Will Karachi Crumble?

Secular militants can be as much trouble as the Taliban in Pakistan's toughest city.

In Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, militancy is not exclusive to the religious. It also has a secular, beardless face in the form of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), an ethnic-nationalist and militant political party directed by its London-based leader, Altaf Hussain.

A number of Scotland Yard investigations—including one implicating London-based MQM officials in the murder of a fellow party member—could cause a crisis of leadership in the party and result in greater instability back home in Karachi. Furthermore, the cases surrounding the MQM raise some important questions about the morality and strategic utility of Britain’s relationship with a Pakistani politician who incites violence back home from London.

A Party Born Amid Ethnic Tumult

Now Karachi’s most powerful political party, the MQM emerged in the late 1970s as an advocate for the city’s middle class, Urdu-speaking muhajirs—Muslims who migrated to Pakistan from India after the 1947 partition. The MQM fed off of a growing muhajir sense of precariousness as other communities in the multiethnic city began to assert themselves economically and politically, as well as through militancy.

The party itself would become both a victim and purveyor of violence. By the early 1990s, it had established a massive extortion network and kidnapped, tortured, and killed members of rival parties. The MQM was also the target of a massive military operation from 1992-1994 in which hundreds of its members were killed extrajudicially. In between conflagrations of violence, the MQM had served as part of federal and provincial coalition governments, and governed Karachi’s municipal government on a number of occasions. In pursuit of dominance in Karachi, the MQM has availed itself of both the ballot and the bullet.

New Coalitions After September 11

The post–September 11 period opened up the possibility that the party would become normalized—that its use of violence would recede as the utility of politics increased. It joined two coalitions: the coalition government led by the party of then-military ruler General Pervez Musharraf and the war-on-terror coalition led by George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

In 2005, the MQM swept Karachi’s municipal elections and mayor Mustafa Kamal pushed through significant governance reforms and infrastructural change in the city. The MQM’s popularity began to extend beyond its traditional muhajir base.

Around the same time, it started to reap dividends from allying with the West. The MQM was included in the 2007 National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) issued by Musharraf and facilitated by London and Washington, which gave amnesty to thousands of Pakistani politicians, political workers, and bureaucrats charged or convicted on various criminal charges ranging from corruption to murder. The idea behind the arrangement was to facilitate an alliance of pro-Western forces—including Pervez Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and Altaf Hussain’s MQM—that would ensure continued Pakistani partnership with the United States in the war on terror.

The MQM Regresses

In 2008, the PPP and MQM would forge a coalition government at the federal level and in Sindh province, partnering with another secular party, the Awami National Party (ANP). With the Pakistan Army taking the lead, these parties more or less continued cooperation with the United States in the war on terror and supported a bolder fight against militants inside Pakistan.

But the great irony is that neither the coalition governments nor the NRO would make Pakistan a safer place. Instead, these very parties that were partners at the federal and provincial level mercilessly fought one another in Karachi, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of activists and militants from the ANP, MQM and PPP. And the very war against terror that the MQM supported in Pakistan’s northwest drove migrants down south to Karachi—catalyzing a violent campaign by the party against ethnic Pashtun civilians, political activists and militants.

Meanwhile, the MQM’s coalition partner, the PPP, reneged on pledges to conduct local government elections. And so in 2010, the MQM lost control of the Karachi city government. Once again, the bullet gained greater appeal.

A Strategic Boon for London

London has been Altaf Hussain’s home since 1992, when he fled Pakistan amid military operations targeting his group. Granted asylum, Hussain has been a British national for over a decade. For Britain, having Karachi’s most powerful figure based in their country has been of significant strategic utility. Hussain’s presence in London gives Britain an instrument through which to maintain some degree of political stability in Pakistan. From 2008-13, Britain pressured Hussain on a number of occasions to maintain his coalition with the PPP, according to Zahid Hussain, a leading Pakistani journalist.