The elite Peshawar bomb squad has defused more than 5,000 devices since 2009, from child suicide bombers to big lorries packed with explosives. But it is underfunded and forced to use low-cost, improvised and dangerous equipment.
Pakistan’s Hurt Locker team lacks money and men
PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN // A technician from Pakistan’s top bomb disposal unit packed some ageing detonator cord confiscated from the Taliban into a plastic water bottle and reached for a roll of sticky tape.
With his low-cost, improvised – and extremely dangerous – device he demonstrated how he destroys militant bombs, but also revealed desperate shortages of money and equipment for bomb disposal experts.
Twelve years into the war on militancy, Pakistan’s police are chronically underfunded. This year’s federal budget gave the military about US$6 billion (22bn) and the police $686 million, a lopsided allocation mirrored in the disbursement of foreign aid.
While the United States has given Pakistan about $30 billion since 2001, the police have got a tiny fraction compared with the military. A little of that reached the country’s top police bomb disposal unit in Peshawar, which has been a target of the militants time and again.
The city’s bomb squad has defused more than 5,000 devices since 2009, from child suicide bombers to big lorries packed with explosives. Shafqat Malik has led the unit for four years.
“When I joined, we just had a few wire clippers,” Mr Malik said as he patted a panting Labrador, one of the unit’s sniffer dogs.
Technicians would poke at bombs with six-foot-long sticks to try to defuse them, he said.
Now, Mr Malik’s unit has 10 sniffer dogs, 20 bomb-disposal suits and four remote-controlled bomb-disposal robots from Britain. The United States donated vehicles and investigative kits. Both countries have trained Pakistani officers.
But it doesn’t stretch far. Two of Pakistan’s four provinces suffer almost daily bombings. District-level bomb units have little training and almost no equipment.
Shortages mean members of Mr Malik’s squad often fall back on improvised equipment or material seized from the Taliban, although it is often old or unstable.
Must be a madman
Between defusing bombs, Mr Malik’s 38-man squad is supposed to secure VIPs, the courts, churches, police headquarters, government offices and airports, any rallies or high-profile funerals and foreign missions. They also investigate blasts, testify in court and train new officers.
During the week, Mr Malik sleeps in his office, underneath a Keep Calm and Carry On poster from friends at Scotland Yard. A flamboyant figure often in the news, he is frequently filmed standing in plain clothes next to officers defusing bombs in protective suits.
“It helps calm them down,” he said, grinning. When one officer defused a boy wearing a suicide-bomb vest, Mr Malik rushed over to embrace the child. The press thought he was hugging the 12-year-old, Mr Malik said, but he was actually searching for the trigger wire the nervous technician had forgotten to cut.
His officers have intercepted bombs smuggled into courts in computers and bombs mailed to senior policemen in diaries. But hundreds are missed. At least 139 people were killed in Peshawar over a recent eight-day spell, in attacks on a market, a bus and a church.
The squad’s main problem is that they only get basic police salaries and there is no structure for promotion. Without danger pay to entice more men to train as bomb technicians, 70 per cent of 130 positions are vacant. The job is dangerous: a dozen men have been killed in the past five years.
They are hard to replace. Mr Malik says bomb technicians need 10 years of policing, rock-steady nerves and special training.
Nearly a quarter of his 38 men will hit 60 and retire next year. Others will leave for better positions. One man says he is resigning to work as a bomb disposal expert in Dubai, where salaries are better and the danger lower.
“We have zero budget,” said Mr Malik, watching a skinny policeman struggle into a heavy protective suit and stagger out during a demonstration. “You have to be a madman to do this job.”
The neglect of Peshawar’s shrinking bomb disposal unit reveals a wider problem: vital law enforcement agencies are starved of resources, training and responsibility.
Most money pours into the military, although a 2008 RAND think tank study, How Terrorist Groups End, found police action ended 40 per cent of 268 groups studied and military action accounted for seven per cent. Most of the rest ended in a deal.
But the police, often criticised as incompetent and corrupt, get a small fraction of foreign, mostly US, aid.
As a consequence, police are under-equipped and poorly trained. Most cannot secure a crime scene and often miss forensic evidence.
After a blast in a Peshawar suburb last year, police at the scene accepted residents’ explanation that a gas cylinder had gone off. But when Mr Malik arrived he found a single sliver of shrapnel from a mortar bomb.
He ordered a search. Police found 117 bombs under a pile of manure along with 65 kilograms of military-grade explosives. Untrained officers had missed the clue.
The government can only stamp out attacks if it invests in the police, said Samina Ahmed, head of the Islamabad office for the International Crisis Group think tank.
“The police have been starved of resources and authority for so long it’s not surprising they find it hard to do their job, even when they are allowed to,” she said.
The provincial government responsible for Peshawar said the police got $224 million this year, in addition to federal funds, and a spokesman said police would get whatever resources they needed. Authorities were discussing more sniffer dogs and even closed-circuit television cameras.
Despite such assurances, police say they have become demoralised since the new government was elected in May. Officials are deliberating over talks with the militants, leaving officers unsure of strategy.
Most disappointing of all, political leaders no longer attend funerals of senior policemen killed in the line of duty.
“In my mobile phone are two dozen people who are dead. I can’t delete them,” a policeman said. “These politicians can’t even be bothered to honour their deaths.”
But the bomb unit struggles on. After militants raided a jail in July and freed 250 prisoners, Mr Malik and his men defused 37 bombs and a suicide bomber the gunmen left behind.
“You know the Hurt Locker?” Mr Malik asked, referring to the Oscar-winning film about a US bomb technician. “It’s the Hurt Locker every day here.”