According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 300 people (more than this by now) have been killed already this year in the port city of Karachi, Pakistan’s economic hub and the provincial capital of Sindh. The organisation also states that more than 1,700 people were killed in similar violence that persisted over the course of last year. It’s hard to put a finger on where the original root of the turbulence lies. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Rehman Malik has claimed, more than once, that these killings have been predominantly “personal enmity” cases, but that hardly needs great effort to refute: the statistics alone do that well enough. Pakistani journalist Mehreen Kasana describes the situation as a “a brutal amalgamation of factors”: a marriage of the violent rivalries of ethnolinguistic groups (like the Urdu-speaking muhajjir population and the Pashtuns) and the persistent contentions among the political parties representing them, and includes as well the powerful influences of corruption, extortion and gangs, many of whom have developed cosy relationships with politicians. Targeted killings are running unchecked, often, as Kasana pointed out, made worse by the deployment of Rangers, whom she calls “notorious for killing unarmed civilians.”
The persistent violence sometimes closes down the city, as it did for a period of six straight days a few weeks ago. Ateeq Bir, the head of the Karachi Markets Alliance, told AFP that those six days lost Karachi’s traders $220m and the industrialists $495m. Karachi is responsible for such an outsized share of the overall Pakistani economy - 42 percent of the GDP - that this is a serious problem for the whole country.
The political parties receive most of the blame from citizens over the current bloodshed. A recent poll carried out by Gallup Pakistan found that 46 percent of respondents blamed the parties for the targeted killings (followed by 30 percent who laid blame on intelligence agencies both foreign and domestic and 13 percent who pointed the finger at the land mafia).
This blame is reflected in public and media discussion of the violence. Recent statements made by President Zardari at a meeting of the allied parties called for them to come together in response to the multi-layered problems of violence, extortion and cyclical retribution in Karachi. In a more directly accusatory vein, an editorial in Pakistan’s Express Tribune on April 1st angrily challenged all parties over their actions:
“Partisans on all sides easily point to their opponents and blame them for the violence. But everyone is equally culpable. What started with the murder of one political worker, quickly spiralled out of control because the political parties decided that is the way they want to operate in Karachi. It is time we realised that the politics of revenge dominates in the city and we should deny our vote to all the political parties that have contributed to it.”
The parties, which rift across ethnic as well as partisan lines, trade barbs and challenges back and forth, and create a political atmosphere that lends itself well to retributions and escalations. Protest strikes called by the parties in anger over killings are part of what brings the city to a standstill, and what perpetuates retaliatory violence. Back in June Pakistani journalist Shaheryar Mirza wrote that ”Politics in Karachi is a war of demographics, and ethnic capital is its most potent weapon”. The Awami National Party (ANP), which represents the Pashto-speaking population, claimed a set of fresh killings were all of ANP supporters and killings of activist members Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).
These political parties, which also include the Pakistan People’s Party (most known outside of Pakistan for its association with the slain Benazir Bhutto), have also been blamed for the continuation of extortion in Sindh’s capital, for either using it to their own advantage or allowing it to continue unaddressed. The bhatta mafia, Karachi’s extortionists, who have been reported to demand anywhere from 25,000 to 200,000 Pakistani rupees (from roughly £175 to £1300) in bribes from shop owners on a monthly basis, have been another cause of market closures. In January, members of the bhatta mafia even opened fire on traders, contributing directly to the ongoing violence. This has been further cause for contention in party politics. In mid-March, inside the Sindh Assembly, MQM staged a loud protest over the fate of businesses and their owners at the hands of extortionists, making quite a scene and increasing tensions with their coalition partner, the Pakistan People’s Party., which represents the Urdu-speaking population known as the muhajjir population, have occurred in recent days as well. This is all a recipe for further retaliation.
We should not just look inside Pakistan for answers to why this violence continues. NATO’s Afghan war has its own role to play in the ongoing turbulence, one I talked about in an article for AlterNet this past fall. This is a role that is rarely openly identified as a culprit, but the foreign presence in Afghanistan and their efforts to effectively respond to dug-in insurgency and militancy has been a destabilizing element of Karachi’s political atmosphere since the eighties, when it was the Soviet tanks and not the NATO drones that were the enemy of the mujahideen. Now, the war pushes drugs and illicit weapons and even militants themselves downwards from eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan’s northwest, heightening both the sense of threat felt by the Urdu muhajjir group by a growing Pashtun population and the availability of weapons for gangs.
This ongoing violence, a violence that has been taking lives and stifling the economy of the biggest city in a country the West considers so important, receives small attention in the wider international press. It simply doesn’t fit the typical narratives about Pakistan – so geopolitically crucial and yet seen as so burdensome to NATO’s South Asian hopes. The discussion of internal corruption, gang violence, and the harmful ripple effects of the Afghan war on the lives of Karachi’s citizens is not a discussion that Western policy narratives want to include, because they don’t fit a less complicated image of a Pakistan in which militancy is the dominant destabilising force. Karachi isn’t the only evidence of this: regular violence in Pakistan’s rural areas, conflict between nationalists and the government as well as sectarian rifting in the province of Balochistan, and the crisis of flood victims left without aid have all been pushed to the edges of consideration. What is happening now in Karachi is only one of the missing pieces in an authentic narrative about Pakistan’s contemporary political dynamic.