Afghanistan/Pakistan: Call in the Police (but Please Help them First)
Afghanistan/Pakistan: Call in the Police (but Please Help them First)
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Afghanistan/Pakistan: Call in the Police (but Please Help them First)

It's the police, not the army, who can bring peace to Af-Pak.

When jihadi militants shot up the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, Pakistan, on March 3, it was the police, not the Army, who bore the brunt of the casualties. Six officers were killed in the 30-minute gunfight, joining a growing toll of more than 150 policemen killed in terrorist attacks in 2008, with 50 deaths in the first three months of 2009. In Afghanistan, poorly armed and trained police have been put on the front line in the fight against the Taliban. The result has been about 1,200 deaths in a year.

Policing is one of the most effective -- and also the most ill-used -- tools available to tackle extremism. Yet compared with military and other assistance, international support for policing is miniscule, and much of it is delivered in an uncoordinated and ineffectual manner. Since 2002, the United States has given the Pakistani military more than $10 billion, only the thinnest slice of which has gone to policing. In 2007, for instance, the United States allocated $731 million to help the country's military and only $4.9 million for its police. In neighboring Afghanistan, police reform was allotted $3.8 billion over the two years beginning in 2007, but much of it disappeared into the accounts of U.S. security contractors. The police themselves, meanwhile, were ineffectually pushed out to fight the Taliban.

Giving police forces a greater role in counterinsurgency shouldn't mean sending them heedlessly into harm's way. What is needed are police to keep everyday peace on the streets. Reducing general criminality and providing security to the public provides the most widely shared and distributed public good. It is much more effective in winning hearts and minds than digging wells or building schools -- and indeed encourages and protects such development activities.

A well-equipped police force is also vital to restoring the court and prison systems -- all the moving parts of the rule of law. Improve these, and jihadists are not only taken off the streets, but their public trials undermine the very message of glorified extremism. Absent these basic tools of law, political participation, economic growth, and better governance are all out of reach.

This is not to say that the police in Pakistan and Afghanistan are like your friendly neighborhood cops, just waiting for a little training and a salary bump. Far from it. They are corrupt and brutal. Their preference for torture as a means of evidence collection undermines public faith, and their greed casts them as predators rather than protectors. In both countries, greater transparency and oversight are sorely needed.

In Pakistan, decades of political interference in the police has left it demoralized and weak. Military rule deprived it of resources and undermined accountability. The police were there to do the dirty work that the soldiers wanted done; they had a hand in controlling political dissent, rigging elections, and even making opponents disappear. Top officers are appointed and consequently serve their political masters far better than the public. And because the police are controlled at a provincial level, local cities and towns are powerless to reform -- let alone control -- the forces that are supposed to protect them.

Indeed, the annual reports of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan have highlighted widespread and increasing instances of illegal detentions, deaths in custody, police torture, and extrajudicial killings, as well as pervasive corruption. Clearly, rebuilding the Pakistani public's faith in the police will be a monumental task. Making forces more accountable to the National Assembly and the local commissions already set up for oversight, but never fully used, would be a good start. Removing political interference in appointments is critical.

In Afghanistan, police need to be out walking the beat, rather than serving as military auxiliaries fighting the Taliban. Crime has undermined public support for the state and makes some Afghans hanker for the brutal, but more predictable, days of the Taliban. Kidnappings of prominent businessmen -- thought to occur with the complicity of police -- are driving away desperately needed capital. The police can still do counterinsurgency work in a law enforcement role. In fact, they'll do it better. Building connections to the communities they are supposed to serve would boost intelligence capabilities and foster crucial support for an unpopular government.

Afghanistan and Pakistan can't fix this problem on their own. Their police forces desperately need training in the neglected areas of evidence collection, forensics, and law. Salaries and conditions must be brought in line with those enjoyed by the military -- and the international community should not shy away from footing the bill.

Monetary support is part of the answer, but let's not forget that a lot has been spent badly so far. International efforts have just now started in earnest and have been poorly coordinated. In the United States, there is no single agency responsible for police training abroad. The U.S. departments of Defense, State, Justice, and Homeland Security, as well as the Agency for International Development, all have police programs that operate independently and without communicating. The new U.S. envoy to South Asia, Richard Holbrooke, should take charge of cleaning up and civilianizing this mess. U.S. service personnel, who serve as police in civilian life, could be at the fore at first, mentoring and training the police in basic law enforcement.

International support for policing, particularly in countries at risk from extremism, needs to be taken more seriously across the board. Today, police in Afghanistan and Pakistan have become quasi soldiers used as little more than cannon fodder. Bolstering their core role as police officers will not be easy or quick, but it might just be the best way to win back the peace. Afghanistan and Pakistan can't afford to wait.

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