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Sectarian Violence in Karachi: Is Pakistan Closer to the Precipice?

P.K. Upadhyay was a Consultant with Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses for its Pakistan Project.
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  • December 07, 2012

    The much-feared observance of Muharram is over in Pakistan without any earth-shattering incidents of sectarian violence. Yet, the period did see Muharram-linked violence in various parts of the country, with as many as 38 Shia deaths, apart from dozens of casualties suffered by the civilians and security forces alike. Some other planned attacks were thwarted by law-enforcement agencies, including a major threat to Karachi with the apprehension of a truck full of explosives. It is another matter that these incidents of violence, or plans for violent activities, were not considered as major tragedies, thereby indicating Pakistani society’s supreme indifference towards and acceptance of religious belief-related violence. Almost all government offices were closed for two to three days, markets and schools were shut down, and countless people were driven by fear to confine themselves to their homes. Special control and monitoring cells were created by all provincial police establishments. The Punjab government alone claimed to have deployed more than 100,000 police personnel to keep the terrorists at bay. The security deployment in Karachi was no less.

    In the post-Muharram period, too, there does not seem to be much change in sectarian tensions. Targeted killings continue in Karachi: most can be attributed to the Islamic radicals of Tehriq-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and most victims were the Barelvi/Shia cadres of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). Elsewhere, the campaign to cow down the media also continues. A bomb was planted in the car of Hamid Mir, the head of independent Geo TV, which was luckily spotted by his driver; no harm came to any one. TTP’s spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, claimed responsibility for the attempt to bomb Mir’s car in a communication to The Dawn.

    What must be noted, however, is that the current wave of violent attacks and terrorist strikes in Karachi, and elsewhere in Pakistan, is neither linked to any particular religious festival nor is it the result of “turf wars” of yore to control areas of influence in the city for dominating the transport business and smuggling, including that of narcotics. The violence now is driven by a clear sectarian agenda to subdue, if not “ethnically cleanse”, the followers of rival, non-Sunni Islamic sects. TTP’s spokesman in Karachi, Umar Farooq, a former Jamaat-e-Islami functionary, is already on record as having declared that “We are a group of Islamic warriors fighting against infidels” and that “Karachi is our base and we will target anyone our leader Hakimullah Mehsud tells us to.” The violence in Karachi, it would seem, has the potential to “Beirutize” that city and totally disrupt normal functioning.

    Karachi, the main port city in Pakistan, is crucial for the country. Karachi Port and its satellite, Port Qasim, handle practically all foreign trade to and from the country, including crucial oil imports. If the city were to be thrown into turmoil, which would cause port operations to be severely crippled, the Pakistani state would be forced to its knees. This is more so as the alternative Port Gwadar is still largely non-functional due to the absence of communication links between it and the rest of the country, and its hinterland still being a wilderness. Therefore, if Karachi were to be forced into a prolonged near shutdown, the Taliban’s opponents in Afghanistan—the United States and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)—would be adversely affected; as would be the Pakistan Army, against which the current TTP jihad is being waged. The law and order situation in Karachi has become grimmer over the past few weeks. According to Farhat Parveen, Director of Pakistan’s National Organisation of Working Communities, on an average, 13 people are being killed in Karachi every day. The proliferation of illegal as well as legal fire arms is a major source fuelling this burgeoning violence. According to a 2009 survey, 1,80,00,000 pieces of fire arms, ranging from pistols to AK-47s, LMGs and rocket launchers, were held by private citizens in Pakistan. The number of such arms in Karachi was nearly 20,00,000. Since such arms are freely available on the black market, even if the government tries to de-weaponize the country, and particularly Karachi, the city would be re-weaponized within six months.

    Many political leaders from the MQM and the Awami National Party (ANP) openly advocate Karachi’s law and order responsibility being handed over to the Army as it is beyond the capabilities of local law-enforcement agencies. This is buttressed by a statement made in court by the Police Chief of Sindh that while Rangers could only arrest people and hand them over to the Police for prosecution, the Police force itself had many personnel of dubious political patronage who felt powerful enough to disobey orders. It is not difficult to comprehend that such persons may have easily been subverting efforts to fight sectarian violence-related crimes. This is in addition to the fact that the Police force in the city is grossly under strength, as only 8,000 policemen are available for normal policing duties in police stations at any given time, the rest being deployed on other errands. The traders in the city are stated to be arming themselves as neither the security agencies nor the protection money being paid by them is buying them security, and they have been proving to be easy game for the extortionists. It has been assessed that in the current wave of violence in Karachi the losses suffered by traders is around Rs 20 billion and that by the industrialists at around Rs 45 billion.

    It is true that the Pakistan government and the Army would not easily let the situation in Karachi go totally out of hand and can be expected to do the utmost to salvage the situation—Zardari and Kayani are reported to have already met on November 23 in Islamabad, ostensibly with the situation in the city as the main point of their parleys. However, any effort to shore up the security situation in Karachi by bringing additional Army units into the city would serve the operational interests of the TTP as it would ease pressure against them in FATA and other areas, and indefinitely delay any planned operation in North Waziristan. Given its traditional mind-set and India fixation, the Pakistan Army is unlikely to pull back troops from the east and, therefore, any planned additional deployment in Karachi would have to come from elsewhere in the country, something that the TTP could be hoping for.

    Dealing with this clear and present danger to the Pakistani state requires unity of purpose and synergy between various components of the Pakistani apparatus. However, this synergy is largely missing and, as a result, the Pakistani state is responding to the growing Taliban threat in Karachi in a knee-jerk manner. The public sniping between the Judiciary and the Army has only intensified over the past couple of weeks with both sides using their surrogates to strike at the other. Even after their open spat through media statements late last month—with Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary emphasizing the Judiciary’s constitutional predominance over all other institutions, including the Army, and General Kayani warning all and sundry, including the judiciary, that assuming the due role of other institutions would set “us back”—the looming confrontation between the Judiciary and the Army has not receded. According to Najam Sethi, the Army is behind the periodical salvos that Malik Riaz (the person alleged to be an accomplice of Dr Arsalan Iftikhar, the son of the Chief justice of Pakistan, in some shady real estate and financial deals) fires against the Chief Justice. It is interesting to note that on November 15, General Kayani’s statement was once again commented upon by the full bench of the Supreme Court, which had ostensibly been called to discuss the rising backlog of cases. The Bench instead asserted that the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction also allowed it to check any unlawful, unauthorised, or malafide act or exercise of the authorities. Sections of the legal community have also joined in on the issue with the District Bar Association of Rawalpindi hurling (on November 16) strongly worded, even intemperate, statements against the Army by calling for the recovery of looted money from all, including Army officers. The Bar Association has also accused Kayani of favouring his brother in various defence deals and other military matters, and trying to intimidate the Judiciary through his public statements.

    The Army’s top-brass, which was stated to have been greatly annoyed with judicial assertiveness over cases involving past acts of omission and commission by Army Generals, and such other direct assaults on the Army’s sacrosanct and privileged actions—such as General Kayani’s tenure extension —being challenged in a court of law. There is now a strong undercurrent of open disquiet among the Army’s top-brass over the latest attacks from the Judiciary and the lawyers, and this is reflected in the incident of Col. (Retd.) Inam-ur Raheem being roughed up by unknown assailants in Rawalpindi on November 15 just a couple of hundred of metres from the GHQ. Col. Raheem is the petitioner who has challenged Kayani’s extension in the Islamabad High Court. The Police has shown little interest in pursuing this case.

    All these developments bode ill for Pakistan. If the TTP and its radical allies are waging a relentless war to convert Pakistan into a true Islamic state and a powerful bastion of Deobandi/Wahabi Islam, then their interest in seriously disrupting life in Karachi and thereby trying to dominate the city has a lot of merit. However, their success could deliver a crippling blow to the Pakistani establishment and could also usher in the emergence of diverse pockets of local dominance in Baluchistan, Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa, and even Sindh.