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Karachi is Burning, Pakistan is Tottering

Rajeev Sharma is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and commentator on foreign policy, international relations, terrorism and security issues. He has authored five books on these subjects, the last being “Global Jihad: Current Patterns and Future Trends”. He can be reached at
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  • November 15, 2010

    The latest audacious terror attack on the CID Police Headquarters in Karachi on the night of November 11 is a telling commentary on the state of affairs in Pakistan’s biggest city and financial capital. The continuing spiral of violence in Karachi in a way signals the slow but gradual melting of a nuclear-armed State controlled by a military allied with global terrorist networks. Karachi is today a boiling pot of terror, crime and corrupt political leadership. The multiple shades of violence in this megapolis are in fact representative of the simmering levels of dissent and violence in the entire country.

    Ethnic, sectarian and gang wars have for long gripped Karachi. First it was the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs and Sindhis who killed each other in the name of language; but it was more of a struggle for survival and supremacy in Karachi. Then Karachi began witnessing unprecedented levels of violence against Shias during the Zia regime. Zia-ul Haq, who was desperate to convert Pakistan into a fully Islamic state, was besieged by Shias, a minority in the predominantly Sunni State. To teach the Shias a lesson for challenging his authority, Zia and the Pakistan Army actively promoted rabid Sunni groups like Sipah-e-Saheba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi which lost no opportunity to carry out a systematic war against the Shias, particularly targeting the professionals and landlords. Karachi thus represented the fractured nature of Pakistan.

    Karachi also became the hub of transnational criminal syndicates ruled by Dawood Ibrahim and his men. Narcotic smuggling and human trafficking, besides a massive real estate boom, stirred the Karachi pot and violence between different gangs became a norm in the city. These criminal syndicates became a roosting ground for sectarian groups also, with Sunni and Shia armed brigades using smuggling and other criminal activities to expand and fund their sectarian battles in Karachi and other cities across Pakistan. Karachi in a way criminalised the sectarian war across Pakistan.

    This sectarian-criminal nexus facilitated the growth of terrorist groups during the Afghan Jihad and subsequently as well. The first set of jihadis were recruited, indoctrinated and trained in the Binori mosque of Karachi. Karachi thus saw the coming of terrorist recruits from different parts of the world for the Afghan jihad. Karachi also became home to Pakistan’s own `strategic assets`--- groups like Harkat-ul Mujahideen and Harkat-ul Ansar took shape in the by-lanes of Karachi where crime, sectarian violence and militancy coagulated.

    It was therefore not surprising that Karachi was chosen by Osama bin Laden as one of the staging posts of al Qaeda. This decision was taken when a group led by Jamaat-e-Islami leaders went to Khartoum in Sudan to meet bin Laden, with the blessings of the then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Karachi saw al Qaeda setting up shop with Ramzi Yousef running a safe house for recruits passing through Pakistan to the terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. Yousef, a nephew of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Mohammad Sheikh, carried out the first attack on New York when he drove an explosive-laden truck inside the underground parking lot of the World Trade Centre in 1993. It is significant to note that Karachi hosted some of the 9/11 bombers, including Mohammad Atta, who were passing though Pakistan to meet Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

    Karachi also happens to be the place from where the ISI and Pakistan Army ran their anti-India jihad. Groups like Harkat-ul Ansar and Jaish-e-Mohammad operated freely out of ISI safe houses and madrassas in Karachi. The Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) was given safe facilities and training grounds to train and launch terrorists to attack Mumbai in November 2008. LeT member David Headley has since disclosed that he was working in close liaison with Pakistan Army and ISI officials based in Karachi to facilitate the Mumbai attacks. Several other attack plans, he said, were planned in Karachi.

    Karachi has become a microcosm of the grave peril that Pakistan has become today. If Karachi’s unravelling signals the undoing of Pakistan as a nation, it also indicates the far graver threat of Pakistan sinking into a quagmire of violence and instability. With the civilian leadership struggling to remain free of the corruption charges and sheer inertia of governance, and the military desperate to consolidate its stranglehold over the country, Karachi continues to burn. The world must wake up to this grim reality and come together to untangle the mess the Pakistan Army and its intelligence agency has brought about in Asia before it becomes too late. The ongoing turmoil in Karachi is the final call.