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Snipers needed to battle urban warfare

August 22, 2013
A PSR90 sniper rifle being marketed by POF. -Dawn
A PSR90 sniper rifle being marketed by POF. -Dawn

ISLAMABAD: Simpletons may continue analysing ad nauseam the gripping drama of a cornered lone gunman holding the Islamabad police at bay for hours, but perhaps the lasting memory would be that the establishment and the police emerged poorly from the fiasco.

Security experts believe a trained sniper could have downed gunman Mohammad Sikandar much before the allegedly foolhardy courage of politician Zamarud Khan forced the police do that, ending the tense six-hour stand off, broadcast live by the television channels.

It came as a surprise during the postmortem of the high drama on the channels that contrary to their oft-repeated claims the Islamabad police do not have a true sniper in their ranks.

There is a bigger surprise there – no security force in the country, not even the army, has snipers specially trained for such situations.

What they surely have are sharp shooters and marksmen, who gain that position or reputation on the strength of record during their normal training.

But their skill is limited to close range and in the open only, while snipers are trained to hit their target precisely, in one shot and the split second he becomes visible in his hiding place.

That fine difference between a sharpshooter and a highly trained sniper notwithstanding, the police forces in every big city of the country have been announcing that their snipers would be in position to protect religious processions or other public events needing protection against terrorist attacks. Those are audacious claims, to say the least.

Islamabad police claim there are 791 trained commandos in its Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS), many of whom have had specialised sniper training at the Sihala police training school, or the ATS Centre at Simly Dam or courses conducted by US experts at the H-11 Police Lines. Their performance in real situations, however, defied the claim.

“We know who are the best shots in the ranks and deploy them whenever required,” insisted a senior police officer to ward off criticism.

But he acknowledged that “there exists no organised system to train them taking precision shots at a target from a concealed location from a considerable distance.”

His only consolation was that neither did the police of Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar possess that capability where the crime mafia and terrorist groups had been much more active and much longer.

That sounds true. When terrorists stormed an Ahmadi place of worship in Lahore in May 2010, they shot dead 82 people openly, with the television channels broadcasting their ‘leisurely’ massacre live almost all the time and the Lahore police felt immobilised as they lacked expertise and the equipment to shoot at the marauding gunmen from a distance of 500 metres from concealed positions.

“I would still say the authorities were protecting the terrorists. The police could have shot down the gunmen from the same spot the TV cameras were placed,” said Mumtaz Mirza, an irate but naïve survivor of the massacre.

Two years later, a full-blown operation by the Karachi police failed to dislodge the men of gang leader Uzair Baloch from their Lyari lair for the same reasons.

“We tried to get some crack shots from among the police training college trainers, formerly of the army. But by the time the authorities granted our request, the operation was called off,” the field commander, SP Chaudhry Mohammad Aslam, told Dawn. He was recently reverted to DSP rank, not for that failure but for a different reason.

Like most other police departments in the country, the sharp shooters of Islamabad police have six G-3 field rifles, fitted with telescopes, for snipping, an activity they are not trained for.

Despite its long range, the rifle is not suited for precision shooting because of the recoil in its loading mechanism.

They also have four US-made, AR-10 - a weapon the US army discarded in the 1950s. Mercifully, the capital police do possess two proper sniper rifles – the Soviet-era Dragunov procured from China.

It has an effective range of about 800 metres and, being light and handy, one of the most widely used sniper gun around the world

With the rise of urban warfare, the need for snipers is being realised not by just civil forces but also the Pakistan armed forces, particularly after the terrorist attacks on the GHQ in Rawalpindi, Kamra airbase and Mehran naval aviation base and the army operations in Lal Masjid and in Swat.

Militants have also stormed other sensitive locations of the civil and armed forces and engaged them into firefights for hours.

“We have learned many things, especially from Lal Masjid and Swat operations, where snipping had been more effective than deploying many troops,” said a brigadier serving in the infantry.

Interestingly, it was while battling with Dragunov-armed militants during Swat operation that Pakistan army realised fully the need of snipers in its ranks.

It had learnt the lesson that SSG commandos could not take out individual deadly snipers ensconced inside the Lal Masjid without storming the mosque.

Military sources said that the army had rifle marksmen in each unit, who carried the standard weapons like the G-3 rifle, SMG 7.62, the term for AK-47 in the army, and the SMG 9mm (MP-5).

Now, army is in the process of raising specialised group of snipers, a programme the military’s public relations office ISPR said it was not aware.

But the civil forces, including the police, apparently have no such programme.

“This is because nobody is thinking to have specialised group,” said Fayyaz Turo, a former Inspector General Police of militancy-rocked Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. “The interior ministry has not planned for up-grading the civil armed forces to match the changing scenario.”

Even in Karachi, the city worst hit by urban conflicts, the outlook and operational mechanism of police has not changed much in years.

“Most of the tactical up-gradation in police force is made by the personnel of the armed forces – but the fact is that not even Pakistan has specialised and dedicated snipers in its ranks,” said a Deputy Inspector General of Police of the city.