The South Asia Channel

Move over military: Police and counterterrorism in Pakistan

Move over military: Police and counterterrorism in Pakistan

It is generally believed in the West that military action can resolve the terrorism problem in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region as well as help efforts to thwart violent radicalism throughout the region. This idea, while sounding sensible when peering at Pakistan from the outside, misses an important reality on the ground: according to a new report released today by the Asia Society, it is the domestic police force that can best root out terror networks, find and disable their financial support, and even manage de-radicalization programs in association with local communities.

When faced with a serious internal security crisis, it is crucial that a state pursue reform that entails capacity building not just in the military and civilian government, but within the law enforcement sector. Pakistan is a case in point. The state is facing a variety of internal security challenges that are severely limiting its citizens’ potential as well as creating tension between neighbors and potential allies abroad. Without police and law enforcement reform, stability is likely to continue eluding Pakistan.

Meaningful reform is not going to be an easy endeavor. A high number of terrorist attacks and increasingly troubling crime patterns tell the story of a state under siege. An increase in targeted killings of political and religious leaders, attacks on armed forces and police, kidnapping for ransom by the Taliban, and ‘mob justice‘ incidents show just how daunting the challenges for the police have become. Pakistan’s efforts to combat crime and to counter terrorist activities are being outpaced by the innovation and agility of criminal networks and protean terrorist organizations. Radicalized elements within the political and religious spheres further complicate security challenges.

One might assume that, as a result, the government of Pakistan has prioritized reform of the police and other law enforcement agencies, allocating budgets accordingly. This simply is not the case. A lack of resources, poor training facilities, insufficient and outmoded equipment, entrenched corruption, and political interference mar law enforcement institutions throughout the country. Still, the police force is one of the country’s few institutions in which internal reform is actually underway. This struggle merits attention and needs support.

Interestingly, the international support provided to Pakistan for antiterrorism operations in the last decade was largely geared towards the defense sector, and very little of that ever reached police. This created a situation in which military control trumped local knowledge and know-how. . A balanced approach is needed to help Pakistan tackle both internal and external challenges more effectively.

Few know that Pakistan is among the top five police-contributing countries to the United Nations over the last decade, and the professional performance of Pakistani officers in UN peacekeeping operations is rated highly. However, Pakistan has no mechanism in place to utilize the services of these officers in such a way that police institutions in-country might benefit from this experience. Many Pakistani police officers were successful in getting Fulbright scholarships and Hubert Humphrey fellowships in the United States in recent years as well. Thus, there is a lot of untapped potential in the country that can help transform the law enforcement institutions.

This week, Asia Society is releasing a report by an independent commission on police reforms in Pakistan that includes contributions from many seasoned and reputed Pakistani police officers, as well as a few American scholars and experts. The report recommends a host of reform measures, with a few key points being:

1.      In the face of increased terrorist attacks specifically targeting Pakistan’s police, the force has rendered many sacrifices. Two of Pakistan’s best police officers – Safwat Ghayur and Malik Saad – died at the hands of suicide bombers. Stories like these demand proper media attention to help drive reform.

2.      Focused and targeted international help can play a significant role in enhancing the capacity of Pakistan’s law enforcement structure to fight crime as well as terrorism. Technical assistance, training, and modern equipment top this list. Creation of regional mechanisms for sharing of information about organized crime and terrorist networks can enhance Pakistan’s standing in the international arena in turn increasing the prospects of such support.

3.      The government of Pakistan must provide police with critical technology such as independent facilities for the interception of terrorists’ communications, mobile-tracking systems, and telephone call data analysis. Better coordination between police, intelligence organizations and the private sector can make this possible.

4.      Legal reform to provide for an effective witness protection system, changes in anti-terrorism law to broaden its scope and a simpler procedure for admissibility of modern types of evidence (e.g., cell phone call data) will strengthen the broader criminal justice system in the country.

5.      An improvement in working conditions and salaries and changes to organizational culture would help to create a force that is respected by the people and thus be more effective in maintaining security and stability. The success of the National Highways and Motorway Police is particularly instructive in this respect.

Evidence suggests that a law enforcement model, which by its very nature is linked to rule of law as well as democracy, offers the best bet to confront the menace of terrorism, transnational crime, as well as insurgencies. Placing a priority on law enforcement reform can help Pakistan in more ways than one.

Hassan Abbas is Senior Advisor at Asia Society and Editor of the report "Stabilizing Pakistan Through Police Reforms" being launched by Asia Society on July 24, 2012. He is also Professor at National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs.