As the temperature of the Taliban insurgency rises, all eyes are focused on Karachi as the final venue of the face-off between the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan and its opponents. In the political developments of the past few weeks, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement has emerged as the sole political adversary to the TTP’s project of forcing the nation to accede to its demands.
The recent bout of violence that until Friday had killed 34 people and left over 50 injured saw clashes between MQM and ANP supporters. Violence erupted on Wednesday, April 29, 2008 when an unidentified gunman opened fire in a Muhajir locality. Police and Rangers were unable to stop the ensuing mayhem despite door-to door operations in Pashtun areas.
In a dénouement with which Karachiites are sadly familiar, all educational institutions were ordered closed on Thursday and shoot-at-sight orders issued against rioters. The two-day violence also saw arson and extensive damage to property before some semblance of control could be brought to the city.
The eruption of ethnically motivated violence in Karachi has been forecast for some time by both political leaders and strategic analysts. MQM leader Altaf Hussain has been rallying Karachiites to mobilise against the Talibanisation of the city for over a year. Last week’s burning of Catholic churches and targeting of the Christian community in Tiasar Town was a precursor to the current tension in the city.
Analysts have correctly emphasised the value of destabilising Karachi for the TTP in its ultimate project of expelling foreign troops from Afghanistan. As one report put it, NATO supply lines rely crucially on the Karachi port. Put simply, destabilising the port operations in Karachi is an easy recipe for disabling the American-led NATO effort in Afghanistan.
Tactically, therefore, the importance of Karachi cannot be underestimated: a mega city of nearly 18 million people, Pakistan’s financial and commercial hub and the centre of NATO’s supply efforts to Afghanistan deserves attention from anyone interested in pursuing stability in the region. Analysis of the city’s structural and demographic characteristics reveals why such attention is merited.
First, the demographic changes that have occurred in the city in recent years following the beginning of operations in the tribal areas have changed the ethnic composition of the city and led to an influx of Pashtun into Karachi. While not decisive in terms of electoral support, this change bodes new problems for maintaining law and order within and around the city.
According to reports from officials in the NWFP, nearly 550,000 people have been displaced from the Pashtun tribal areas in the last eight months; out of these, 300,000 are reported to have settled in Karachi. In the absence of refugee camps, most of these people have settled in the homes of relatives and friends in the outlying areas of Karachi that are known to be Pashtun strongholds.
Divested of home and hearth, uprooted from all that is familiar, and culturally and ethnically distinct from other Karachiites, the influx of these recent refugees provides an available population of recruits to the TTP in its efforts to destabilise Karachi.
The geographic location of Pashtun settlements, such as Sohrab Goth, Surjani Town and other areas which effectively encircle the city, provides further logistical ease for groups planning terrorist attacks in the city. This spatial concentration of Pashtun at the outskirts and Muhajirs in the central and southern portions of the city also provides an easily exploitable ethnic divide that can yield enormous dividends in carrying out subversive activities.
Finally, low state penetration in most Pashtun areas adds to their vulnerability as hotbeds of militant activity. Most Pashtun areas being informal settlements see little provision of amenities such as electricity and water and the procurement of these services is routinely accomplished through black marketeering and illegal activity often managed by the underpaid workers of various city agencies.
The consequence of such activity for the purposes of non-state groups is that they can organise and effectuate their plans, establish safe houses, and have telephone, electricity and internet connections without being detected by any state apparatus.
Low state penetration in Karachi has also contributed to high levels of gang warfare and connected black market activity in the city. The same factors that allow for such activity to continue also make Karachi an easy target for terrorist activity.
Even as ethnic riots destabilised one area of the city, gang riots were rocking Lyari as local residents clashed with gangsters from the Rehman Dakait group. The gangsters allegedly had support from the Pakistan People’s Party, which maintains the area as a stronghold, and the clashes took place between various castes of Memons and Baloch who exchanged fire with automatic weapons.
Ironically these particular clashes were reported to have erupted over the establishment of peace offices in the area. The incident exemplifies the ease with which criminal interests can coalesce with political interests to destabilise a city. In the instant case of Taliban activity, similar alliances among various groups that will be able to pay off criminal elements within the city are likely to be constructed simply adding to the lethality of the ensuing conflict.
Finally, the ethnic, educational, cultural and political distinctiveness of Karachi presents particular challenges to its residents in positioning themselves in the fast-changing political landscape of the rest of the country.
The residents of Karachi are entrepreneurial, highly educated and without the feudal connections and conservatism that typify other parts of Pakistan. This makes them most likely to suffer in the event of a pro-Islamist Taliban regime that forces women indoors, shuts down businesses arbitrarily deemed un-Islamic and extracts taxes from minorities.
While these factors could effectively mobilise Karachi’s eighteen million residents against the threat of the Taliban, the degeneration of this struggle into ethnic war risks providing the Taliban with a decisive victory regardless of whether they can actually win the war over Karachi.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at
Reproduced by permission of the author and Daily Times