Exploring the Police-Military Relationship in Pakistan and the United States

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On the surface, the arrest of Muhammad Safdar—a political dissenter who happens to be the son-in-law of the exiled ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif—appears to be just another link on the chain of political arrests that have become a trademark of Pakistan’s current Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration (1). In the sea of arrests for corruption and drug-possession charges (2), most of which have been directed at members of the opposition parties, Safdar’s arrest seems unexceptional. In fact, the arrest was not completely unexpected as it followed the Pakistan Muslim League (of which Safdar serves as vice president) (5) joining in nationwide protests against Khan’s administration (3). However,  Safdar’s arrest represents more than Khan’s oppressive practices; it is indicative of an existing divide between Pakistan’s civilian government and its military. 

This growing divide becomes especially apparent with the rise of allegations that Safdar’s arrest was the direct result of the Pakistani Army’s illegal interference. This interference took the form of forcibly removing the provincial police chief from his home to unjustly intimidate him into issuing a warrant for Safdar’s arrest (4). In protest of this blatant abuse of power by the military, numerous senior officials of the police high command, including an inspector-general and four senior superintendents, have uniformly submitted requests for leave (1). While the Pakistan Army chief, Qamar Javid Bajwa, has ordered an investigation into the arrest, an objective inquiry seems unlikely. Additionally, no other governmental organization has been publicly assigned to look into the matter. 

To give more context to the event, Pakistan’s history is complexly intertwined with its own military. For nearly half of its existence, Pakistan has been ruled by the military (3). Through multiple military coups, military dictators have overthrown civilian governments, undermining the already unstable democracy within the country. The police, being a part of the civilian government, usually stood as no substantial obstacle to the military coup(s). The most recent period of military rule only came to an end in 2008 (6). The recency of the latest military regime ensures the strength of the military is a prominent thought among the population. In fact, the recent protests which led to Safdar’s arrest were born out of allegations that the pro-military Khan was only elected due to the military’s interference in the elections (7). By contrast, many cite Sharif’s unceremonious ousting from power to be the direct result of his defiance to the military’s might (7). Looking to these examples, it seems as though Pakistan is a military with a country, rather than the other way around.

The Pakistani military’s habit of undermining the civilian government naturally strains the relationship between itself and the civilian police. By contrast, one can look at the nature of the police-military relationship in the United States. Due to recent events of police brutality and the resulting protests, the topic of the role of the police in the United States figures prominently in public discourse. These conversations often cite the militarization of civilian police as key reasoning behind the organization’s substantial role in the nation’s systemic inequality (8). Not only did the United States’ civilian law enforcement receive $4.3 billion worth of military equipment between 1997 and 2014 (8), they also actively serve alongside military forces in response to domestic events. Recently, in response to protests of racial inequity, more than five thousand members of the National Guard were deployed to support civilian law enforcement in Washington DC (9). At one point, two military helicopters were sent to disperse protesters (9). Notably, there have been no significant attempts from either the police or the military to distance their work from each other. 

In the case of both Pakistan and the United States, the outcome is largely the same: civil unrest and a demand for change. In Pakistan, the members of the Pakistan Muslim League and other opposition parties are demanding the departure of the military’s presence in public life; in the United States, Black Lives Matter protesters are demanding the demilitarization of the police in the form of significant budget cuts and changes to their training. In the case of the former, it foreshadows a potential intergovernmental conflict between two armed organizations, each charged with maintaining various aspects of peace for the country. In the case of the latter, the situation proves to be a conflict between the people and their government. Determining which conflict—a rivalry within the state or a struggle between the people and the state—has the potential to do more damage is no simple task. Violent outcomes for each type of conflict are present throughout time and geographic location. Julius Caesar’s seizure of power in Rome is likely the most famous example of military-born insurrection (10). The Arab Spring is a key representation of open protest against the government by its people in modern times (11). Each conflict represents a significant threat to the societies they burden and should be disarmed with great care.