The storm that has arisen over the clash between some Army officers and a Motorways Police squad headed by an inspector has turned into a clash between the civilian and military arms of government, and is an apparent instance of an immoveable object colliding with an irresistible force.

The incident is marked by a clash between the elites of the two institutions. The Motorways Police is a different type of police force in the sense that it does what a police force is supposed to do, uphold the law. It has won its reputation mainly because the other police forces, especially the district polices of the four provinces, are known for their corruption, and devotion to money, rather than upholding and enforcing the law, which they rather subvert if the price is right.

An older generation might remember ‘CHiPs’, a TV programme about the California Highway Police. That generation might also remember the parody that was evolved in Kaliyan, a PTV programme for children, of the Chanchal Highway Police. Whereas ‘CHiPs’ had two men on motorbikes (heavy bikes), our men were shown as having bicycles and dressed in district police uniforms. Instead of a radio, they had a phoneset.

SSG might have had several Hollywood films dedicated to them (notably The Green Berets, the 1967 John Wayne starrer which was the only Holywood film supporting the Vietnam War, but not a Pakistani TV show. It was originally raised from Baluch Regiment units, and was essentially meant to be a paratrooper regiment. Paratroopers had burst on the scene with the German conquest of Crete, but had not prevented the French defeat at Diem Bien Phu by the Viet Cong. The French paratroops lived up to their creed, which could well apply to all SSG units: “Handsome on parade, brave in battle, we know how to die.”

Though Pakistani Special Forces are restricted to the Army, the USA has some attached to all three services, which form SOCOM, Special Operations Command. Its most famous operation was the Abbottabad raid, carried out by Navy Seals, which killed Al-Qaeda chief Osama Ben Laden.

One purpose of these forces is to present a further challenge to members of the service. They have achieved what they have because of a training process, and Special Forces provide an even more rigorous training process. Typically, officers and men are recruited from regular units, not directly. They return to their units for a normal career, and may go back to the SSG (in Pakistan’s case) in higher ranks. One of them not only became COAS, but took over as President. No one from the SSG has won the Nishan-i-Haider, but one captain did win the Hilal-i-Jurat in Siachen.

That is behind the reaction to the incident. It was almost as if military impunity to the law was illustrated, as was the sense of privilege. Not only did the officers concerned belong to an elite within an elite, but they also shared the previous military ruler’s regiment. Not his original one, but the SSG. However, what had not been noticed was that the clash occurred with the member of a force through which the military has ruled after its takeovers. The military has never tried to do more than control what might be described as the commanding heights of government, and though it has set up military courts and has used its own intelligence agencies, the police has worked much as before.

There is usually one major difference. The deference paid to politicians is transferred to military officers in the area, preferably serving. Military rule does not change the reality of life for policemen; it merely changes the focus of their attention from politicians to military officers. It should not be forgotten that while the military provides a society the means of defence against external aggression, the police does against internal. While the military might succeed in brushing aside the few people who constitute an elected government, it is neither trained nor equipped to combat those enemies of the state who violate the law. Like civilian governments, it will rely on the real ‘steel framework of the state’, the police.

Apart from police officers developing contacts with military officers, who are thus pulled into the traditional power structures of the state, the military has two other levers of control. The first is the direct induction of captains into the Police Service of Pakistan. It must be kept in mind that this is provision that dates from the British era, when the purposes of both forces was to keep the natives under control. Though such officers are entirely within the ambit of the police, they retain both acquaintance with officers they served with and affinity with the service they had left. Another point of similarity is that both are uniformed forces. This increased ‘militarisation’ of the civil armed forces has led to an ethos of control and rule, with the purpose of both being to control the ‘natives’, even though they are now supposed to be citizens.

The increased reliance on military intelligence organisations rather than civilian is a reflection of repeated bouts of military rule. Military rule has meant that military institutions get increased enhancement of capabilities, and military intelligence agencies have been no exception. An additional factor has been the War on Terror, which started while Pakistan was under the military. Obviously, the military ruler wanted the most reliable information, which military agencies provided. This ability was valued and thus enhanced by succeeding civilian rulers.

Under these circumstances, the clash was perhaps inevitable. Perhaps not this particular one, but military men had developed an attitude of expecting police support no matter the circumstances. In a culture of power, where being above the law is a sign of being within an elite, being given a ticket for speeding is an insult. While a prime minister can accept such a ticket, an SSG officer cannot. It must also be remembered that a prime minister does not face adverse career consequences from a ticket, an Army officer does.

However, it should also be remembered that both military and police are part of the same government, and are not supposed to be in conflict with each other. They both represent the state’s monopoly of force, and it should not be forgotten that the state may depend on the police to maintain law and order, but it is the military which provides the sanction behind this. There was a recent example: the police varied out an operation in the Indus wetlands of Rajanpur district, but ran into trouble, making it call in the Army. Army help enabled the operation to be successful. Both are agencies of the government, and any clashes indicate that individuals can call in institutions on their side. If this is possible, it can only mean that institutions are becoming protection rackets, and the fabric of the state is beginning to fray. Either the superiors in both institutions will stamp out this now, or else there will be more such incidents, meaning that the institutions consider themselves above the state, which will then be about to collapse. After all, a state depends on its servants believing that they exist to serve it, not the other way around.