THE federal interior minister’s ire against the Punjab Rangers is not related to the enemy’s narrative, as suggested by DG ISPR Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor in his recent presser in which he justified the deployment of Rangers personnel outside a court hearing a corruption reference against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Mr Ahsan Iqbal had lashed out at the Rangers for barring ministers, his party’s leaders, and lawyers from entering the accountability court. Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah claimed that it was not the first time the paramilitary forces had overstepped their mandate. The incident gave the impression that security and law-enforcement institutions in the country are working at cross purposes, and that questions about control and command linger.
The episode exposed the deeper structural issues of law enforcement in the country. Civilian law-enforcement agencies have become so weak that they cannot even clarify their position in such instances. On the other hand, paramilitary forces have been encroaching on civilian law-and-order affairs and strengthening their institutional and moral authority.
Both the civilian and security establishments need to review the situation in a context broader than the institutional, egotistical one. It is obvious that the unprecedented terrorism challenge has forced the state to take exceptional operational, legislative and administrative measures. In the process, parallel to the security forces, the government also engaged paramilitary forces to combat the threat. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor further forced the government to take exceptional security measures. This process not only exposed the old fault lines but also threw up new challenges, including those linked to coordination and authority.
Paramilitary forces have been used in tackling conventional criminal and terrorist threats.
The government is spending huge resources on improving internal security and most federal and provincial security allocations are for parallel and purpose-built security forces. The federal government allocated Rs91.8 billion in the last budget towards the maintenance of law and order in the country. Besides, an amount of Rs15.6bn was allocated for CPEC security and another security layer that was being created in the country recently.
Each province has parallel security forces to combat similar threats. Punjab has the Elite Police force, which was created in 1997 to tackle counterterrorism and violent crime, but the province raised another dedicated counterterrorism force in 2014. Experts and police officials favour the restructuring and expansion of the elite force which has shown its worth in the past. However, the force has largely been appropriated by VVIPs for their own security and protocol — and especially as a display of their office and the power they wield. These VVIPs include provincial cabinet members, judicial officers and foreigners residing in the province.
The other provinces have similar forces. Sindh had its own elite special force, the Special Security Unit, before the quick-response force. Highly trained SSU personnel look after the security of VVIPs, like the elite police in Punjab. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan set up their special counterterrorism forces in 2015-16. There are several other dedicated operational forces functioning in the country such as the Special Investigations Group that was created by the Federal Investigation Agency to investigate cases of terrorism, bank fraud, and forgery, and to trace informal money transactions. However, this federal counterterrorism force suffers negligence and financial crisis in the capital territory.
Another security area in which provincial governments are investing consists of ‘safe city projects’. However, these projects have not reduced the burden of the physical security infrastructure in Islamabad and Lahore; they have been completed but have yet to provide sufficient relief to the common man. The Punjab government allocated an additional Rs45bn for such projects in 2017.
Apart from the police and their specialised operational units, paramilitary forces were constantly being used to deal with conventional criminal and terrorist threats in parts of the country. In some cases, the security establishment pushed the civilian government to subscribe to the services of paramilitary forces, as in the case of Punjab, which reluctantly accepted the Punjab Rangers’ assistance in its anti-terrorism campaign.
The operational assistance of paramilitary forces in large-scale anti-terrorism operations has been significant and has usually come with very narrow terms of references. However, in most cases, paramilitary forces have gradually expanded their role to include normal policing. Paramilitary assistance has not only put a financial burden on the provincial governments but has also weakened the law-enforcement infrastructure of the provinces.
In Karachi, for example, it has become difficult to conceive of normal policing in the city, at least in the near future. Coordination among civilian security forces was already an issue but the ‘Rangerisation’ of security has further complicated the situation. Big institutions have big egos and they expect a bigger and leading role in managing affairs. Conventional law enforcement becomes passively dysfunctional and administration becomes habitual when these superior bodies are invited to handle critical situations so that the government does not have to take responsibility.
The civilian law-enforcement department, which is operating with comparatively little freedom, like the civilian intelligence agency and provincial counterterrorism departments, has performed well in the anti-terrorism campaign and against violent crime. This indicates that if the state focuses more on restructuring, strengthening and investing in civilian institutions, the latter can perform better. If the government continues with its approach of developing parallel institutions and engaging paramilitary forces for long-term normal policing, it will cost more and create misunderstandings amongst institutions.
It is not certain if the interior minister has any plans of reviewing the past practice of engaging paramilitary forces in urban counterterrorism and anti-crime campaigns, and assessing the progress of the paramilitary forces. He may not have time on his side as the general elections are approaching. But the new government will have to look into the matter and work towards empowering civilian security institutions, and sending paramilitary forces back to perform their normal tasks.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2017