Operation Karachi: Pakistan's Military Retakes the City

"If the roots of Karachi’s woes are political, so are the keys to its success."

Terrorism in Pakistan is in decline for the second consecutive year. If current trend lines continue, the number of Pakistani civilians killed in terrorist attacks this year will be the lowest since 2006, a year before the Pakistani Taliban began a nationwide insurgent and terrorist campaign.

This precipitous drop is due to both Pakistani counterinsurgency operations being conducted in all seven tribal areas near Afghanistan, and urban counterterrorism operations in all four provinces—the most expansive of which is taking place in the megacity of Karachi.

While foreign observers of Pakistan remain fixated on North Waziristan, the major gains of the Pakistan Army and local police toward pacifying the complex urban environment of Karachi merit exploration.

Karachi: A ‘Feral City’

The Karachi of old was cosmopolitan, peaceful, and clean. Into the 1960s, it represented the can-do spirit and aspirations of a young Pakistan, taking in Muslim migrants from India, who overcame the trauma and violence of partition with their forbearance, industriousness, and optimism.

The Karachi of today resembles Richard Norton’s “feral city”—a metropolis whose government “has lost the ability to maintain the rule of law within the city’s boundaries yet remains a functioning actor in the greater international system.”

Karachi has yet to fully match Norton’s dystopian nightmare, but since the 1980s, violence has become an integral part of the city’s political and social ecosystem. The capacity to intimidate and kill is an essential tool to attain or maintain political power and wealth.

Karachi’s challenges with urban violence are by no means unique. It has its equivalents in Delhi’s water tanker mafias, Mexico City’s kidnapping networks, and Mumbai’s infamous gangsters. But put together, Karachi’s violent dynamics may be among the world’s most complex.

Karachi is a city in which:

–  Anti-state and transnational jihadist groups conduct mass casualty terrorist attacks targeting politicians, state personnel and institutions, religious minorities, and foreigners.

–  Ethnic, sectarian, and anti-state militants—generally two young men on a motorcycle—engage in daily targeted killings of their rivals and enemies. Some killers from these groups receive training and/or refuge in India, Iran, and South Africa.

–  Extortionists, sometimes calling from Afghanistan or South Africa, target common citizens and businessmen to raise funds for political parties, religious organizations, and terrorist groups.

–  Real estate mafias allied with or directly connected to the city’s top political parties usurp public land, which they sell or build housing developments on top of, to join in the real estate market that has been booming for most of the post-9/11 period.

–  Terrorist networks kidnap the wealthy and rob banks to fund their violence across Pakistan.

Politics by Violence

The latest surge in Karachi violence began in 2010 as the tenure of the municipal government, run by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), expired. The MQM is Karachi’s largest party, representing Urdu-speaking migrants (Muhajirs) from India and their descendants. It dominates Karachi through a mix of genuine loyalty from Muhajirs, an efficient party cadre system, and brutal violence.

The MQM would have likely won the city’s next polls. And that is precisely why they did not take place. 

Municipal elections are administered by the provincial government. And though the MQM was in a coalition with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) at the center and in the Sindh province, where Karachi is located, the PPP had no interest in conducting local polls and devolving power to an MQM-run city government. The PPP preferred to rule Karachi—a city of 23 million people—through its own appointed bureaucrats.

The MQM-PPP coalition was a marriage arranged in Dubai by bureaucrats from London and Washington, who saw an alliance between “secular” parties in Pakistan as key to winning the war on terror. But all politics is local. And in Karachi, the battle between the MQM and PPP would grow as Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban surged.

The war on terror could not unite Karachi’s secular parties. And, in many ways, the war on terror contributed to the resurgence in Karachi violence.

When the MQM governed Karachi between 2005 and 2010, there was hope that the party would transition away from violence. But the party rededicated itself to violence upon its exit from power. And it was motivated in part by changes in the city’s demographics.

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