South Asia Scholar Says Pakistan’s Police, Not Military, Is Key to Fighting Terrorism

Special from The Record

March 21, 2011Bookmark and Share

Fourteen years ago, Hassan Abbas served on the police force in his homeland, Pakistan. Now from his perch at the School of International and Public Affairs, Abbas has come up with a plan to reform his country’s weak police system, which he argues would be far better than the military at fighting terrorism.

Hassan Abbas is developing police reforms for Pakistan. (Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University)
Hassan Abbas is developing police reforms for Pakistan.
Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

“Nuclear bombs and attacks are not going to save Pakistan from militant threat,” says Abbas, the Quaid-i-Azam Professor with the South Asia Institute. “You need better law enforcement mechanisms to tackle the growing violence and crime in the country.”

In February, Abbas’ research was published in a report released by the nonpartisan United States Institute of Peace. His recommendations include improving coordination between various policing agencies, streamlining the decision-making process, modernizing investigative skills and increasing police salaries.

Abbas’ research is timely as Pakistan becomes increasingly dangerous. Earlier this month, minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down in his car. Bhatti, a Roman Catholic, was the second government official to be assassinated in the past two months for seeking to reform Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, which impose the death penalty for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Salmaan Taseer, the Punjab governor, was murdered in January by one of his own bodyguards after he called for a pardon of a Christian woman sentenced to death under the law.

Pakistan’s law enforcement system has remained weak and corrupt because most of the international support for counterterrorism in the past decade went to the armed forces, says Abbas. Yet Abbas argues that only a civilian police force can do effective counterterrorism. “Police action also supports rule of law and legitimacy of a democratic system—two issues that need immediate attention in Pakistan,” he stresses. “Military should always be a backup force.”

This April, Abbas will begin to implement his ideas for police reform. In a year-long project supported by a grant from the Asia Society, he will interview dozens of police officers and policy makers in Pakistan to find out what they need for more effective policing, then write up specific recommendations for the government. According to Abbas, the U.S. government has expressed its support for police reforms as well.

To comprehend Pakistan’s relationship with the military, one must understand its past, says Abbas. Even though the biggest security threat currently facing Pakistan is terrorism, “historically speaking, Pakistan viewed India as the biggest threat, and it fought three wars with it,” he says. “Pakistan’s conventional military force and nuclear capability was developed keeping that in view. But to fight religious extremism, terrorism and insurgency, only a law enforcement model can work. Nuclear bombs cannot stop suicide bombers from blowing up themselves.”

During the 1990s Abbas served as a government official in the administrations of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf. He was also a member of the National Police Service for five years. The son of a professor, he grew up surrounded by books and discussions of history and politics. When he decided to pursue an academic career, his wife joked that “I was transitioning from cop to human being.”

Abbas joined Columbia in January 2010 from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he is a senior adviser. While at Harvard, he was also a fellow at the law school’s Islamic Legal Studies Program and a visiting scholar with its program on negotiation. Last year, he served as a Bernard Schwartz fellow at the Asia Society in New York. At Columbia, Abbas teaches a course titled “The Idea of Political Islam,” along with other courses on religion and security in South Asia.

Despite the complex challenges facing Pakistan, Abbas says he is optimistic. “We have to view this as a country with just 60 years of history,” he says. “The state is coming along. There will be changes. I see a lot of hope in ordinary people’s desire to be governed through a democratic dispensation. That hope that I see in many Pakistani people gives me hope.”

—by Melanie A. Farmer and Tanya L. Domi