Jun 10, 2011

In a free fall

Shafqat Mahmood
The embarrassments for the security forces in the country continue. The latest being the killing of a youngster in Karachi by the Rangers. This comes on the heels of the Kharotabad killings in Quetta and allegations of ISI involvement in the murder of Syed Saleem Shahzad.

Grand conspiracy theories cannot explain these. The United States may indeed be warily eying our nuclear assets and making contingency plans to seize them. India may also have a hand in destabilising Balochistan. But can this account for the wanton cruelty and lack of discipline in the police and security forces?

Yes, discipline, because in the end it is a command and control failure. The six Rangers personnel in Karachi who participated in the killing of the alleged thief in cold blood had no fear of accountability. If there were any, they would not have stood by and watched or indeed encouraged one of their men to murder the poor kid.

And they may have gotten away with a manufactured story of an ‘encounter’ if it wasn’t for someone’s camera recording the gory episode. How many other such incidents have occurred that were never recorded and were successfully covered up by the superiors? It is this protection or misplaced sense of camaraderie that is the crux of the problem.

The Kharotabad incident is even more gruesome and suggests a greater deterioration of command. Painful is not the word to describe the wanton killing of the poor Chechen men, women and children. The active participation in this slaughter of the police chief and the Frontier Constabulary battalion commander reflects terribly on the quality of leadership in the security forces.

What has gone wrong with us as a nation? We are not a bad people and indeed have much that others can envy. We grow enough food to feed ourselves, have a reasonably educated middle class that can provide leadership in multiple fields, and our industrial base is not great but has a huge potential to grow.

We are also a beautiful country with a diverse landscape, from the tallest mountains in the world to fertile low lands and serenely picturesque deserts. And, we are not a new civilisation. Our history in this place we call home goes back thousands of years. Yet, with all these things going for us, we find ourselves in this frightful mess.

It is no use regurgitating in any great detail the awful mistakes we have made over the last 63 years. There is now a near consensus that our principal failures lie in not investing in the people, in not creating the circumstances for the rule of law to prevail, and in not creating the resource base to finance the state.

The return journey has to begin by correcting these mistakes. Our rapidly expanding population with a massive youth bulge of people under 25 is a liability because of illiteracy and a lack of skills. Our salvation lies in turning this liability into an asset by investing heavily in education and skill development.

It has been said umpteen times before, that a large cache of nuclear weapons could not save the Soviet Union from collapsing. Defining security narrowly as building up security forces and weapon systems is a sure recipe for failure.

The defence budget and debt servicing account for nearly 75 percent of our state expenditure. With this kind of resource allocation there is very little possibility of investing in the people. We have no choice but to put a cap on the money we are investing in weapon systems. If we have a hundred nuclear weapons, that should be at least 50 times enough. We don’t need another hundred.

The second massive failure has been not establishing the rule of law. In simple terms the concept means that law is supreme and the same for everyone – rich, poor, civil or military. The arrest of the IMF chief in New York for allegedly assaulting a maid should be a revelation for us. It is a story of one of the most powerful men in the world versus a poor black immigrant woman. We may love to hate America, but this is an example of law’s supremacy in that country.

To emerge as a civilised nation we have no choice but to follow the same track. This requires a societal change but it is not as impossible as it sounds. The motorway police have demonstrated it and now the Supreme Court in a number of cases is doing exactly the same. Its actions in the NICL case are an excellent example.

The son of a powerful politician is already behind bars. But, if it results in a sitting minister, somebody like Amin Fahim who took direct cash transfers into his and his family’s personal bank accounts, being arrested, it would send out a strong message of rule of law at work.

But, this notion of the law’s supremacy cannot only be confined to civilians. It must operate in the armed forces also. Then, it will put the entire nation on the right track. The military always claims that it has a robust mechanism of internal accountability. Let us see that in action. The Rangers personnel involved in this wanton killing in Karachi should be charged with murder, as should the police and FC personnel in Quetta. Let them get a fair trial, but there must be accountability.

It does not stop there. It has been many months since General Kayani ordered an inquiry into mismanagement and perhaps corruption in the NLC affair against a few Generals. This is also test case for the army and indeed for the entire notion of rule of law in the country. No one is suggesting a witch hunt but if there is guilt, the army’s internal mechanism of accountability must work.

It is only after the powerful civil and military institutions start demonstrating accountability that the principle of rule of law will take effect. If it does, it will provide the foundation for this country to start on the long road back to salvation. If it does not, nothing can stop us from going under.

The third essential element is creating the ability to finance the state or in simple terms having the ability to pay our bills. Much has been written on it and how it can be done, but unless the ruling class is ready, it will never happen.

The cabinet hooted down a proposal in the current budget to impose an asset tax. This was designed to make the rich pay more for the survival of the country, but the rich sitting in the government decided that they wouldn’t. Another example of the elite enjoying the best that this poor country has to offer but not wanting to share its burdens.

Rescuing the country from the dreadful state it is in right now is not complicated. What is required is visionary leadership. Where would this come from?

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