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Pakistan's thin blue line against Islamist insurgents

STORY: This police officer wielding an anti-aircraft gun at an outpost in Pakistan is not actually on the lookout for aircraft.

He’s on alert for Islamist militant guerrillas, who have launched an unprecedented spate of bloody attacks against the force, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial police, on the northwest border with Afghanistan.

In late January, a Peshawar mosque bombing killed over 80 police personnel – the deadliest single attack on the force to date.

Jamil Shah, an officer with the police station controlling the outpost, says militants have been attacking almost daily.

“We had stopped their way to Peshawar, that is why they attack here more.”

His outpost is one of dozens that make up a so-called thin line of defense against militants who hide out in the border region.

It’s a hotbed for fighters of the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP, an umbrella organization of hardline Sunni Islamist groups.

Its stated aim is to impose Islamic religious law in Pakistan.

Shah says the province's police force has fought Islamist militants for years, but have never been their sole focus as they are today.

119 police were killed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last year.

It’s an escalation from 21 dead in 2020, then 54 in 2021.

So far this year, 102 have already been killed.

A TTP spokesman told Reuters its main target is in fact Pakistan's military, saying:

"The police have been told many times not to obstruct our way, and instead of paying heed to this, the police have started martyring our comrades... This is why we are targeting them."

Officers say they’re up for the fight, but lament the lack of resources.

Staffing is a key one.

At an academy in the region, fresh police graduates are training up with a six-month, anti-militant operation crash course.

With skills like rappeling from buildings and launching rocket-propelled grenades, they’ll help with the police shortage one day.

But other problems remain.

“For about 22 hours of the day we have power outages. We have issues at night and there's no electricity to charge our thermal goggles. It will be better when they provide solar panels here soon.”

Meanwhile, the militants are using U.S.-made rifles, surveillance drones and thermal goggles, from stocks left by Western forces that exited Afghanistan in 2021.

The province’s previous finance minister Taimur Jhagra said data showed 77% of the casualties in the country’s war on terror have been in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region.

“So, that tells you the level of exposure that we have and our role as frontline state... Do the police need more resources? They absolutely do. We have tried to make additional resources available to them at the worst particular time of financial constraint.”

Pakistan has been in a financial tailspin for over a year, trying to slash spending and avoid default.

The lack of resources is deeply personal for these police staffers, gathered at the site of the Peshawar mosque blast, to honor their lost comrades.

The imam is himself a police employee who lost his brother in the attack.

There’s little he can do, but pray for the success of the force.