ISLAMABAD — Just how underfunded are Pakistan’s police?
- Police barricades in the city of Lahore carry the logo of the snack-food company, Tasty, that sponsors the local force. The police academy is brought to you in part by the U-Fone telecommunication company.
- New recruits are limited to 40 bullets on the firing range before they’re put on active duty — a quarter of what they need, says Mubashar Ullah, Lahore’s senior police superintendent.
- Even veteran cops often earn $200 a month — less than half as much as foot soldiers for the Taliban and other militant groups, according to Nasir Aftab, superintendent of police in western Islamabad.
The lack of money, abysmal morale and a high desertion rate help explain why Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents have recently been able to gain strength and grab territory from Pakistan’s government, say experts such as Hassan Abbas, a former police official who is a research fellow at Harvard University.
He calls the police one of the country’s “most poorly managed organizations,” even though they are often closer to the front lines in combating terrorism, and better at collecting intelligence, than their counterparts in Pakistan’s powerful — and much better-funded — military.
President Obama, who will meet Wednesday in Washington with his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, has cited improving Pakistan’s police as a top priority as security there deteriorates.
Police have repeatedly fled in the face of the Taliban’s advance to within 60 miles of the capital, a threat to the stability of Zardari’s government and the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. The Taliban has used its safe havens in Pakistan to launch attacks in neighboring Afghanistan, which it once controlled, causing a spike in deaths of U.S. and NATO troops there.
A bill put before Congress this week seeks to raise funding for Pakistan’s police to as much as $100 million a year, largely to create an elite anti-terrorism force. U.S.-sponsored police training programs have recently expanded from the tribal areas along the Afghan border to the entire North West Frontier province, says Gerald Feierstein, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.
Security for police
Foremost among the challenges: convincing Pakistan’s police that they can protect themselves, much less other people. On average, 400 Pakistani police officers have died every year since 2005 in terrorist attacks, Abbas wrote in a report last month for the Michigan-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
When militant leader Maulana Fazullah told police in the northern region of Swat to leave their jobs or face Taliban retribution, 700 of 1,700 officers fled their posts, the report said.
“We were never bothered before about our security,” says Aftab, the superintendent. “If we’re not secure, we cannot provide security to anybody.”
Muhammad Idris, a police cadet, was drilling on his academy’s grounds last month when he thought he heard a tire burst. Then the sounds grew clear — gunfire and explosions. Taliban militants had scaled the undefended walls and were blasting rifles and lobbing grenades at the unarmed recruits.
“We were terrified,” says Idris, 22. Their instructors restored calm, ordering the young men to hit the ground and crawl out of the kill zone. Most of them made it. When the smoke cleared eight hours later — after elite commandos ended the siege — five recruits, two teachers, two bystanders and at least three militants were dead.
The attack came four weeks after militants gunned down six police officers during a raid on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team. “Pakistani police are the first victims,” says Pakistani politician Israr Shah, who lost both legs in a terrorist bombing in 2007. “The army people go into the barracks.”
The police have always languished in the shadows of the army, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half its 62-year lifespan. Until recently, the imbalance showed up in U.S. policy, too: In 2007, the United States spent $731 million supporting Pakistan’s army — and $4.9 million on its police.
Fears for family
Another problem eating at police morale has been the perception that their loved ones won’t be taken care of if tragedy strikes.
Safdar Hussein, a 37-year police veteran, was killed along with 16 other colleagues by a Taliban suicide bomber last year. His wife and eight kids have yet to get any of his pension, and they’ve received $6,250 in death benefits — about half what they were promised by the government, says Hussein’s son Nisar Safdar, 18.
The police can’t compete with the Taliban’s pay, benefits and weaponry. Hussein, for instance, earned $200 a month. Taliban foot soldiers earn $440 a month, Aftab says. And the families of Taliban “martyrs” typically collect $20,000 in death benefits. “They have more resources than we do,” Aftab says.
The police’s reputation is nearly as threadbare as its budget. The army traditionally delegated dirty work to the police, deploying them to crush political dissent, rig elections and even make “opponents disappear,” Robert Templer of the International Crisis Group think tank wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent watchdog group, has documented hundreds of cases of extra-judicial police killings over the years. Last year, the commission found, 289 people died in “encounters” with police; few are ever just wounded, commission researcher Najam U Din says. Frustrated with an inefficient court system that often lets suspects get away, police are tempted to impose death sentences themselves, Din says.
Abusive police may feed the insurgency instead of defeating it. “The police and other government institutions are creating the Taliban due to their injustice,” says social worker Muhammad Tahseen, who represents a family he says was harassed by the police. “When you close all the doors, where will people go?”
There are signs of improvement. Bloodied by the militant offensive, the police seem to be winning some sympathy from the public. A poll of 3,500 Pakistanis last October by the non-partisan International Republican Institute found that public approval of the police had risen to 42% from 13% a year before.
Ordinary Pakistanis have left flowers at the site where officers were killed defending the Sri Lankan cricket team. “I’ve seen people on buses give up their seats to the police,” Din says.
The provinces of Punjab, Sindh and the North West Frontier have recently announced big increases in police pay. Ordinary Islamabad police officers saw their pay go up 150% to $250 a month.
“The government is getting us good pay,” says Ullah, the superintendent. “So we should take responsibility and give back good results.”