Why Karachi Burns

The proliferation of splinter groups in Karachi- breakaway factions acting independently from their patron organizations- and increasingly the influx of thousands of Taliban militants in the city (who have sought refuge from drones strikes and the army operation in the cacophony of the metropolis), alongside the presence of the armed wings of the ANP and the MQM (notorious for torture cells and their ruthless tactics), have turned the city into a hotbed of turbulence and turmoil, a motley of interest groups battling for control. This means that while once there were only two warring political opponents engaged in a turf war, now there are several; many of whom have not been identified, and whose interests, both ideological and economic, are yet to be determined. Amir Mir, writing in the Asia Times, explains the roots of conflict in Karachi and how vested political and economic interests continue to result in a large scale loss of human life:

Security officials say the nexus between politics and crime is an old one in Karachi as hired assassins, extortionists, kidnappers, drug-peddlers, land-grabbers, gunrunners and even petty criminals have successfully managed to find their niche in one political party or another. All of them are heavily armed and most of them have the connections needed to escape arrest and prosecution.

The mass influx was bound to destabilize established equations, hence changing the demographic composition of Karachi (which was once dominated by Sindhi-speaking people) and turning it into an Urdu-speaking Mohajir-dominated city. In such a situation, ethnic differences were bound to emerge between the Mohajirs and the Sindhis, the Pashtuns and the Sindhis and the Mohajirs and the Sindhis, thereby causing tensions.

The recent inclusion of the Taliban into the power equation, has, ironically, seen calls by both the ANP and the MQM for the imposition of an emergency. Amir Mir, writing in the News, exposes the extent to which the Taliban have infiltrated Karachi:

According to well-placed circles in the security establishment, they have informed the ministry of interior about the presence of at least 25 key al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked jehadi groups which are mainly responsible for the deteriorating law and order situation in Karachi. Many of these groups are operating in the form of smaller cells in a bid to dodge the law enforcement agencies. These cells are often so small and so strewn that they are only discovered when law enforcement agencies arrest their members.

Disturbingly, the influx of these radical elements has bred criminal activities (including the export of heroin to Malaysia and Singapore), which further undermines the security and stability of Karachi. Clearly, these deviant actors are not the flag bearers for Islam, or for the “Jihad” that has been delineated in the religious scripture. These are criminal elements who operate with a distorted ideology that has no resemblance whatsoever with the true tenants of the faith. Amir Mir expounds in his article:

Most of these groups in Karachi, which has a large Pashtun populace, generate funds by indulging in kidnappings for ransom, bank robberies, street crimes and extortion. Another revenue source for them is the heroine trade, with the drug being exported to foreign countries via Karachi.

In the grand chess game, the inhabitants of Karachi suffer endlessly; the economy takes a blow with the breakdown in the law and order situation (a single strike costs the economy close to 5 billion Rs), investors scale back infrastructure and development plans, the climate of terror paints a negative picture of the city in the international media, and of a country increasingly labeled as a failed state. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) dispatched last year a fact-finding mission to Karachi with the aim of understanding the roots of conflict in the city. The report holds the political parties accountable for the ongoing carnage:

Karachi is in the grip of a multi-sided wave of insecurity-driven political, ethnic and sectarian polarization that has greatly undermined its tradition of tolerance and good-neighborliness. While gangs of land-grabbers and mafias have tried to exploit the breakdown of law and order, they do not appear to be the main directors of the horrible game of death and destruction; that distinction belongs to more powerful political groups and it is they who hold the key to peace.

What can the government do-apart from sending a boisterous party representative to the prime time media talk shows, who engages in a diatribe with members of other political parties- to stem the flow of blood in the financial epicenter of the nation? All the political parties directly or indirectly involved in the massacre in Karachi find themselves part of the ruling coalition. Crucially, should the Pakistan army be called in (which would diverge its attention from the ongoing war in Afghanistan), to clean the mess- as the locals refer to the imposition of a military operation?

The establishment of state writ in Karachi, whether that comes from an army operation along the lines of “Operation Cleanup” in 1991, or through the de-weaponization of the city (as has been petitioned in the Supreme Court), or through a political compromise among the political parties, remains crucial to enacting peace and stability in the troubled city. With election expected in 2013, there is the urgent need to adopt the “politics of reconciliation” that buries the hatchets of the past, and for strong political will to cleanse the city of criminal and mafia elements (discounting political affiliations). Importantly, the police and Rangers should be empowered to act independently and not be restricted by vested political interests, as has been the case in the past. The use of technology-CCTV cameras- can greatly aid the security agencies for this purpose. The people of Karachi, the brave and the resilient, have seen their city fractured by the politics of ethnicity, by the nexus between the mafia and the political parties. They deserve better. For once, they desire peace.

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