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

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.

The justice system is, not surprisingly, broken as well. Karachi’s targeted killings go largely uninvestigated despite the fact that the crimes have frequently been caught on video. Meanwhile, legal loopholes and a lax rule of law mean that three out of four terror suspects are acquitted in the courts. This has led the Supreme Court of Pakistan to angrily rebuke the Sindh government. “Why is the provincial government not waking up itself? The fundamental right to security is being violated,” said Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudry.

Ethnic clashes are only a superficial explanation for violence perpetuated by corruption and triggered by a ripple effect from foreign actions in the north. As Shahyerhar Mirza, a reporter for the English-language news channel Express 24/7, wrote, “This wanton carnage works well for the respective political parties, as it perpetuates the propaganda that the other ethnic group is a threat to their existence and helps to establish the party's writ in the neighborhood.” Ethnic tension also acts as a convenient explanation that ignores the effects of the foreign intervention in Afghanistan and its spread across Pakistan’s borders.

The influx of arms, drugs, Taliban fighters and ethnic Pashtun migrants from Afghanistan as a result of US military action there, has played no small role in destabilizing Pakistan. So have the wildly unpopular drone strikes in Pakistan which have ramped up under the Obama administration. This blurring of the borders due to the US war in Afghanistan has severely crippled both the sovereignty of Pakistan on the international stage and the legitimacy of its government in the eyes of its people.

An even more tangible result has been the war-induced migration of Pashtuns and even Taliban militants into Karachi. This migration has increased ethnic tension with the Urdu-speaking population and brought the northern war to the southern coast.

The Pashtun population makes up a minority but sizeable segment of the city’s residents and many of them hail from the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) and the Northwest Frontier Province, particularly Waziristan, both hotbeds of militant activity. A subset of this Pashtun population in Karachi remains very sympathetic to the Pakistani strains of the Taliban, like the Tehreek e-Taliban, and provides them support and financing. In the past, the Urdu MQM party has railed against what they term the “Talibanization” of Karachi, facilitated by the corruption and institutional incoherence that ties all of this together. The Mohajjir population remains angry at the intrusion of Pashtuns, many of whom not only represent economic competition, but an increase in the sales and circulation of weapons and heroin that, in turn, perpetuates drug addiction and gang activity in the city.

U.S. fears of restricting gun rights have prevented stronger approaches to limiting the flow of small arms like the popular Kalashnikov assault rifle and shoulder-launched missile systems throughout the region. At a UN conference in 2001, the US successfully derailed attempts to institute comprehensive controls and oversight in the global small arms trade, resulting in a weak and inadequate monitoring framework. Militancy, terrorism and gangs rely heavily on such illegal and untraceable weaponry which has frequently found its way onto the streets of Karachi.

The roots of the US role in Pakistan’s turmoil, specifically in the city of Karachi, extend beyond the current intervention Afghanistan. Karachi experienced very similar unrest during the 1980s when the US assisted the mujaheddin fighters against the Soviet invasion. An article in the LA Times from 1986 describes a scene in Karachi that could easily describe this summer: “Members of the embattled Mohajir community, their slum neighborhoods devastated by four days of ethnic violence … here in Pakistan’s largest city, feel they are indirectly victims of the war in Afghanistan being fought hundreds of miles to the north.” Like today, migration from the north (including US-armed mujaheddin) and the beginnings of the heroin trade were significant elements in violence during the 1980s.

The United States has a lot to lose from chaos in Karachi: roughly 40 percent of all the land-delivered supplies to troops in Afghanistan pass through the city. The U.S. also relies, however shakily, on Pakistan to police militancy, something that’s even more difficult to do with the country’s largest city in flames.

Pakistan has neither an adequate system to deal with external pressures from the US and its military nor the mechanisms in place to address the internal threats of gang activity and militancy. Just as corruption prevents the police from adequately protecting people in Karachi, it also prevents Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI, from sharing intelligence about cross-border militant activity with the United States.

The breakdown of rule of law that results in unpunished targeted killings and gang members receiving greater protections than ordinary citizens in Karachi is deeply connected to the turmoil that allows militancy to thrive in the country as a whole. The continued US presence in the region and the broad effects of the war on terror contribute to the city’s volatility and the Pakistani government’s inability to deal with it. As a result, the population of Karachi, like people all across Pakistan, are forced to live with a political system that regularly cannibalizes itself and which is continually reeling from the effects of foreign intervention in the region.


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