How death stalks policemen in Quetta

Published 25 Apr, 2018 06:37pm
The aftermath of a suicide blast that hit a police vehicle in Quetta on October 18, 2017 | Banaras Khan, AFP
The aftermath of a suicide blast that hit a police vehicle in Quetta on October 18, 2017 | Banaras Khan, AFP

Qazi Abdul Wahid was leading a police team on April 23, 2012, on a search operation in a neighbourhood on Kirani Road in the eastern part of Quetta. Before they reached their target, a hail of bullets hit their vehicle. They returned fire and killed two unidentified assailants.

The next day, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), an outlawed anti-Shia militant organisation, announced that one of those killed had been its Quetta spokesman, Ali Murad alias Hafiz Wazir alias Ali Sher Haideri. That was when Wahid, who was working as deputy inspector general (DIG) of the police’s operations wing at the time, realised how serious the consequences could be for him. One of his friends, DIG Hamid Shakeel, would reveal in a 2016 interview that Wahid approached some LeJ leaders, seeking forgiveness for the killing and asking them not to retaliate. They reportedly assured him that he should have no fear.

Their assurance turned out to be bogus, says a senior police officer in Quetta in February this year. Soon, LeJ terrorists started targeting policemen in the city, labelling them as murtad (apostates). In the eight months following the shooting, 30 policemen, including a superintendent of police (SP), were killed in targeted attacks. The number of policemen killed in similar attacks in the four months prior to the encounter was four.

The dread created by these killings was so intense that Ameer Muhammad Dasti, who was the station house officer (SHO) of Brewery police station at the time of the shoot-out and also a part of the police party that carried it out, had himself transferred to Islamabad. The terrorists waited for a whole year for his return to Quetta and killed him in April 2013 after he came back to the city to work as a deputy superintendent of police (DSP).

Another 23 police personnel also lost their lives in terrorist attacks that year. Out of these, 21 were killed in a single suicide bombing on August 8 at the funeral of an SHO who was killed in a targeted attack earlier the same day. A DIG, an SP and three DSPs were among those slain. The then Inspector General (IG) Balochistan Mushtaq Sukhera narrowly escaped an attempt on his life the same year when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside his official residence on Quetta’s Zarghoon Road.

There are reports that some Baloch militant organisations are also working in tandem with anti-Shia and religious militant organisations.

Two years later, Wahid was also killed. The terrorists attacked him in September that year after he had retired from service. Hamid Shakeel, the officer who had revealed contacts between Wahid and LeJ and also the planner and leader of many operations against sectarian and religious terrorists, was among their latest targets. He was killed on November 9, 2017, in a targeted suicide hit near his home in Quetta. He was working as additional inspector general of the provincial police’s telecommunications wing at the time of his assassination.

Another officer targeted recently was Hameedullah Dasti, a DSP in Quetta and the brother of slain DSP Ameer Muhammad Dasti. He was ambushed on February 28 this year while riding in his official vehicle.

There have been more than 100 targeted attacks on police officials in Quetta since 2013, according to Aitzaz Goraya, DIG of the counterterrorism department of Balochistan’s police. In 37 of these incidents, police officials were attacked near their houses; lone policemen were hit in 38 attacks while they were either travelling or performing their duties and in 26 incidents the victims were off-duty.

Militants seem to either specifically target officers who have been pursuing operations against them or they launch counter-attacks immediately after a senior militant commander is arrested or killed. When LeJ chief Usman Saifullah Kurd was murdered in an encounter with law enforcement agencies in Quetta on February 15, 2015, attacks against police officials surged. In 2016 alone, 92 were murdered, including cadets of the Police Training College Quetta.

This year, too, terrorists killed a traffic sergeant in Quetta a day after the police had killed four members of a banned militant organisation during a raid in Chaman near the Pak-Afghan border on March 6. A day later, six alleged terrorists of an outlawed organisation were arrested in Mastung. In retaliation, militants killed another traffic constable in Quetta’s Gawalmandi Chowk on March 8.

Data collected from newspapers suggests that Ali Murad’s killing six years ago was also followed by an increase in terrorist attacks on Shia Hazaras living in Quetta. In fact, Abu Bakar Siddiq, who replaced Murad as the LeJ spokesman in 2012, warned Hazaras to leave Balochistan before the end of that year or face extermination. Leaflets carrying the warning were delivered and pasted inside Hazara neighbourhoods. The next year saw over 200 Hazaras killed in various suicide bombings and targeted gun attacks.

Another reason for the spike in anti-Hazara attacks (which have decreased in recent months) and the assassination of policemen in Balochistan (which has increased lately) is that many militant organisations linked to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) shifted their bases after the Peshawar school attack in December 2014 from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to Pakhtun-dominated districts of the province — Zhob, Chaman and Killa Abdullah, all adjacent to the Pak-Afghan border.

Around the same time, many terrorist organisations operating in Quetta also started shifting their networks to these districts. After the killing of Kurd in 2015, the entire organisational network of LeJ was moved out of the city, says a senior police officer, requesting anonymity. This move allowed militants relatively more freedom to plan and organise their activities, he reveals.

Tariq Khosa believes the state’s own policies are to be blamed for violence in Balochistan. He worked as the Balochistan police chief in mid-2000 and later served as the head of the Federal Investigation Agency and, thus, has an insider’s view of how state policies work. He says he does not understand why our state backed private militias, headed by people like Shafiq Mengal, who was later found to be involved in attacks against his tribal enemies as well as Shias. “The decision to use Shafiq as a proxy against certain Baloch separatist organisations allowed proscribed sectarian organisations to regroup in and around Quetta where sectarian violence had died down after the arrest of two of their hardcore members – Usman Saifullah Kurd and Dawood Badini – in 2006 and 2003 respectively,” he says.

On January 15, 2008, Kurd and Badini managed to escape from a high security prison manned by the antiterrorism force inside Quetta’s heavily guarded cantonment area. It was around the same time that Mengal entrenched himself as a militia leader in his native Khuzdar district.

The second policy decision that Khosa is critical of pertains to the police’s jurisdiction in Balochistan. Under Ordinance II 1968 – also known as the Jirga Law – the province was divided into ‘A’ and ‘B’ areas. The police were given the authority to work within the former areas whereas the latter were given to the Balochistan Levies, a force recruited from local tribesmen in each district. This force followed local laws and customary practices to maintain law and order.

This system existed till 2003 when the federal cabinet decided to bring the entire province under police jurisdiction in gradual steps. At the time, only 83 police stations were working under IG Police Balochistan, covering only 1,366 square kilometres (equivalent to a little more than one-third of Karachi’s area). The Levies, on the other hand, had 320 police stations, supervised by assistant commissioners and district commissioners in their respective areas. These included most districts surrounding Quetta and were stretched over 327,843 square kilometres.

A police officer examines a vehicle attacked by a suicide bomber in Quetta in November 2017 | Arshad Butt, AP
A police officer examines a vehicle attacked by a suicide bomber in Quetta in November 2017 | Arshad Butt, AP

When Khosa left Balochistan, all 30 districts in the province were ‘A’ areas. The government that came into power in 2008 reversed the decision and all erstwhile ‘B’ areas were again given to the Levies. This paved the way for religious and sectarian militants to stage a comeback, Khosa says, because customary practices and local laws often protected them from arrests and prosecution due to their local and tribal connections.

Khosa also highlights various other shortcomings in the functioning of the police in Balochistan. There is no capacity to build and train policemen to prepare them for the continuously changing security challenges in the province, he says. Such preparedness, in his opinion, is one of the main reasons why the police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have been able to sustain their gains in the fight against terrorism.

There is also no unity of command in the maintenance of law and order in Balochistan. The police, the Levies and the army’s Frontier Corps (FC) all operate in the province at the same time but follow their own respective chains of command. The FC is not answerable to the civilian administration and no institutional framework is available to the police to benefit from the intelligence network of the armed forces.

Perhaps aware of these challenges, the provincial government started a programme in 2013 to strengthen the police’s antiterrorism force, a special squad dedicated to carrying out operations against militants — at least on paper. The initiative has failed to achieve its objective mainly because most of its officials are deployed to provide security to provincial ministers and other important personalities. The task of fighting terrorism is still left to the local police.

A task that they are ill-placed to handle, according to Khosa.

Security challenges in Quetta and elsewhere in Balochistan, he says, are not ordinary law and order problems that police can handle on their own. These challenges are rooted in not only the geostrategic importance of the province but are also linked to development projects carried out under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, he says.

Additionally, he explains, terrorist organisations operating in Balochistan now have their camps in Afghanistan in areas not far from Pakistan’s border. (In the past, these camps were deep inside Afghan territory.) The number of these camps has also increased, he says.

Goraya confirms that terrorist organisations are running their camps in Afghan areas close to the Pakistan border. The Afghan government has no writ in these areas, he says. Suicide bombers and hitmen targeting the police are sent to Balochistan from across the border, he says, and they collaborate with local handlers to carry out their terrorist activities.

A recent video confession of two suspects, Mahmood Achakzai and Salim Achakzai, arrested for their involvement in a suicide attack on District Police Officer Killa Abdullah Sajid Khan Mohmand, lends credence to reports about these links. The officer was hit by a suicide bomber riding a motorcycle at Eidgah Chowk in Chaman city on July 10, 2017. The TTP immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in which Mohmand was killed and 10 other people, mostly policemen, were injured. The arrested suspects can be heard in the video admitting that they provided shelter to the suicide bomber who was dispatched from an Afghan border town, Spin Boldak.

This dangerous situation has been made worse by the presence of militant groups affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) in areas along the Pak-Afghan border. They often operate in close collaboration with anti-Shia organisations such as LeJ. “IS, TTP, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and LeJ now work in such close coordination that it is hard to differentiate who is doing what,” says Goraya. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar or the TTP have claimed responsibility for several attacks carried out by LeJ operatives, he says.

There are reports that some Baloch militant organisations are also working in tandem with anti-Shia and religious militant organisations.

Without support from security and intelligence agencies and in the absence of specialised training and appropriate resources, local police can never tackle these challenges.

Khosa believes the mainstreaming of Baloch separatist groups could be a helpful step to tackle this regional and international nexus of terrorism at work in Balochistan. The National Action Plan against extremism and terrorism, he says, has advocated for this mainstreaming by initiating a political dialogue with Baloch militants. But the failure to do so, in his opinion, is owed to the fact that civilian authorities and the military establishment have different policy visions for Balochistan. “The multipronged security challenges the province is facing requires the top civil and military officials to be on the same page. Otherwise, it is not possible to handle security challenges in Balochistan,” he says.

DIG Quetta Abdul Razzak Cheema at a press conference | Adnan Ahmed, INP
DIG Quetta Abdul Razzak Cheema at a press conference | Adnan Ahmed, INP

Goraya offers a different cure. The best way forward to fight terrorism in Balochistan, in his opinion, is to have a strict monitoring of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan so that militants cannot cross it at will. Illegal border crossing is so frequent and happens at so many points that the police cannot stop it. Even through legal channels, thousands of Afghans cross into Pakistan every month. Anyone interested in knowing the scale of their arrivals must visit the scores of private hospitals and clinics along Quetta’s Patel Road that cater to hundreds of patients from Afghanistan every day.

Afghans usually do not need a passport to travel to Quetta. The only document they require is a tazkira, a handwritten Afghan identity card. Considering that the writ of the Afghan government remains weak beyond Kabul, forging tazkiras seems both easy and rampant.

Balochistan is also host to hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees. There are possibilities that terrorists are finding help from some of the refugees, says a senior police officer in Quetta.

The counterterrorism department does not have the wherewithal to keep an eye on all these Afghans in Quetta. It also does not have sufficient intelligence mechanisms to predict and pre-empt terrorist strikes, says a senior counter terrorism officer in Quetta, preferring to remain anonymous. Its officials mostly report a terrorist incident after it has happened. “They do not have the training and equipment to collect evidence from sites of terrorist attacks,” he says.

Goraya admits his department is under-equipped and understaffed — it has only 200 employees and many of them are office and administration workers. But, he says, the recruitment of 550 more officials is in the process and the provincial government has approved many more recruitments to be made this year. The department’s strength will be raised to 1,500 by the end of 2018, he adds.

Provincial police authorities appear to be treating terrorist strikes against policemen as a fait accompli. They are working on improving a financial assistance package given to the families of slain and injured officials rather than on increasing their strength and raising their level of preparedness.

Compensation for murdered police officials was decided on a case-by-case basis till 2013 when the provincial government devised its maiden policy in this regard, fixing a rank-wise monetary compensation and other emoluments. A couple of months ago, the office of IG Balochistan sent a summary to the chief minister, proposing a hundred per cent increase in this compensation.

There, however, is no official move in sight to provide training and equipment to policemen. “They get on-the-job training when they fight terrorists on the roads and streets,” is how DIG Quetta Abdul Razzak Cheema describes the situation.

He candidly says terrorists have far superior weapons and technology than the policemen under him have. But resources or no resources, he says, “we have to provide security to the city”. So, despite having lost many of their colleagues in attacks on the city’s streets, “police officials are performing their duties on the same streets”.

The writer is a staffer at the Herald.

This was originally published in Herald's April 2018 issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.