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Political will & clear vision

April 03, 2011


PAKISTAN’S current decline is frequently blamed on a lack of political will to tackle the most pressing issues. One clear manifestation of the short supply of political willingness is the inability to think of problems holistically.

Rather than coordinate efforts and devise comprehensive approaches, pillars of the establishment hack away at problems piecemeal. This results in headline-grabbing policy initiatives that ultimately have little impact because they take effect in institutional isolation.

Take the National Judicial (Policymaking) Committee’s announcement recently that that all courts must decide cases instituted after Jan 1, 2009, by March 2012. The directive was fairly detailed, tasking inspection teams with monitoring district courts, and requiring the courts, in turn, to submit fortnightly reports on disposed cases. No doubt, the attempt to clear the judicial backlog is necessary and laudable. But the overarching goal of dispensing speedy justice cannot be achieved unless the government concurrently takes up the issue of police reform. After all, the legal system is in part overwhelmed because cases are improperly filed, for the wrong (read: political) reasons, and in the absence of proper evidence-gathering, witness identification and forensic investigations.

The need for police reform is even more urgent in the context of counter-terrorism, another issue that the government is reluctant to engage with in an integrated way. It has been well documented that terrorism is better addressed through routine policing as a law-and-order challenge, rather than as a security challenge for the military. In Pakistan, the need for police to be reconstituted as a counter-terrorism entity is reinforced by two trends: firstly, the fact that the police have been repeatedly targeted in nationwide terror attacks; and secondly, the growing concern that civilian law-enforcement agencies have been infiltrated by extremist actors.

The myriad problems with Pakistan’s law-enforcement infrastructure are obvious. At the most basic level, it’s a numbers game: the combined total of law-enforcement forces at the federal and provincial levels is 575,000 serving a population of 180 million, or one police official for every 304 citizens. While these figures measure up well to the UN standard for policing (one police officer for every 400 citizens), they do not account for Pakistan’s dire domestic security situation. The lack of resources is even more critical than the personnel shortage. For example, there are only 82,000 weapons and 5,000 bulletproof vests available to the 170,000 police officials of the Punjab province.

The performance of the law-enforcement agencies is further marred by institutional chaos. In a recent report, Reforming Pakistan’s Police and Law Enforcement Infrastructure: Is it too flawed to fix?, Columbia University’s Prof Hassan Abbas effectively points out that there are just too many institutions, including paramilitary units, special investigations groups and intelligence agencies, reporting at both the federal and provincial levels. These institutions routinely fail to coordinate their activities or develop unified strategies for maintaining law and order and tackling terrorism.

Indeed, these institutions have yet to establish a standard system for hiring, transferring and promoting officers, a flaw that increases the chances of infiltration. Interestingly, this failure extends to information-gathering on criminals as well. Profiles of suspects are not maintained or made available to other institutions, and the activities of criminals and banned groups are not traced. Abbas also emphasises the problems stemming from the centre and provinces continuing to tussle for control over the law-enforcement agencies. In addition to provincial police organisations, a number of law-enforcement organisations report to the federal government. Moreover, senior supervisory police officers are recruited, trained and assigned by the federal government to the provincial outfits. The centre’s continuing authority over police appointments has exacerbated the politicisation of the system.

The pitfalls of this disconnect was made apparent recently when plans to screen Islamabad police personnel for links to banned militant organisations were scuttled by the Punjab police. The Islamabad capital city police had requested details from the provincial authorities about the schooling (both secular and religious), criminal history and departmental disciplinary record for over 5,000 policemen. Rather than make this information available, the Punjab police presented the capital authorities with their own security clearance pro forma, leading to a stalemate on the issue.

There are many who will disagree with the notion of coupling police and judicial reform. They may argue that such sweeping institutional changes are too ambitious for a weak civilian set-up. But such caution ignores recent signs that the system is more malleable than we think. For example, the army has demonstrated a willingness to train, equip and support civilian law-enforcement agencies in counter-terrorism efforts — since February, the military has been turning over control of security in Swat to police officials. This arrangement can be replicated in places where insurgency is now brewing.

Provincial governments are also willing to address police reform. Consider the greater budgetary allocations for higher police salaries in the Punjab last year, as well as changes introduced under the Punjab Police Act of 2010, which emphasises accountability and community policing. Even international donors are open to supporting police reform — the notorious Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation, for instance, contains provisions that could be applied in this direction. Ultimately, improving Pakistan’s security situation and facilitating justice does come down to political will. But success will depend on a coherent vision to fight the country’s hydra-headed problems through multiple approaches, and not good intentions alone.

The writer is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC.