Night Patrol

Pakistani civilians stand up to the Taliban.

BUDABER, Pakistan—It’s time for duty in Budaber—a town about seven and a half miles from Peshawar’s posh Cantt district, which is home to millionaires and generals. As night falls and the clock strikes 9, Daud Khan, a lanky 26-year-old with a shy smile, gets busy. He pulls his AK-47 from under the bed and gives it a five-minute inspection, rubbing a smudgy spot with a cloth and adjusting the strap so the gun comfortably hangs from his shoulder. His mother brings out his shoes and places them near the bed, while his father looks up from his newspaper to urge his youngest son to be careful.

A chilly wind blows through the street as I step out with Khan. Outside I see dozens of men, all with guns hanging from their shoulders or pistols snuck into their shalwars. As is the custom in Peshawar, they avoid eye contact with me, since men here believe it’s disrespectful to look a woman in the eye, preferring to address Khan as they discuss the route they plan to take tonight.

Khan and his neighbors are part of a civilian patrol, one of a dozen such initiatives that have sprung up in Peshawar and its surrounding areas to combat the growing Taliban threat. These patrols are trying to achieve what U.S. special forces, Pakistan’s highly trained army, and the province’s underequipped police force have been unable to do: restore a sense of security to the restive North-West Frontier Province, which rubs shoulders with Afghanistan on one side and the tribal regions of Pakistan on the other.

Every night, each of the houses in Budaber, a town of around 1,000 families, volunteers one man to participate in these patrols. They congregate on the street around 9 p.m., divide themselves into groups, and patrol till at least 3 a.m. For many hours, the only sounds on the streets are the thud of heavy boots and the hum of the men’s conversations.

Khan and his friends were inspired to form these patrols after their hometown was targeted by militants in August 2008, when the public girl’s high school in Budaber was attacked. Insurgents planted explosives in the school building, which housed almost 1,200 students and was the only girl’s school in the area. All 26 classrooms, along with computers and office records, were destroyed in the explosion. This was the first time a school in a town inside Peshawar was attacked.

The school isn’t far from Khan’s house. He passes it often and views the dilapidated building and charred furniture as a reminder of the day when Budaber residents first felt  they were under threat. “The school bombing made us realize how close to home the Taliban had come,” he said. “That’s when we realized we had to fight back.”

Daud Khan and his friends weren’t the only ones thinking along those lines. The deputy speaker of Peshawar’s provincial assembly, Khushdil Khan, also hails from Budaber. After the bombing, he called a meeting of 200 regional elders. “I told them now the option was ours,” he said, leaning back in his chair in his Peshawar office. “We could either stay and fight or flee our land.”

That night, a resolution was passed. The residents of Budaber would take the security of the area into their own hands.

Citizen efforts have now become a matter of routine across Peshawar as the city struggles to fight back against the Taliban. According to Peshawar-based journalist Shafiq Khan, the Taliban have come closer than ever before. “They have become strong in almost all areas surrounding Peshawar,” he said. “Even within the city, some places have become no-go areas.”

The job of securing the city and its outskirts belongs to Peshawar’s police force. But these days, the 43,000 police officers have a hard time keeping themselves safe. The militants have come to view policemen as agents of the state and have targeted them for the last two years. In 2007, Peshawar police lost 72 officers. By mid-December 2008, the annual toll was 148. More than 500 others were injured, many seriously.

In Peshawar city, I spoke to Saleem Khan, who had dreamt of being a police officer since he was a child. “I liked their uniforms and the way everyone looked at them with respect,” he said, smoothing his bushy moustache with one hand as he spoke. “I told my mother when I was 10 that I was definitely going to join the police.”

Khan’s dream came true when he was recruited into the police force at the age of 20. But after 13 years in the service, he decided to quit, fearing he would not live long if he stayed in the force. “Two of my friends were killed in bomb blasts, and every day there were attacks on the police,” he said. “I have two small children and didn’t want them to grow up without a father, so I quit.” Khan now runs a general store and avoids his former colleagues.

Hundreds of officers have left the force, and police recruitment in NWFP is at an all-time low: In January, an ad inviting young men to apply to join the police in Swat drew just two applicants, and they both refused to show up for the interview.

With the police force too understaffed to secure the city, Daud Khan and the other young men from Budaber took the responsibility on their own shoulders. Initially, the government ignored the patrols, but in February the NWFP’s chief minister pledged to provide 30,000 guns to patriotic citizens across the province who would help the government secure the area.

Many are critical of this initiative.

“I don’t think such widespread distribution of arms is a great idea,” said Mahmood Shah, a retired army brigadier. “There is no guarantee these guns will stay in the hands of good, law-abiding citizens instead of making their way into the clutches of the Taliban.”

But Khan and others who are part of the patrol say they don’t have a choice: If they don’t act today, the Taliban will.