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Killing fields of Karachi

Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • August 18, 2010

    For months now, Karachi had been sitting on a powder keg, tensely waiting for that one spark that would blow up the city. The bloodletting that followed the assassination of a MQM legislator, Raza Haider (who happened to be a Shia), in which around 100 people were shot dead, scores of shops and transport vehicles burnt down and all business activity came to a grinding halt in a three day orgy of violence is, however, not that spark. If the reports coming out of the city are anything to go by, worse is yet to come, what with political turf battles and ethnic animosities getting jumbled up with criminal syndicates, sectarian mafias and Islamic terror groups. Amidst the growing chaos in Pakistan's commercial capital, the almost dysfunctional state machinery suffers from stasis, induced in large measure by political compulsions. On their part, the politicians have been reduced to playing the role of helpless bystanders unable to do anything other than issuing statements of condemnation and declaring their resolve to clean up the city even as the spiral of violence shows no sign of winding down.

    Since the mid-1980s, Karachi has frequently experienced paroxysms of street violence. These were in large part the result of political assertion by the Mohajir community under the leadership of the MQM. Not only did the MQM start to dominate the politics of Karachi, it also held complete sway over the streets of Karachi. To understand the hold of MQM over Karachi, just imagine a Mumbai in which a politically unassailable Shiv Sena also ran the ‘D-company’. Despite two quasi-military operations against the MQM, in which thousands of MQM cadres were brutally killed in extra-judicial ‘encounters’, the party held its own. After the Urdu-speaking Pervez Musharraf usurped power in 1999, the Pakistani establishment once again reached out to the MQM and accommodated it in the power structure in Karachi, Sindh and the Centre. From around 2002, the MQM was practically given a run of the place, first in the provincial government and later in the city government. The pivotal position that the MQM held in the National Assembly ensured that no precipitate action could be taken against the party. This situation has prevailed even after the return of ‘democracy’ in 2008.

    With MQM back in the saddle, the violence in the city underwent a metamorphosis. Except for a show of force in May 2007 when the then dysfunctional Chief Justice had gone to Karachi to gather support against his suspension by Musharraf, large scale street disturbances and violence got replaced by the phenomenon of target killings. Initially, police officers involved in the ‘encounters’ of MQM cadres were shot down one by one. But soon the trend of target killings acquired a more sinister form. Activists and workers of political parties have been gunned down practically on a daily basis for nearly two years now. Also in the crosshair are ordinary people, who are being targeted for no apparent reason except their ethnicity. It is believed that many of these target killings were the result of a political turf war. The aim was partly to make Karachi an unsafe place for certain ethnic groups (which in turn led to retaliatory killings of members from other ethnic groups) and partly to impose the writ of one or the other political party in the area where these killings are taking place. At the same time, there have also been target killings of people belonging to rival religious sects. For instance, over 100 doctors, almost all of them Shia, were gunned down before the law enforcement agencies woke up to the sectarian nature of these killings.

    The sectarian target killings provided a convenient alibi to the political leadership to cover up the political nature of the violence. Every time there is a spurt in the violence in Karachi, the Federal Interior Minister, Rehman Malik descends on the city to play peacemaker between the ANP and MQM. For a few days, all the killing comes to a sudden stop, and then the cycle resumes. After Raza Haider’s assassination, a 10 point code of conduct has been agreed to by the MQM and ANP. That this is touted as a solution to target killings is a tacit acceptance of their political nature. After all, if the killings were the handiwork of the proverbial ‘third force’ or the ‘enemies of Pakistan’ who want to destabilise the country – Rehman Malik has blamed the Sunni terrorist groups Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) – then clearly a code of conduct between MQM and ANP will not be of much help in ending the violence.

    While there is almost certainly a political angle to the target killing phenomenon, there can be also no denying the fact that Karachi has for long been a hub for all sorts of Islamist and jihadist groups. Radical mosques and madrassas dot the city and have provided the underpinning for the flourishing jihad industry. Almost all the big jihadist outfits like Harkatul Mujahideen, Harkatul Jihad Islami, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, etc. have established their networks in the city. Alongside, sectarian groups like the Sunni Deobandi extremist group, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), and its militant wing Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and the Shia group Tehrik-e-Fiqh-e-Jafferia also drew support. Not to be left behind, the Barelvi sect set up its own outfit – Sunni Tehrik – to challenge the growing Deobandi influence, but suffered a huge setback after its entire top leadership was wiped out in a bomb attack in 2006 during a rally in Karachi’s Nishtar Park.

    As a result, Karachi city has become notorious for being a hub of jihadist militias, a sort of terror central in which terror cells and modules proliferated. For the al Qaeda and Taliban, Karachi has been quite a fertile ground not only in terms of providing recruits, but also for rest, recuperation, resources, and refuge. It has also served as an important transit point for Jihad International, something that is borne out not only by the arrest of important al Qaeda members but also the arrest of the Taliban deputy head, Mullah Baradar.

    Surprisingly, during the last few years, despite the presence of the Taliban / al Qaeda in the city, it turned out to be least affected by the sort of Islamic terrorism that was hitting upcountry Pakistan. This, however, was not so much because of effective law enforcement but more because the Islamists felt that anarchy in the city would undermine their strategy instead of promoting it. A wave of terror attacks in Karachi would have forced the hand of the government to put in place security mechanisms that would interfere with the relative free run that the Islamist terror groups were enjoying in the city. Of course, this did not stop the terror groups from indulging in low level violence – target killings and the occasional bomb attack (like the Ashura bombing in December last) – to keep the city tense and on the edge by aggravating the existing political, ethnic and religious fault-lines in the city, the idea clearly being to exploit the explosive situation at a time of their choosing.

    Today, Karachi is not just the life-line of Pakistan – with its two ports which handle the bulk of Pakistan's foreign trade – it is also the life-line of NATO forces in Afghanistan which also receive the bulk of their logistics supplies through these ports. The Islamist terror groups, most of which are either allied to the Taliban / al Qaeda or are sympathetic to them, have long eyed the logistics supply lines of the NATO forces as a target in order to choke the NATO forces’ war fighting capabilities. But while threats have been issued to transporters – almost the entire transport trade in Karachi is controlled by the Pashtuns – to not carry NATO supplies, no serious action has been taken by the Islamists against the NATO supply line in Karachi so far.

    Perhaps, this strategy could now be changing. At a time when the devastating floods in upcountry Pakistan have already disrupted the NATO supply train, the killing of the MQM legislator could have been an attempt to bottle up the port operations in Karachi and worsen the situation for the international security forces in Afghanistan. At the very least, even if the time has still not come for the Islamists to shut down the city completely, they could have only been testing their ability to sabotage the NATO supplies by instigating and orchestrating violence in Karachi.

    Apart from the Islamist terror groups, the underworld too is thriving in the unsettled conditions that exist in Karachi. Criminal syndicates involved in narcotics, gun-running, land-grabbing, protection, extortion and kidnapping rackets – you name it, Karachi has it – have been operating in the city with relative impunity under political protection and patronage. The politicians rely upon the criminal syndicates to settle political scores and also to raise funds for political activities. But it was not only politicians who benefited from the underworld; the Islamists too developed a nexus with the various mafias. Adding to the murkiness was the fact that most of the criminal syndicates were organised along ethnic lines, which in turn had an impact on the politics of the city which too was polarised along ethnic lines.

    In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Karachi politics was primarily polarised between the ethnic Sindhis and Mohajirs. An attempt by the intelligence agencies to forge a Punjabi-Pashtun alliance – the Punjabi-Pashtun Ittehad – had run aground. The only force to pose some sort of a challenge to the MQM in Karachi was the religious parties. But in recent years, the Pashtuns too have become a force to reckon with. Karachi is today not only the largest Urdu-speaking, Gangetic Plain Muslim city in the world, it is also the largest Pashtun city in the world. In the 2008 elections, the Pashtuns, under the ANP, won a couple of seats in the Sindh provincial assembly and are today part of the coalition government in Sindh. The massive influx of Pashtuns in Karachi has caused consternation among the MQM. For now, the MQM has managed to gerrymander the constituencies in a way that they dominate the elections. But this dominance is being threatened by the rising number of Pashtuns in the city, especially in areas where the two communities live side by side.

    Political considerations apart, the MQM is also deadly opposed to the growing presence of Taliban in the city, which they see not only as a political threat, but also as a threat to their way of life. Regardless of MQM’s unsavoury reputation as a fascist party, the fact remains that it is the only middle-class political party in Pakistan and perhaps the only political party in Pakistan with the most modern, progressive, even secular, outlook. Unlike most other political parties which tend to take an ambivalent stand against the Islamists, the MQM has always taken a tough, uncompromising position against religious radicalism.

    But the MQM’s opposition to the Talibanisation of the city was seen by the ANP as a political ploy to stem the growing Pashtun presence in the city. Although the ANP too has been in the vanguard of the fight against the Taliban, and has suffered far more at the hands of the Taliban than any other political party in Pakistan, in Karachi local political considerations have muddied and muddled ANP’s politics. By positioning itself as the party representing Pashtuns in Karachi, the ANP might unwittingly be also batting in favour of the Taliban, many of whom are believed to have taken refuge in Pashtun dominated areas.

    The fact that the police has busted many Taliban modules in Karachi and apprehended members of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan from Pashtun areas of the city lends credence to the MQM charge that the ANP is turning a blind eye to the growing Talibanisation of Karachi only to appease its Pashtun vote bank. The tension between the MQM and ANP has been exacerbated by the provocative speeches and statements issued by the ANP leaders, both at the national level and the city level, against the MQM. Add to this the enrichment of some ANP city leaders from their links with the various mafias and the growing aggressiveness and assertiveness of the Pashtuns to stake their rights over the city by force of arms if necessary, and the picture of the anarchic situation in Karachi is complete.

    Caught in the middle of the political tussle and war of words (not to mention bullets) between the ANP and MQM is the PPP, which is trying to juggle various critical political objectives in Karachi. The PPP-led coalition government in Islamabad would be reduced to a minority without MQM support and therefore the PPP simply cannot afford to rub MQM the wrong way. At the same time, the PPP must keep on the right side of the ANP both because the ANP support is important in Islamabad as also because the ANP and PPP are in coalition in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Compounding the problem for the PPP is the deep animosity that its Sindhi vote bank has for the MQM. The more the PPP embraces the MQM, the greater the danger that it could alienate its Sindhi support base. Although the PPP has tried to balance its politics by stonewalling on the issue of local government legislation in Sindh in which the MQM has a vital stake, it has added to the angst in the MQM which feels that it is being denied its rightful political right to run Karachi. The MQM appears unwilling to allow any other political party a piece of the Karachi political pie by dividing the city in a way that other political parties will have a stake in Karachi politics.

    Adding to an already complicated situation is the somewhat dubious role being played by the infamous intelligence agencies of Pakistan, namely the ISI and MI. Quite aside the fact that many of the Islamist groups and criminal syndicate have deep links with the ‘agencies’ and are known to operate with the tacit blessings of the ‘spooks’, there are dark hints being dropped about the involvement of intelligence personnel in target killings. In the past, there have been reports that the ‘agencies’ have been acting as agent provocateurs to fulfil some political agenda of the military top brass. This time around too, many people suspect the direct or indirect (through their Jihadist proxies) involvement of the ‘agencies’ in the target killings to destabilise the PPP government in Islamabad.

    That this could indeed be the case is borne out by the clamour by some politicians to hand over Karachi to the Pakistan Army. While the demand for deploying the Army in Karachi is the result of the failure of the civilian law enforcement agencies to restore law and order in the city and bring an end to the target killings, the induction of the Army will have wide ranging political repercussions, which could ultimately lead to a rolling up of the current political dispensation. Worse, a clean-up operation by the Army could actually end up sharpening the ethnic polarisation in the city, which in turn could lead to the conflagration that everyone in Karachi fears.