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Failure to protect

April 22, 2012


THREE hundred and eighty four prisoners escaped from the central prison in Bannu last Sunday.

A colleague and friend at this newspaper was brutally murdered in Karachi on Thursday.

One hundred and twenty-seven people died in an air crash near Islamabad on Friday.

None of these distressing events have anything in common.

But there is a distressing common upshot: traumatic as these very different events are, it is very, very unlikely that much will be done on any front to try and prevent a repeat.

Simply, gone is the state’s capacity to protect and to preserve and no one has any idea how to recover it.

The remarkable thing about the Bannu prison break isn’t the juxtaposition of a well-trained force with a precise plan up against bumbling security forces but the juxtaposition of the commitment shown by both sides.

It seems a little absurd to amass so many men and put so many lives at risk to rescue a colleague who would probably happily blow himself up or pick up a gun and join a fire-fight in which death was a certainty.

But that’s precisely what the Taliban did to get Adnan Rasheed back.

The remarkable esprit de corps is what helps keep the Taliban going, and recruiting. They die on their terms, not waiting for the hangman’s noose in cages patrolled by the enemy. And whatever the cost, no one gets left behind.

The seductiveness of a Bannu-style raid as a rec-ruitment tool is almost frightening.

Contrast the image of the Taliban overrunning the Bannu prison with ease with what comes to mind when you think of the prison’s defenders: a few bedraggled policemen with ancient equipment and a leadership unable to motivate, train or organise. And try as you might, you really can’t imagine that situation improving much.

Developing an institutional response to a threat means harnessing your resources and figuring out which resources can be used to plug which gaps.

All prisons are not built equally, for example. If Bannu and similar prisons are more vulnerable, then move the high-value prisoners to more secure locations. Crucially, it wouldn’t be a one-off measure — as in just gathering up the most dangerous of militants in custody at present and chucking them into the bowels of Adiyala — but a continuous process.

Someone would need to figure out the procedure for the rapid transfer of future prisoners — to even move them from one province to another if necessary — lest high-profile militants be kept in less-secure locations for weeks and months while paperwork is processed and final decisions postponed.

But that is precisely what has been eroded: the state’s capacity to adapt, to respond to new threats and to develop efficient responses.

Turn to the murder of the colleague and friend on Thursday.

While incomparable to the loss and suffering of his young family, society at large should also have a concern: there’s a killer roaming around and possibly looking to strike again.

More than just this particular killer, of course. Karachi’s seedy underbelly is chock-full of characters who murder for reasons other than ethnicity, politics, religion or money.

But the police force — and it is only the police force that can deal with such urban crimes — is neither equipped to nor interested in combating these crimes in a systematic way.

While Karachiites may not feel the difference much — after all, there are so many other serious threats and dangerous situations they navigate on a near-daily basis — it is wholly unnecessary.

But a sophisticated and effective serious-crimes squad will remain a chimera in Karachi because an asset developed to fight the kind of crime everyone can agree is bad and should be stamped out is also an asset that can be used to attack crime that is organised and has political backing.

The approach to law and order in Karachi, to the extent there is one, is roughly this: keep a lid on some stuff to prevent it from exploding, and never mind about the bottom falling off the rest. That is, forget about the weirdos and whackos and do just enough to stop the place from going to hell.So, Karachi will remain just that little bit more unsafe — and all because the state can’t get its act together and impose its will anymore.

Which leaves the plane crash on Friday. Freak occurrences aside, in the international scheme of things there are some countries which have stricter oversight and regulation of the airline industry and there are others which have less.

There’s no great mystery about which end of that list Pakistan would figure in.

But there’s no inherent reason why a relatively small economy with a narrow technical base like Pakistan cannot have a first-class aviation sector. Training, resources and the rigorous enforcement of rules — it’s a fairly well-understood path to the creation of expertise and the maintenance of standards in specific sectors.

But what’s broken down across the board, in every corner of the state apparatus barring perhaps some parts of the armed forces, is the rigorous enforcement of rules.

Standard operation procedure says you do X, so you do X when X is supposed to be done and if it isn’t done you report that X hasn’t been done and why.

No ‘aww shucks’ it’s not that big a deal, we’ll do it right next time. No delays or dithering or shielding mistakes and oversights. Standard operating procedure says you do X, so you do X when X is supposed to be done.

That’s how standards in organisations are maintained and there’s really no other way to do it. Risk goes up and things start to go wrong when organisations stop enforcing the rules strictly and practising accountability when those rules are flouted.

If PIA didn’t fly to European destinations where safety experts are near-fanatical, what would the safety record of Pakistani operators be by now? It’s a scary thought.

Ensuring the safety of a society is a complex task. No state anywhere in the world succeeds fully. But the good ones learn from their mistakes and try to mitigate the chances of a repeat.

No such luck in Pakistan. Here, you’re on your own. And if you’re unlucky enough, you also have to defend yourself from the very elements that should be protecting you.

The writer is a member of staff. twitter:@cyalm