Aug 20, 2010 | Publications

A key component of President Obama’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan has been the “civilianizing” of conflict.  In Afghanistan, this is to take the form of a “civilian surge,” and in neighbouring Pakistan, it is to be implemented as part of the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act.  The bill mandates support for police professionalization and is dependent on the continued non-intervention of the security forces into politics.  A police-based counterinsurgency strategy, based on intelligence gathering in the course of community policing is seen by many in the West as an effective way of stemming militancy.  In this view, all that is needed is to increase the professionalization and capacity of the police forces.  And because the police are less well funded and less entrenched in the state apparatus as the military, it is seen by many in the West as a better lever to enact reform.  However, a recent report published by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), Pakistan’s Police between Centralization and Devolution, is highly critical of this view.  The author, Paul Petzschmann, argues that simply increasing the capacity of the police force will be ineffective, and that weaknesses are the result of institutional history (in particular, colonial policing) and governance mechanisms.  Finally, because of the control exerted on the police by the powerful bureaucracy, any attempts at reform will be highly politicized.

In the frontier areas, such as the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), there remains a strong legacy of colonial rule.  The state attempts to exert indirect control by relying on local elites distributing state aid as patronage.  These elites, frequently tribal elders, are backed by the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation and exercise executive, judicial and administrative power.  However, this method of indirect control has been challenged recently by remittances, smuggling, and the unwillingness of militant groups to integrate into the power structure. The police are only one of many providers of security, alongside the military as well as armed groups, and are frequently seen as oppressive agents of elites.

In the central provinces, the police also lack independence.  Here control is exerted by the powerful provincial (particularly the elite District Management Group) and local bureaucracies, and the police have become a symbol of political power instead of an independent force.  Police rarely undertake complex investigations unless at the behest of political figures, and the police are generally deployed only for VIP security and traffic duties.  Here as well there exists a remnant of colonial policing strategies.  The police force is highly militarized, focusing on gendarme tactics such as crowd control, and a strict separation of officers and constables.  Constables have little opportunities for advancement to the officer corps, and officers forgo any training in local policing.  Here, as in the frontier areas, any reform of the police is likely to be highly political, and simply upgrading capacity will mean reinforcing the status quo.

The politicization of reform is highlighted by the author in the ambitious 2002 policing reforms.  The aim was to centralize and professionalize the police force, and allow the national government to exert control.  Bureaucratic control at the local level was abolished and executive, judicial and administrative functions were separated.  Police were also divided along functional lines and public oversight committees were established.  However, these oversight committees were kept weak by the military government, who wanted to exert total control on the police.  The major financiers of the reforms, the Asian Development Bank, complained that these weaknesses in oversight made the police less governable and resulted in an increased incidence of police excess.  Without a strong institution to keep the police in check (as the bureaucracy did prior to the reforms) or a unified command, the police fragmented along functional lines, which encouraged corruption.  However, the weakening of the Musharraf government and the instability surrounding the transition to civilian rule meant the bureaucracy was able to claw back its traditional role.  When the provisions in the reforms expired in 2009, all four provinces reintroduced bureaucratic control through the executive magistracy.  The functional separation of the police force was reversed, and public oversight was watered down, with that role returning the provincial bureaucracy.  In other words, there was a return to the pre-2002 status quo.

While the author does not present any recommendations on moving forward with reform, this report highlights potential problems with Western-implemented police reform.  Simply increasing capacity is unlikely to have the desired effect, and will only reinforce the status quo.  However, reforms enacted without an understanding of the police force’s institutional history and complex power relationships are likely to follow the same circuit already traversed by the failed 2002 reforms.  Perhaps a major problem is the tendency towards ‘civilianizing conflict’ itself, and the corresponding view that SSR is simply a cog in the counterinsurgency machine, a problem which CIGI’s Mark Sedra has discussed as it relates to Afghanistan.