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Chaos in Karachi: Is America’s Af/Pak War Sowing Bloodshed in Pakistan’s Largest City?

Is Karachi’s long hot summer of targeted killings and ethnic violence a window into Pakistan’s future?

Pakistan’s complex ethnic and political divisions have once again turned Karachi, its largest city, into a scene of chaos. Chronic upheaval is no stranger to this financial hub, which produces 70 percent of the country’s revenue, but this summer has been especially bloody. More than 1,000 people, by some estimates, have died since January. The streets are filled with burned-out cars and smoking heaps of tires. Residents are afraid to leave their homes.

Karachi’s summer of turmoil is part and parcel of decades worth of political and ethnic strife that can’t simply be explained away as the growing pains of a still-young nation. The violence is a direct result of the corruption and systemic fragility that have frequently put Pakistan at odds with its Western allies, particularly the United States. The US is also a key player in the current violence as the impact of the war on terror has been deeply felt even in the southern port city. Ethnic and partisan tensions dominate politics and the corrupt relationships among the party members, armed gangs and the police result in security arrangements that protect all the wrong people. This toxic combination is not only behind the current unrest in the Sindh Province but also the proliferation of militancy in the northwest of the country.

This recent spate of violence has cost Pakistan heavily, both in terms of lives and money. According to an assessment of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), 300 died in Karachi in July alone. Reports by Pakistan Today say the resulting closure of the city markets cost vendors and traders roughly $17 million per day. The violence is also taking a toll on foreign investment. Recently, a Chinese company pulled out of a coal-mining project that was potentially worth $19 billion, due to the security situation in the city.

With the population fracturing along ethnic and class lines, the primary victims of institutional failings and citywide turmoil are the poor.  In early August, the chairman of the HCRP, Zohra Yusuf, told Agence France-Presse that “People have been killed because of their political affiliations, but it seems most are killed because of their ethnic background. The majority of them are poor and destitute.” The poorer neighborhoods are, not surprisingly, the ones dominated and threatened by gang activity, and those most susceptible to ethnic unrest.

Although deaths, including many targeted killings, have been on the rise since January, Karachi’s latest surge in violence began in late June, when the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which represents the Urdu-speaking population known as the Mohajjirs, left a governing coalition with Benazir Bhutto’s former party, the left wing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Walking out of the National Assembly and Senate as well as Sindh Province’s Assembly (for the second time this year) after two upcoming elections were postponed, the MQM claimed the PPP had postponed the elections to prevent the party from running for one of the seats and had used the ongoing violence in Karachi as an excuse.

Strains between the parties escalated further when the leader of the PPP, Zulfiqar Mirza, lashed out at the MQM for leaving the coalition, blaming them for the violence and calling his MQM counterpart, Altaf Hussain, a murderer and an extortionist. After Mirza recently resigned his post, he took the opportunity to accuse the MQM of responsibility for the death of recently murdered Geo TV journalist Wali Babar. Mirza claimed that had he been allowed, he would have been able to restore peace to Karachi. And this is just one example in a long line of barbs, insults and accusations flung across party lines that have sparked resurgences of violence in the city’s streets.

While party politics overlapping with ethnic tension would seem to explain Karachi’s violence, it’s hardly the full story. Karachi’s (and, by extension, Pakistan’s) corruption is central to the deterioration of security and order.  In exchange for police protection, gangs assist party members, act as their patrons’ bodyguards and intimidate politicians’ opponents. For these services, among others, politicians and the police force overlook the gangs’ drug and arms trafficking activity. In a system where the gang members are protected at the expense of the citizenry, chaos reigns.

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