Friday, August 06, 2010




    For months now, Karachi had been sitting on a powder keg, tensely waiting for that one spark that would blow up the city. But the bloodletting that has followed the assassination of a MQM legislator, Raza Haider, in which around 70 people have been shot dead, scores of shops and transport vehicles burnt down and all business activity has come to a grinding halt in a three day orgy of violence is probably not that spark. If the reports coming out of the city are anything to go by, worse is yet to come, what with political turf battles and ethnic animosities getting jumbled up with criminal syndicates, sectarian mafias and Islamic terror groups. Amidst the growing chaos in Pakistan's commercial capital, the almost dysfunctional state machinery is in a stasis induced in large measure by political compulsions. On their part, the politicians have been reduced playing the role of helpless bystanders doing nothing more than issuing statements of condemnation and declaring the resolve to clean up the city even as the spiral of violence shows no sign of winding down.

    Since the mid 1980s, Karachi has frequently suffered paroxysms of street violence. These bouts of violence were in large part the result of the political assertion by the majority Mohajir community under the leadership of the MQM. Not only did the MQM dominate the politics of Karachi, it also held complete sway over the streets of Karachi. Despite two quasi-military operations against the MQM, in which thousands of MQM cadres were brutally killed in thinly disguised extra-judicial 'encounters', the party held its own. After the Urdu-speaking Pervez Musharraf usurped power in 1999, the Pakistani establishment reached out to the MQM and accommodated it in the power structure in Karachi, Sindh and the Centre. From around 2002, the MQM was practically given a run of the place in both the provincial government as well as the city government. The pivotal position that the MQM held in the National Assembly ensured that no precipitate action could be taken against the party. This situation has prevailed even after the return of 'democracy' in 2008.

    With MQM back in the saddle, the violence in the city underwent a metamorphosis. Except for a show of force in May 2007 when the then dysfunctional Chief Justice had gone to Karachi to gather support against his suspension by Musharraf, large scale street disturbances and violence got replaced by the phenomenon of target killings. Initially, police officers involved in the 'encounters' of MQM cadres were shot down one by one. But soon the trend of target killings acquired a more sinister form. Political activists and workers and ordinary citizens have been gunned down practically on a daily basis for nearly two years now. It is believed that these targeted killings were the result of a political turf and aimed partly at making Karachi appear to be an unsafe place for certain ethnic groups (which in turn led to retaliatory killings of members from other ethnic groups) and partly a tactic to impose the writ of one or the other political party in the area where these killings are taking place. At the same time, there have also been targeted killings of people belonging to rival religious sects. For instance, over a 100 doctors, almost all of them Shias, were gunned down before the law enforcement agencies woke up to the sectarian nature of the target killings.

Karachi which had always been a hub for Islamists, witnessed in the 1980's and 90's a growth of jihadist mafias in the city. Radical madrassas had sprouted up all over the city and provided the underpinning for the flourishing jihad industry. Almost all the big jihadist outfits like Harkatul Mujahideen, Harkatul Jihad Islami, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba etc. had established their network in the city. Alongside, sectarian groups like the Sunni Deobandi extremist group, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), and its militant wing Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and the Shia group Tehrik-e-Fiqh-e-Jafferia also drew support. Not to be left behind, the Barelvi sect set up its own outfit – Sunni Tehrik – to challenge the growing Deobandi influence, but suffered a huge setback after its entire top leadership was wiped out in a bomb attack in 2006 during a rally in Karachi's Nishtar park.

As a result, Karachi was quite a fertile ground for al Qaeda and the Taliban, not only in terms of providing recruits, but also for rest, recuperation, resources, and refuge, not to mention transit point for Jihad Inc, something that is borne out not only by the arrest of important al Qaeda members but also the arrest of the Taliban deputy head, Mullah Baradar. By the time the American journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and killed in Karachi, the city had already become notorious for being a hub of jihadist militias, a sort of terror central in which terror cells and modules proliferated. Surprisingly, during the last few years, despite the presence of the Taliban / al Qaeda in the city, it turned out to be least affected by the sort of Islamic terrorism that was hitting upcountry Pakistan.

This was not so much because of effective law enforcement but more because the Islamists felt that anarchy in the city would undermine their strategy instead of promoting it. A wave of terror attacks in Karachi would have forced the hand of the government to put in place security mechanisms that would interfere in the relative free run that the Islamist terror groups were enjoying in the city. Of course, this did not stop the terror groups from indulging in low level violence – target killings and the occasional bomb attack (like the Ashura bombing in December last) – to keep the city tense and on the edge by aggravating the existing political, ethnic and religious fault-lines in the city, the idea clearly being to exploit the explosive situation at a time of their choosing.

Karachi is not just the life-line of Pakistan – with its two ports which handle the bulk of Pakistan's foreign trade – it is also the life-line of NATO forces in Afghanistan which also receive the bulk of their logistics supplies through Karachi. The Islamist terror groups, most of who are either allied to the Taliban / al Qaeda or are sympathetic to them, have long eyed the logistics supply lines of the NATO forces as a target in order to choke the NATO forces war fighting capabilities. While threats have been issued to transporters – almost the entire transport trade in Karachi is controlled by the Pashtuns – to not carry NATO supplies, no serious action has been taken against the NATO supply line so far.

But the possibility cannot be ruled out that at a time when the devastating floods in upcountry Pakistan have already disrupted NATO supply lines, the killing of the MQM legislator was part of an effort by the Islamist terror groups to bottle up the logistics operations in Karachi and worsen the situation for the international security forces in Afghanistan. Even if this was indeed the case, it would still appear that the time has still not come for the Islamists to shut down the city completely and all they have done so far is to demonstrate (or should we say test) their ability to sabotage the NATO supplies by instigating and orchestrating violence in Karachi.

(to be continued)


    <1220 Words>                6th August, 2010



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