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The Karachi Crackdown

Nawaz Sharif tries to stem growing violence in Pakistan’s largest city, but a broader effort will be needed.

By Hamza Mannan for

Ali Chishti, a prominent investigative journalist who has been covering politics in Karachi for the past five years, was abducted recently. The reporter was tortured both physically and mentally for nine hours, and later tied up and thrown onto the side of a road. His abductors remain at large, and with a dismal conviction rate of less than ten percent for prisoners under trial, I doubt his perpetrators will ever face justice, even if they are somehow found. Still, Chishti remains hopeful that “the riddle,” as he likes to call what would be a criminal investigation in any other country, will be solved.

Umar Cheema, co­founder of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan, faced a similar trial in 2010, when his abductors stripped him down and took pictures of him in humiliating positions. He returned with his journalism more potent than ever, publishing several reports, including one revealing that 67 percent of Pakistani parliamentarians had failed to file tax returns.

These are exactly the sort of stories you get when you mix ethnic and sectarian violence, vast sums of money, frequent targeted killings and extortion.

In 2001, Dennis Kux, a retired State Department official, wrote a handy primer to Pakistan called Pakistan: Flawed Not Failed State. Kux reasoned that while it may seem from afar that the Pakistani state is broken, it nonetheless works, however imperfectly. The same could be said for Karachi, in many ways a microcosm of Pakistan.

Modern day Karachi is a sprawling hub that Foreign Policy magazine recently called “the world’s most dangerous megacity.” Certainly, the city is growing accustomed to making the news for all the wrong reasons. Yet Karachi is also Pakistan’s most profitable city, both in human capital and real economic terms, contributing 70 percent of all of Pakistan’s income tax revenue, and a quarter of the country’s
economy.

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Now an operation is underway to rid the city of the sources of its violence and terror. Recently elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has gone as far as to call on the Sindh Rangers, a paramilitary group usually reserved for more existential crises, to assist the Sindh Police Department in the crackdown.

However, while this does seem to be a sincere effort on the part of the federal government to resolve the crises that have contributed to Karachi’s failings, it is not as far-reaching, in both vision and practice, as it might be.

Karachi’s problems run broad and deep, and an approach that expects to solve the myriad issues without tackling the underlying causes is likely wishful thinking. Take ethnopolitical conflict, for instance. One of the many contributing factors lies in the demographic composition of Karachi. Mohajirs – Urdu­-speaking migrants from northern India who came to Pakistan following the partition – are competing for territory and political clout with Pashtuns. In the 1998 census, Mohajirs accounted for a little more than 50 percent of Karachi, while Pashtun representation was significantly lower. Recently, however, Pashtun migration has swelled with migration from troubled regions in northern Pakistan. To pursue their territorial, economic and political interests, both the Awami National Party (ANP), which represents the Pashtuns, and the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), which represents Mohajirs, are increasingly turning to violence through proxy forces.

That’s not the only source of trouble. Karachi is also home to various factions of some of Pakistan’s most deadly militant groups. The roll call of terrorists discovered in Karachi include Mullah Baradar, second in command of the Taliban, and many of the Taliban’s top leaders who were members of the Quetta Shura. But the causes of violence extend even further. It was not too long ago that a bomb was set off in close proximity to a Shia Imambargah in Abbas Town, and killing close to 50 and injuring many more. The following day, during the funeral procession, further sectarian conflict left two dead and dozens more injured. Investigations into the attack pointed to Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the terrorist organization whose antipathy to Shia is well known.

Karachi may well be straining at the seams, but its multifarious problems are not going to be solved by simply hunting down perpetrators. The federal government has conducted operations in Karachi before, most recently in 2011, but also in 1992 during Sharif’s first term as prime minister, and again between 1994 and 1996 under the late Benazir Bhutto. Perhaps the return of the paramilitary rangers is a testament to the futility of these efforts.

Pakistan’s largest city is a complex knot of problems that defy any single solution. Any initiative must have multiple fronts. First, a serious and concerted effort to reform the city’s police department is required, with accompanying measures of accountability put in place to catch and prosecute rogue members of the police who are helping fuel the violence. Second, the federal government must do more to help stem the influx of arms into the city, by regulating Karachi’s ports and other points of trade through which weapons are making their 
way into the city. Third, Karachiites themselves must reject ethnic politics. Fourth, the rank and file of all political parties in Karachi, particularly the MQM, must be made to realize that power can only be consolidated through the ballot box, and not through forces of intimidation and obstruction.

Hamza Mannan is a freelance writer, whose work has appeared in Asia Times Online, Express Tribune, and The International News.