Battlefield city

Internecine political battles are making Karachi a dangerous place to live

A new extremism has developed in Pakistan's economic hub, Karachi, a city that is increasingly serving as a safe haven for extremist groups backed by criminal mafias and certain political elements. The reported arrest of a top Taliban leader, Mulla Abdul Ghani Baradar, from the outskirts of Karachi in mid-February has only made this new dynamic clearer, and more ominous. The arrest not only proved that the network of al-Qaeda- and Taliban-linked fighters is well-entrenched and active across the north-south length of Pakistan; but the joint operation, conducted by Pakistan and American intelligence operatives, also sent a message that Pakistan might no longer be the safe haven that it once was. However, if the government fails to address 'bread and butter' issues – providing employment, controlling inflation and ensuring the availability of essential items – and the political parties continue to fight among themselves for narrow vested interests, the Taliban could still spring a surprise. If this happened, it would most likely be with the support of the sizeable fundamentalist-minded and generally disgruntled segments of Pakistani society.

The sheer number, scale and consistency of the attacks on Karachi are all adding to the worries of already disoriented city citizens. From October 2009 through mid-February, about 200 people have been killed in both politically motivated targeted killings and extremist blasts in various parts of Karachi, while several hundred more have been injured. Alongside, billions of rupees have been lost due to looting, arson and the closure of businesses during strikes that have been called by various political parties to highlight the lack of security. Yet while extremist attacks are getting much of the headlines and anger, the city has been under particular pressure due to the targeted killing of activists aligned with various political outfits – the Sindh-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of the late Benazir Bhutto, the Pashtun-dominated Awami National Party (ANP), the sectarian Sunni Tehrik, the Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami and others. Incredibly, even as the violence mounts, the MQM, PPP and ANP technically remain in a coalition government together.

Most of the time, these assassinations are being carried out by workers aligned with one or the other of these parties. But after each spell of killings, as a response to public outrage, the parties have shifted the blame away from themselves, placing it instead on the 'land mafia' and other criminal elements. There is little attempt at introspection and weeding out violent elements from within their own rank and file. Of course, it has come as a shock to many that the three coalition partners in Sindh and in the federal government have been accused of involvement in the recent wave of violence and killings in Karachi, endangering, in addition to public safety, the survival of their own government in Sindh. It is no exaggeration to say that, with the cadre of all three heavily armed and trained in the use of firearms, clashes between the party workers now threaten to plunge the city into a prolonged bloodbath.

Complicating matters further, criminal elements are offering significant assistance to the extremists. Drug money and funds collected by the criminal mafia and extremists are being used to make inroads into various political and religious parties, which need funds to advance their political agendas. For instance, according to senior government officials, both the MQM and the ANP have dons at their behest extorting money, kidnapping for ransom and robbing banks, though both parties have dismissed such charges. Speaking on condition of anonymity, some Western intelligence operatives allege that some of these elements are enjoying the protection of those in the country's establishment. This view is generally derived from the oft-repeated American reports that Islamabad might be sheltering Taliban fighters in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Pakistani authorities have vehemently rejected such allegations, however, pointing to the manner in which, in recent months, the Pakistan military had gone into Swat and Waziristan to carry out attacks on militant strongholds. Pakistani authorities insist that most of the militants operating in Pakistan's tribal areas are actually receiving funds and weapons from the Indian and Israeli agencies, purportedly as part of an ongoing proxy war via Afghanistan. Yet while Pakistani authorities claim to have evidence of Indian involvement in the attacks, they have yet to provide any credible evidence.

Bad for business
While the network of al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives is clearly active in Pakistan today, the apprehension that they will take over Karachi is misplaced. Currently, such scaremongering is being used by MQM sloganeers, evidently in a bid to attract Western support for assistance in easing out much of Karachi's Pashtun community, who the muhajirs of the MQM view as posing a serious challenge to the party's longstanding political control over the city. In the past, the MQM and Pashtun have fought ethnically motivated battles on the streets of Karachi, in which certain segments of the security agencies have played an important role. Most importantly, the Pashtun are politically divided between the ANP, the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema Islam, while offering almost no support to the MQM.

Critics of the MQM maintain that the party is deliberately using the bogey of Talibanisation to distract attention from its attempts to gain control of more land in the city (see Himal July 2009, "Capturing Karachi"). The MQM deputy convener, Farooq Sattar, has made the accusation that "large numbers of Waziris and Mehsuds fleeing operations in Pakistan's insurgency-hit tribal areas are settling down in Karachi, undermining the security environment of the city." Sattar says this anxiety on the part of the MQM has increased significantly over the past year, as tens of thousands of Pashtun have fled the fighting in Swat and Waziristan and arrived in Karachi. As a result, the ANP has suddenly gained strength in the metropolis. There are significant economics at stake, too, with the influx having implications for the hot commodity of Karachi real estate. Activists of all Sindhi political parties are involved in land-grabbing, and the MQM has long been one of the most powerful in this regard. But the growing Pashtun community has led to a strengthened ANP, which evidently is now cutting into what the MQM sees as its 'business'.

Meanwhile, the MQM has long used its clout over the now-dissolved local-bodies system of the city district government, which completed its four-year term in October 2009 but was given an extension until 31 December. Pashtuns who ave settled in Karachi, as well as the ANP, are now demanding more representation on the ground. Thus, many now believe the appalling law-and-order situation in Karachi to be a direct result of MQM attempts to re-enforce the party's political and administrative control of the city, in the face of the ANP challenge. The warnings of a 'growing' Talibanisation represent a potent card, given the significant support for the ANP that comes from the Pashtun community, accused of harbouring Taliban fighters.

At this critical junction, the provincial government has expressed its determination to restore law and order in Karachi. In this context, it has called upon the police and paramilitary Rangers to use "ruthlessness", and to shoot suspected extremists on sight. But all the while, the trust deficit between the political parties in Sindh is growing to a dangerous peak. Amidst the burgeoning volcano, one cannot rule out the possibility of a collapse of the PPP-MQM alliance during the upcoming local elections. Given the trends of recent months, such a turn of events would be politically catastrophic, plunging the city into a cycle of violence that could resemble the volatile times of the early 1990s.

~ Shamim-ur-Rahman is a journalist in Karachi.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian