Monday, 31 December 2007

Riots and Riot Control

Dawn TV yesterday had an interview with a security expert, a gentleman whose name I unfortunately cannot now recall, who was asked why the rioting and looting lasted for so long and why the government was so slow to act in bringing things under control.

The gentleman, who runs a private security company said that as soon as word of banks and offices being looted reached him he started making calls to members of the civilian and military administrations asking for help. There were heated exchanges when he heard that security forces were unwilling to roll swiftly into action. In most cases the rioters and looters were given a free rein on the first night and security forces were only deployed the following day. The idea was that PPP supporters should be allowed to vent their anger in order to prevent inflaming the situation.

In hindsight, the gentleman felt, the decision to hold back was probably a wise one, because in the immediate aftermath of the news of Benazir's death, if the army and paramilitary forces had been called out, violence may well have ensued between PPP supporters and security forces. The deaths may have mounted, inflaming the situation and Sindh may have irrupted into all-out insurrection.

I was ruminating on this while an acquaintance was claiming that the rioting "proved" that Pakistan needed the army to run the government to maintain law and order, because without the army, the nation would descend into complete chaos.

I think my acquaintance was drawing the wrong conclusions. Rather, it was the army's very involvement in politics, its involvement in the government administration as a partial rather than impartial party, that tied its hands when the violence broke out. If the army had come out into the streets that first day, enraged PPP supporters would have seen them as representatives of an institution politically opposed to their party and complicit in BB's death and would have attacked them as such. An army uninvolved in politics, still maintaining its integrity as an unbiased and non-partisan institution would have had no such baggage. There may still have been violence, but the situation would not have been charged with allegations of a vested interest or attempting to suppress political opponents.

I've said it before and I will say it again, having such an overt political role in Pakistani politics compromises what should be the army's primary role of defending the country. This is something the army brass simply fails to recognise.

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