Protecting Pakistan’s population by de-politicizing the police

By Asif Akhtar While the Pakistani government has been gloating over the drop in suicide attacks in Pakistan’s cities, and the Army Chief of Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani, was quick to declare that the armed forces are close to “winning the war against terrorism,” the recent blast in the city of Peshawar is a ...

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580323_090929_police22.jpg

By Asif Akhtar

While the Pakistani government has been gloating over the drop in suicide attacks in Pakistan's cities, and the Army Chief of Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani, was quick to declare that the armed forces are close to "winning the war against terrorism," the recent blast in the city of Peshawar is a stark reminder that the threat to urban security remains very real. While it is yet to be seen whether the gains from military operations in the north of the country will actually spill over to the urban front, the fact that the militants are currently on the defensive presents an opportunity for the country's policing apparatus to get its institutional act together to secure the urban areas of the ensuing conflict.

By Asif Akhtar

While the Pakistani government has been gloating over the drop in suicide attacks in Pakistan’s cities, and the Army Chief of Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani, was quick to declare that the armed forces are close to “winning the war against terrorism,” the recent blast in the city of Peshawar is a stark reminder that the threat to urban security remains very real. While it is yet to be seen whether the gains from military operations in the north of the country will actually spill over to the urban front, the fact that the militants are currently on the defensive presents an opportunity for the country’s policing apparatus to get its institutional act together to secure the urban areas of the ensuing conflict.

While the noted drop in urban attacks could be due to the inability of a frazzled Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to execute urban operations, confusing this with a victory against terrorism is dangerous. It is true that the TTP is at a weakened position following the death of its leader Baitullah Meshud in a U.S. drone strike last month, but that only puts the organization in the ‘wounded tiger’ category and puts pressure on its new leadership to pull off large-scale infrastructural attacks like the Peshawar bombings, to reassert the group’s ability to terrorize at whim. An effective way to contain and eventually strangulate organizations reliant on suicide attacks is to muffle their urban maneuverability to a bare minimum. This requires strategically intelligent policing of urban spaces.

But is the country’s police force really ready to don this new counter-terror costume it is persistently being dressed up in? A high ranking retired police official in Islamabad told me that in order to be transformed into an effective policing unit capable of deterring complex threats, Pakistan’s police force needs sweeping reforms. According to this official, the problem lies in the mindset of the policing establishment, which is still mired in its colonial legacy. Rather than focusing on the provision of security to the public from modern terrorist threats, the combative attitude of the police towards the public sets the tone for an adversarial relationship, hampering mutual trust and the flow of vital information.

Pakistan’s current police system is inherited from British India’s ‘Police Act of 1861’, a direct response to the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The thinking that drove these institutional changes was Great Britain’s desire to make the police subservient to the political elites of the land, so that their operations coincided with political interests. Almost 150 years later, the police force finds itself as deeply entrenched, if not more, in the feudal-political order of things. Shuffling of personnel en masse is a common phenomenon because recruitment in the lower ranks depends on which village or district constituency is favored by which local politician in power. The political allegiances of higher ranking police officials also determine whether they stay on their posts, get promoted, or get sidelined to dead-end “special assignments.”

Institutional continuity within policing organizations and their independent functioning is key in maintaining the consistency required to avert threats to stability. The marriage of bureaucratic means and political ends not only creates a huge degree of corruption within the policing establishment, but also undermines the institutional cohesiveness of the organization through massive shakeups corresponding to every regime change in the country. “The dilemma is that it is difficult for them to perform professionally,” says Rasul Baksh Rais, a professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, about the frequent use of police for political motives. 

An extensively discussed fact surrounding the attack on Sri Lanka’s cricket team in March of this year is that during the days leading up to the attack, the police were in a state of dishevelment as the two rival political parties in Punjab engaged in a power-tussle due to the newly declared ‘Governor Rule.’ While the attack has been conveniently pinned on ‘a security lapse,’ the deep-rooted reasons for this lapse remain unremarked upon.

(Read on)

Through the course of years, political-bureaucratic linkages have only become stronger, and have vehemently resisted the idea of sweeping police reforms. 2002 was supposed to be the year of a comprehensive reform of security organizations to usher in a new era of policing in Pakistan. And while analysts like Rais say that the reform looks impeccable on paper, the implementation is not up to snuff, as deep-seated corruption and political linkages remain unscathed.

While the police have been rolling out new divisions to counter terrorist threats, according to the retired official cited earlier, so far the response has been of a quantitative nature. This means that while the police have invested funding in more vehicles, machinery, and arms, there hasn’t been a solid strategic rethink with respect to the current threat.

In order for the police to become a specialized task force capable of dealing with emerging tactical insurgent threats, and well-planned and coordinated attacks, there must be a fundamental change in policing philosophy. The organizational structure and function of the interior security apparatus needs to be systematically re-vamped and upgraded. Indeed, even some veteran policemen in Pakistan earn as little as $200 per month, and barely two percent of U.S. aid to Pakistan since 2002 has gone to funding the police. A more professional (and less feudal) recruitment methodology, along with more lucrative pay structures, will attract personnel from more educated backgrounds, who can then receive specialized training to understand and effectively counter insurgent activities.

These adjustments would also help avoid over-reliance on the military for internal security, which has its own implications. Excessive use of force, to which Pakistan’s army is notoriously prone, alienates the population, and should only be used as last resort. The idea that destabilizing terror plots are only a factor in the tribal regions is a misconception, and as security analyst Ayesha Siddiqa points out, banned militant organizations like the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi are fairly active in the south of Punjab as is the still-dangerous Laskhar-e-Taiba. While there are reports of mistrust between the Taliban active in the north and these Punjabi militant outfits, owing to the complexity of the relationship between these organizations and Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, it remains unclear exactly who is on what side. But the overlap between their ideological viewpoints and a shared interest in state destabilization could outweigh their differences and prompt them to work together.

If the Taliban decide to outsource urban operations to these groups, more active policing of these regions might be the only feasible option. Even the most hawkish strategists would be hesitant to call for overt military action because of the civilian casualties an operation in a large city could cause — an operation around the magnitude of that in the northwestern Swat Valley this spring and summer would be unimaginable in the heartlands of Baluchistan and Punjab.

Unfortunately the police force is too low in the pecking order of political interests, intelligence agendas, and military strategy to be much of a player in the current counterinsurgency scenarios envisioned by some observers. As an organization that is often told not to think but just to do, the police might not be ideally placed to counter insurgent threats in Pakistan’s cities, which would require more tactical flexibility and broader powers of enforcement than the police currently have. As long as there are security blind spots and frequent ‘lapses,’ there will be ample room for organizations with an agenda of destabilization to conduct operations by exploiting weaknesses in urban and suburban realms. However, if a more professional approach to policing is adapted, it might be possible to sustain the current semblance of harmony in the cities, while stifling the exploits of media-hungry terror outfits.

Asif Akhtar is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan.

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

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