West monitor the volatile Afghan-Pakistan border. It is one of the hubs from where the Pakistan military has launched attacks against Taliban militants in the province and adjoining tribal areas.

The United States has also used the city as a platform to embark on development plans to counter the "Talibanisation" of the region. The security of this strategic city has been seriously challenged and Pakistanis are asking how, despite ongoing military operations, conditions in the provincial capital and surrounding areas have worsened. On Aug 26, the vehicle of Lynn Tracy, the principal officer at the US Consulate in Peshawar, was fired at in the city's University Town. She survived the attack.

In September, Abdul Khaliq Farahi, the Afghan ambassador-designate to Pakistan, was abducted from the city's Hayatabad district. Last week, an American aid worker with a US Agency for International Development-funded project in the tribal region was shot dead along with his driver in University Town. The next day militants kidnapped an Iranian diplomat after killing his police escort in Hayatabad.

On Friday, a Japanese and an Afghan journalist were wounded in a militant firing on the outskirts of the city. Last week, militants also looted military supplies intended for coalition forces in Afghanistan at Jamrud in the Khyber tribal region, neighbouring Peshawar. The World Food Programme (WFP) has complained that 900 tonnes of food and oil supplies for the poor in Afghanistan and Pakistan worth US$1 million (Dh3.673m) have been looted, mostly in the NWFP.

A spate of bloody suicide attacks on security forces has continued. Khalid Aziz, a former chief secretary of the province and tribal areas, said the militants had responded to military operations by "launching pinprick attacks" in Peshawar to "pull the military from the frontline". Mr Aziz, whom the NWFP's ruling Awami National Party (ANP) commissioned to draw up a comprehensive security plan for the government, said the authorities had failed to respond quickly enough to the militants' change in tactics.

"Unfortunately I do not see any action on the security plan. For example, enhancing police capacity to deal with armed militants is happening in a sporadic, piecemeal fashion." Zahid Khan, a spokesman for the ANP government, responded to the criticism by saying "militants, religious parties and some [intelligence] agencies do not want peace here and are working against us. "We only have the police at our disposal and it will take some time for more people to join the government against the militants."

Situated in a broad, open valley, the city is surrounded on two sides by the arid, rocky mountains of Pakistan's tribal areas. It has a population of more than 2.5 million people in addition to about 1.7 million Afghan refugees. Last week, militants launched rocket attacks on the city's international airport, striking near the runway and hitting an outlying building. Shoot-outs between the Taliban and police and pro-government militias in the city's suburbs are frequent.

Local journalists have reported the appearance of Taliban members in the city's markets, causing further concern to its inhabitants who worry that the militants' influence is spreading to the heart of Peshawar. The army has launched operations in towns between the city and the tribal areas, such as Charsadda. Major Gen Athar Abbas, the army spokesman, said the military was aiming to get to the root of militancy by focusing on Taliban strongholds in tribal areas close to the city. "We want to hit the root cause, where the militancy is coming from. Hence the operations in Bajaur and Darra Adam Khel. But certainly we need to improve checkpoints on roads into the city," he said.

Malik Naveed, NWFP's police chief, said his force was "underfunded and ill-equipped". He said he urgently needed armoured personnel carriers, helicopters and better weaponry to take on the militants. "We are dealing with an international problem. We need help from the international community to finance our operations." Gen Hamid Nawaz, a security expert, said Peshawar was besieged from all sides by the militants but had a "very defective system of security".

He would like a joint security set-up mixing army and the police in order to combat militancy. Ismail Khan, a Peshawar-based journalist and an expert on militancy, said from January to last week, there had been 124 reported cases of kidnapping in the province, including 60 for ransom. Mr Khan said a nexus between criminals and militants created the need for good intelligence at a time when the criminal investigation department, "which once served as the bulwark against organised criminal networks, has lost its direction due to years of neglect".

Referring to increasingly frequent US missile attacks on Pakistani soil, a senior civil servant from Peshawar, who has responsibility for security in the tribal areas, said, "I have told American officials 'We have seen your bombs, now let us see some funds to tackle militancy and develop these poor areas'." iwilkinson@thenational.ae