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Karachi Violence An Ominous Sign For Pakistan

Pakistani paramilitary soldiers cordon off the site of an attack on a Karachi market on October 19.
Pakistani paramilitary soldiers cordon off the site of an attack on a Karachi market on October 19.
The ever-worsening violence in Karachi, the commercial hub of Pakistan, seems to be pushing the country increasingly toward political instability, and is threatening to undermine its fight against the emboldened Taliban in the northwest.

On October 14, 33 people were killed, sparking a spate of targeted killings that claimed 90 victims in six days. The death toll from the violence in Karachi in the first 10 months of this year could be as high as 1,300, although no official figures have been released.

Yet as this bloodbath continues and even accelerates, the central government seems paralyzed, in part because the key stakeholders in that multiethnic city are part of an uneasy political alliance on both the local and national levels.

In the most densely populated parts of the megacity, the Urdu-speaking community (also called "mohajirs," refugees, because they migrated to the newly created Pakistan after the division of India in 1947) are represented by the Muttahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM). The Pashtuns, who have flocked to Karachi over the years in search of economic opportunity, largely support the Awami National Party (ANP).

At Arm's Length

The ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) is powerful in the rural parts of Sindh Province, but it has comparatively little influence in metropolitan Karachi compared to the other two parties.

While considerations of political expediency -- mostly on the part of the PPP -- have kept the three parties as uneasy allies in the central and provincial governments for the past three years, their rivalries prevent them from developing a real partnership. In fact, that competition is proving an increasingly strong centrifugal force, especially in the case of the junior partners, the MQM and the ANP.

The MQM is feeling increasing political pressure from the ANP, which represents the growing Pashtun population of Karachi, currently estimated at 3.5 million of the city's 18 million inhabitants. The MQM has been accused of nurturing armed gangs to terrorize its political opponents and strengthen its grip on urban Karachi.

But the MQM controls 25 seats in Pakistan's National Assembly (the lower house of parliament), and the PPP needs its support to ward off the threat of a no-confidence motion from the Punjab-dominated Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Shahrif. For this reason, the national government has been loath to launch a major security operation to bring order to Karachi.

It should be recalled that an army security operation was conducted in Karachi in the early 1990s, following another period of intense lawlessness. Security forces claimed to have seized caches of illegal arms and exposed torture chambers. Hundreds of suspects were arrested and scores of people were killed. During this period, MQM leader Altaf Hussain and several of his allies fled to India, ending up receiving political asylum in Great Britain.

On top of all the city's other troubles, parts of it have become safe havens for drug traffickers and arms smugglers that are dominated by extortion gangs tied to various power structures and political parties. Vendors, laborers, and businesspeople who refuse to pay protection money are often victimized, says Karachi-based analyst Fawad Ali Shah.

Ripe For Extremism?

Like other parts of Pakistan, Karachi is riven by Shi'a-Sunni and Deobandi-Barelvi tension, and this -- on top of the political and ethnic rivalries -- makes the city vulnerable to inflamed religious bigotry and Talibanization. In January, security agencies claimed they had arrested Afghan Taliban leader Mulah Abdul Ghani Biradar in Karachi. Because the Afghan Taliban are considered allies of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the reasoning behind Biradar's arrest is still a mystery.

But Biradar's presence in Karachi is just one indication of the Taliban's growing influence there. There have been numerous suicide bombings in the city, responsibility for which has been claimed by Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or their affiliates. On October 8, at least 12 people were killed by two suicide bombers at the shrine of the 8th-century saint Abdullah Shah Ghazi. The mausoleum is not far from the residence of President Asif Ali Zardari.

Going back further, 140 people were killed in a multiple-bomb attack at a rally of the late former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in October 2007. The U.S. consulate in the city was attacked in June 2002 and again in March 2006. In May 2002, 12 French naval engineers were kidnapped and in January-February 2002, U.S. reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded. All this shows a powerful Taliban presence in Karachi.

Although the recent bloodshed in Karachi can't be blamed on the Taliban or other extremists, it is safe to assume that those groups will be the ultimate beneficiaries if the killing and terror continue.

The central government in Pakistan is already coping with myriad problems, from corruption to the recent flooding to the row with the judiciary and so on. Now the unrest in Karachi threatens to become a new front for the Taliban, diverting attention from the tribal areas where security operations and U.S. drone strikes have done much to restrict the militants.

Karachi is the main port of Pakistan. Sixty-eight percent of government revenues and 25 percent of the Pakistan's GDP stem from Karachi. Much of the supplies for the coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan pass through the city.

The central government and the world can hardly afford to let the lawlessness there continue any longer.

Daud Khattak is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL