In Karachi, it’s ‘kill or be killed’ as police face Taliban and assassins
KARACHI // Whoever killed Mohammed Jamil, a police constable in a rough Karachi neighbourhood, was patient, persistent and after four attempts had little fear of being caught.
Last August, Jamil sat at a roadside juice stall on a congested street in the Qaidabad slum where he worked and lived. He was chatting with friends in the warm summer evening when an all-too-familiar Karachi scene played out: a motorcycle rider with a passenger on pillion stopped to spray Jamil in the back with bullets before speeding off.
“Yes, he was very careless and should not have been socialising on the street,” his brother, Iqbal, said last month, sitting in a one-room office across the street from where the murder by assassins sent by a local Taliban commander took place. “But for the police department, my brother’s life was not so important.”
Mohammed’s family, Iqbal said, were promised compensation by the provincial government, but so far have received none — a common complaint from families of the hundreds of Karachi police who have been killed over the past three years.
Ill-equipped and poorly trained, Karachi’s beleaguered police are being killed in record numbers since the operation began, even for this famously violent megacity. There is no real government plan to protect them, even though for two years they’ve been on the front line of a counterinsurgency war against Taliban militants who have expanded their influence in Karachi and gained de facto control of Pashtun neighbourhoods.
An unwelcome addition to the city’s already vast criminal ecosystem, these militants carry out frequent terrorist attacks that target both rank and file and senior police.
A police operation aided by paramilitary forces and national intelligence agencies was launched in September 2013 to reduce the violence wrought on Karachi — Pakistan’s commercial centre — by a patchwork of criminal and political gangs, sectarian assassins, and the Pakistani Taliban factions. In that year alone, 171 police officers were killed — the majority by suspected Taliban militants.
Last year, 142 died, including the infamous counter-terrorist cop, Chaudhry Aslam, in a Taliban suicide bombing. In 2012, 133 police were killed.
Although the figure decreased last year, the numbers are staggering, and would be considered a national emergency in any other country not fighting an all-out war.
And already this year, at least 16 officers have been killed, setting a worrying precedent for the next 11 months.
The ability of the police to tackle the problem is being severely hampered by a number of issues: from political favouritism and rampant corruption through the ranks to a failed courts system and low pay and morale, as well as poor training, a lack of funding and governmental neglect — not to mention that the city’s citizens often distrust and fear them.
The police are also direly undermanned, and attracting new recruits and retaining constables is made even more difficult with the killings. Karachi’s 26,504 officers police a city of over 20 million, or one officer for every 830 Karachiites — nearly triple the ratio of Delhi.
Police officials have ordered a number of minor tactical changes that are almost laughable given the scale of the threat. Some policemen have been moved from their homes in the most dangerous areas to military housing colonies, while all officers have been ordered not to wear their uniforms when travelling between home and work. They have also been ordered not to socialise in public, especially at roadside tea stalls and restaurants.
Bulletproof vests and helmets, as well as more armoured vehicles have been promised by the provincial Sindh government, but so far only a small number of elite units have received them.
“For the past year I hear that they’re in the pipeline, they’re coming, orders have been placed, money is in the account,” said one frustrated police official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But nothing in fact has been happening. We’re in a state of civil war almost, but our politicians don’t seem to realise it.”
Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and interior minister, visited Karachi on January 30, and met with the Sindh chief minister and Karachi’s police chief, Ghulam Qadir Thebo, to discuss the city’s law and order situation. Mr Sharif vowed that terrorism will soon be eliminated in Karachi, and also that extrajudicial killings will not be tolerated, according to local media reports. Without massive systemic reforms, both claims seem unlikely to materialise.
“They talk and talk but nothing is happening,” the official said. “Everyone is blaming someone else.”
The United States has given US$29 million (Dh106.5m) in training, vehicles and equipment to the Sindh police force since 2011, but the official said the specialised training rarely trickles down to low-level members and that resources are distributed along political lines.
“For example they gave us cars,” he said. “They all went to interior Sindh” to the small towns of powerful politicians “and some went to senior officers”.
Sohrab Goth — one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods for police in Karachi — is a Pashtun-majority slum where competing Taliban factions from the north-west tribal areas have a significant presence. In the past two years alone, more than 20 police officers have been killed here.
The area’s police station is staffed by only 27 officers, who oversee a population of about 400,000, while the only visible security is a military-style armoured vehicle, parked on the dirt road in front, and new security cameras attached to the building’s crumbling walls.
Inside, the officers on duty say the ongoing operation against militants in the area has given them hard-won, lasting victories, but a lack of resources and the constant threats against them have sapped morale.
All the police wore plain clothes, some with pistols tucked into their waistbands. “I bought my own guns and my own bullets because the guns we are given barely work,” said one constable.
The operation has allowed them to patrol the area for the past six months where before “we didn’t dare to leave the station”, according to another officer. But despite this, the building has still been attacked with grenades and gunfire in recent months several times over the past year.
“I get threatening calls on my mobile from people saying they know where I live, where my children study,” the officer said.
With only a 28 per cent conviction rate in regular courts — and only a slightly better 30 per cent in antiterrorism courts, the police have little trust in the judicial system, and say that many police and witnesses have been murdered before trials take place.
It is for this reason, many officers claim, that police would rather engage in the extrajudicial killing of suspects — known as “encounters” — than hand them over to the courts.
Last year, 594 criminal and militant suspects were killed by police and paramilitary Rangers as part of the ongoing operation, according to data compiled by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Asad Butt, one of the commission’s chairpersons, said that many innocent people — the majority working-class Pushtuns — have also been killed. “When those responsible for saving lives kill and torture, the system has failed,” he said.
Police officials admit that their men are responsible for some of these deaths, but claim that most suspects were tortured and interrogated by the intelligence agencies and then handed over to counter-terrorist police to be killed.
Karachi’s Senior Supervisor of Police Rao Anwar, an officer famous for killing Taliban militants, proudly posts photos of dead and bloodied suspects splayed on the ground after encounter operations. In an interview at his office, Mr Anwar said the intelligence agencies only pass along information on the whereabouts of suspected militants and potential terrorist attacks to the police.
The question of where responsibility lies for these extrajudicial deaths is ultimately irrelevant for the station-level police who are often targeted randomly by militants and gangsters whose comrades have been killed.
“Our motivation is kill or be killed,” one of the Sohrab Goth police officers said. “Nothing more.”