Accessibility links

Breaking News

Questions Arise Quickly About Pakistan's Fresh Effort To Calm Karachi

Karachi residents gather around the site of a bomb explosion in that port city in early August.
Karachi residents gather around the site of a bomb explosion in that port city in early August.
It was hyped as a life-saving operation to rescue Pakistan's biggest city and key commercial hub from criminals and terrorists.

But days into the government's broad security sweep to counter growing violence in restive Karachi, the initiative has run into more than just operational challenges.

Opposition is said to be mounting within some of the city's largest political parties.

And residents and veteran observers are describing the crackdown as hopeless even before it gets a chance to inflict serious damage on Karachi's numerous criminal cartels and terrorist cells.

Tauseef Ahmed Khan, a Karachi-based columnist, says prominent local political factions are good at making security sweeps controversial -- and the current effort is a case in point. He adds that missteps in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, don't help.

"Publicly they speak out in favor of an operation and condemn assassins and criminals, but when the police and [paramilitary] Rangers launch an operation and begin arresting some of their supporters and leaders, they make it controversial," Khan says. "Unfortunately, the security establishment in a distant Islamabad and the media there begin parroting their arguments, which ultimately leads to the failure of such security operations."

Islamabad Initiative

The latest operation in Karachi, a teeming metropolis of 20 million people, began after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the crackdown last week.

In the days before the announcement, Sharif held wide-ranging consultations with politicians and businessmen in Karachi.

The operation, however, ran into trouble after police arrested a senior leader of Karachi's Muthahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) political party on September 10.

Former lawmaker Nadeem Hashmi's late-night arrest for allegedly killing two policemen sparked a day of rioting on September 11.

Locals and businesses suffered as the city came to a virtual standstill, with local television stations broadcasting footage of torched vehicles and burning property across Karachi.

Columnist Khan says Pakistan's powerful security establishment and the relatively new civilian government are on different pages when it comes to restoring order to Karachi.

He points to the presence of numerous armed Islamist factions -- including sectarian terrorists and Taliban-allied groups -- as well as mafias involved in land grabs, racketeering, and murder as evidence of the government's failure to move in unison.

"In Pakistan, the elected government does not solely exercise power," Khan says. "Instead, power is shared by many stakeholders, including the military establishment and the Taliban. This often results in stalling progress towards solving protracted problems [and] this is what exactly happened this time."

As 'They' Like It

But Naveed Hussain, an editor for "The Express Tribune" daily, sees the roots of the problem in the way the city is policed. He says that for more than a decade, the MQM and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) have ruled the city and the southern Sindh Province, of which Karachi is the capital.

Mourners sit around the body of a boy who was killed in a bomb blast in Karachi in August.
Mourners sit around the body of a boy who was killed in a bomb blast in Karachi in August.
This, he says, gave them an opportunity to mold the city police force to their liking by appointing loyalists within its ranks and leadership.

"The police force is highly politicized. So they will be blamed for being biased and partisan," Hussain says. "This is why this current operation will not be any different from the so called periodic 'targeted operation' during the past decade."

Hussain says criminal enterprises like kidnapping for ransom, targeted assassinations, drug trafficking, and extortion have mushroomed into an industry in the city once seen as Pakistan's industrial powerhouse.

He says that most political parties in the city now patronize armed gangs or have formed their own militias to protect their interests and secure their share in criminal enterprises.

"Basically, Karachi is very polarized. It is polarized along ethnic lines, on the basis of political affiliations, and on sectarian grounds," Hussain says. "We have a very complex situation here, and I don't think this kind of cosmetic operations can lead to improving the situation in Karachi."

Dark Days In The 'City Of Lights'

The nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recently noted a sharp rise in targeted assassinations in Karachi. Its report in July said more than 1,700 people were killed in the city in the first six months of 2013. Pakistani officials say more than 2,000 people were killed in sectarian attacks, terrorist bombings, and targeted killings last year.

Once a peaceful melting pot nicknamed the "city of lights," Karachi's dark days began in the 1980s amid political tensions between the Urdu-speaking majority and ethnic Pashtuns.

Since then, a burgeoning population, sectarian and Taliban militias, and organized crime have added to the city's woes.
  • 16x9 Image

    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.