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Shadow over Pakistan security grows

pkpatriotic

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Shadow over Pakistan security grows
By ASIF SHAHZAD and SEBASTIAN ABBOT
The Associated Press
Wednesday, January 12, 2011


RAWALPINDI, Pakistan -- The police guard who confessed to gunning down a Pakistani governor had been assigned to the president and prime minister 18 times over the last three years and to two foreign delegations, according to police reports that also cast suspicion on four other elite bodyguards who could "take terrorist action anytime."

The documents, obtained by The Associated Press, highlight the danger of extremist infiltration into the security forces of the unstable, nuclear-armed country. The police force, which helps form the front line in the war against Taliban and al-Qaida militants, is seen as being especially at risk.

"There is no psychological or personality test, or any other method to check on the background of personnel," a former police chief of Punjab province, Khwaja Khalid Farooq, told the AP. "It is dangerous to give someone a gun and power without putting them through a good system of recruitment and training."

U.S. officials have long worried about the loyalty of Pakistan's security forces, especially the powerful army, given historical ties to Islamist militants fighting in Afghanistan and Indian-held Kashmir. The army is better than the police at weeding out radicals, according to analysts, but current and former military officers have participated in attacks in recent years.

Concern about infiltration spiked last week with the assassination of Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer by bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri. The 26-year-old said he killed the governor, an outspoken liberal, because of his criticism of laws that mandate the death penalty for insulting Islam.

"I think it's a problem that cannot now be ignored because there has been a manifestation of it in a very dangerous way," said Talat Masood, an analyst and former Pakistani general.

Moderates were also shocked to see tens of thousands of Qadri sympathizers marching through the streets.

The process that preceded Qadri's assignment to the U.S.-trained elite police force used to protect high-ranking officials and target terrorists indicates how dysfunctional law enforcement agencies are in detecting extremists.

Qadri was declared "not suitable for any sensitive security duty" in 2004, along with 10 other policemen who were found to be connected to different sectarian organizations, according to a police document seen by the AP.

That one-time review was prompted by a series of assassination attempts against then-President Pervez Musharraf, which officials suspected may have been abetted by security officials, said Farooq, the former police chief.

Despite the red flag, Qadri transferred to Pakistan's elite police force in 2008 and was assigned to protect the president and prime minister multiple times, as well as the interior minister, main opposition leader, supreme court chief justice and two foreign delegations, according to another police report.

The foreign delegations were not identified. On Wednesday, scores of Pakistani security personnel lined Vice President Joe Biden's route during his visit to Islamabad, a standard practice when foreign dignitaries visit the capital.

Qadri was assigned to protect Taseer 10 times before riddling him with gunfire outside a market in Islamabad on Jan. 4. A police document dated six days later recommended the firing of four other commandos who were suspected of having extremist sympathies. It said the men, named by Qadri, "have some extreme/religious trends and can possibly take terrorist action anytime in future."

Authorities also demanded that the head of the police unit protecting high-ranking officials thoroughly screen all his officers for potential radicals. But the unit's head, Khalid Masood, said he lacks the means to comply.

"We do not know who is who and who has what background," Masood told the AP.

The challenges of implementing an effective vetting system throughout the police force are extremely high, said Akbar Nasir Khan, who recently served as the police chief in the central Pakistani city of Mianwali and is now pursuing a master's degree in public policy at Harvard University.

Critics say Pakistan's police force is notoriously corrupt and lacking in resources, and hiring and firing often is determined by political influence. It is also hard to distinguish the extremists from other officers who are simply conservative Muslims.

"There is no test that can tell you how you can separate the two," said Khan. "If you fire people unjustly, you will send them straight into the hands of the radicals, and they know the ins and outs of the security services."

The army does a better job of screening because it is much more professional and conducts regular psychological examinations of its officers, said Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistan expert at the U.S.-based Atlantic Council.

"The military tends to have more oversight on whom it hires, how it processes them and what positions they are cleared for," said Nawaz.

But the system isn't foolproof. Faisal Shahzad, the young Pakistani-American who tried to blow up a car in New York City's Times Square last year, allegedly was in contact with a major in the Pakistani military. In 2009, Pakistani army headquarters in Rawalpindi was attacked by 10 men in military uniforms who were reportedly led by a former army soldier.

The army declined to discuss in detail how it vets its soldiers. But it is impossible to insulate the force fully from the radical influences that exist within Pakistani society.

"The army is an extension of society, so what happens in society affects the army," army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told the AP.

The biggest fear in the U.S. is infiltration of Pakistan's nuclear program to steal materials for a terrorist weapon, according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks last year.

The program is governed by a "reasonably robust" multilayered security system that involves scrutiny of individuals' backgrounds and beliefs, said Nawaz, the analyst.

But no system is 100 percent effective. Khan, the former police chief, said the government cannot expect either the army or the police to filter out extremists unless it toughens its own stand. It condemned Taseer's murder but not his killer's supporters, fearing it would anger the increasingly powerful religious forces.

"The government wants to purge radicals from the security services, but is not trying to purge society of radicals," said Khan.
 

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