Violence is a fact of life in Pakistan. Terrorist attacks, political violence, robberies, and kidnaps continue across the country. In certain areas — Karachi and Balochistan among them — the law and order situation is close to breaking point. There have been repeated calls for the military to restore stability, while the private security industry is booming as people hire guards to guarantee their safety.
All of this points to a failure of policing. The police infrastructure is arguably one of the most poorly managed institutions in Pakistan. Across the country, police forces are chronically underfunded, understaffed, and undertrained. Among the ranks of the police, there are undoubtedly some very brave individuals who risk their personal safety to serve their country every day. There have been some high-profile cases of deaths of officers like Safwat Ghayur and Malik Saad, who died at the hands of suicide bombers. However, such individuals are let down by a lack of resources. Notwithstanding the immense personal bravery of some in the force, it would be extremely naïve to deny that the force is also beset by endemic corruption, and social and racial biases.
The benefits of a functioning police force are obvious. First and most obvious is the basic safety of citizens, which is currently not guaranteed anywhere in Pakistan. Second is the question of the enforcement of laws. Several positive legislative changes introduced in recent years have become redundant in practice because the police on the ground do not enforce them. A bill criminalising acid violence was passed in 2011, but according to campaigners, just 10 per cent of cases make it to court.
Attackers with means can pay off police officers, while misogynistic attitudes prevail and negatively impact investigations. Thirdly, studies have shown that effective police and intelligence work is more effective for counterterrorism than military force. One such study, which examined the role of police in counterinsurgency operations in Cyprus and Malaya, concluded that nearly all major operations of this type in the 20th century have relied heavily on indigenous police forces.
However, as it currently stands, Pakistan’s police force is variously — and accurately — described as ill-equipped, overly politicised, and deeply corrupt. Equipment and technology are outdated, and the police are frequently outpaced by the inventiveness and agility of terrorist groups and criminal networks. Pakistan does not have the facilities to retrieve DNA evidence, for example, although new forensic laboratories — including one in Lahore — will hopefully improve this situation once they become operational. Intra-agency rivalries and bureaucratic obstacles prevent mass upgrades of technology. Meanwhile, the training provided to police officers ignores or gives cursory treatment to several crucial aspects of the job, such as interrogation, and the treatment of vulnerable groups such as women, children, and minorities. Low pay is the norm, which means that the temptation to accept bribes or misuse authority is high, even for well-intentioned officers. Yet low pay — which some provinces have attempted to rectify with salary increases — is not the only problem. A 2012 report by the Asia Society’s Independent Commission on Pakistan Police Reform noted that alongside these problems of resourcing, “both the police leadership and the rank and file appear to lack a sense of accountability to the public they are meant to serve. Moreover, the system simply is not structured to reward good behaviour, as merit-based opportunities for professional advancement are scarce”.
So how has this situation been allowed to evolve? While the police force itself comes under a lot of criticism as the most visible representative of the state, it would be unfair to place all of the blame at its door. Successive governments bear responsibility for failing to prioritise police reform and modernisation. Given repeated domestic problems such as ethnic and sectarian conflicts, growing insurgencies, and high criminal activity since Pakistan was formed in 1947, it is a curious fact that investment in law enforcement has never been a high priority. This has been equally true of civilian and military governments. Most analysts point to a lack of political will as one of the main obstacles to reform. The 2002 Police Order was an attempt at reform introduced by General Musharraf. It included measures to improve accountability and neutrality in law enforcement, but failed, largely due to politicians keen to retain influence. This problem extends from politicians to the armed forces to senior police leadership. None of these groups have pushed reform forward.
Of course, there have been triumphs. The police effectively restored peace to Karachi in the late 1990s, and have successfully challenged some militant religious groups in Punjab. The National Highways and the Motorways Police, which is responsible for traffic safety, has been praised for its effective organisation. Over the last 10 years, Pakistan has been one of the top five police contributing countries to United Nations peacekeeping operations. Its officers are highly rated, yet the benefits of this professionalism are not reaped on home turf. How can these successes be built upon and expanded? Among other measures, the Asia Society report calls for a series of institutional changes. These include an overhaul of the current system of hiring police to ensure transparency and fairness; the establishment of an independent monitoring body to check corruption; improved and expanded training, and changes to working conditions and pay.
The party that forms the next government should realise that any legislative reform is irrelevant in practice if the country does not have an effective police system to enforce it. That is just as true of laws that protect women and minorities as it is of counterterrorism operations. As crime rates across the country remain high and conviction rates low, higher standards of policing would significantly shore up the authority of the state and improve the government’s credibility. And politicians need all the credibility they can get — a recent Gallup poll found that just 23 per cent of the population trust the civilian regime. Police reform is not a particularly fashionable issue, but it is a crucial area from which all other reform can flow. With parts of Pakistan starting to slip out of the state’s control altogether, an effective, responsive, and modern police force would be a good place to start pulling things back from the brink.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 18th, 2013.