ISLAMABAD — The wave of extremist, ethnic, sectarian and politically-motivated violence that has gripped Pakistan in recent years seems to have intensified, with an estimated 500 people killed since the beginning of 2013. Half of the casualties have taken place in the nation’s largest city and commercial center, Karachi, where observers blame a “turf war” among political and religious groups.
Karachi contributes about two-thirds of the country’s tax revenue. And, it has a long history of violence.
Political and religious parties are often blamed for using ethnic gangs to carry out extortion rackets, land-grabbing campaigns, narcotics trafficking and kidnappings for ransom.
Muttahida Qaumi movement
The rivalries sometime explode into prolonged gun battles engulfing entire neighborhoods of the capital city of southern Sindh province. Most critics attribute the current bloodshed in the city of more than 18 million people to the ethnic rivalry between Karachi’s dominant political force, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or MQM, and the Awami National Party or ANP.
The MQM represents descendants of Urdu-speakers or Mohajirs who migrated from India after Pakistan’s creation in 1947 and mostly settled in urban centers of Sindh. The ANP represents the ethnic Pashtun population and its power base has increased in recent years.
The MQM and the ANP openly blame each other for targeting party members. Ironically, the two are political allies as part of the province’s governing coalition headed by the Pakistan Peoples Party, which is also blamed in the violence. All deny they are involved.
Gangs exploiting lawlessness
Pakistani analysts estimate that more than 6,000 people have died in Karachi since early 2008, mostly in targeted sectarian and political attacks. Anis Haroon, a leading rights activist based in Karachi, says the violent political infighting has allowed criminal gangs to exploit the lawlessness to settle scores.
“It appears that it is free for all. Everyone is really worried and very confused that what this happening, but we are 100 percent sure about one thing, no one is trying to really maintain law and order and peace in Karachi. So, there is complete lawlessness," said Haroon.
Ahmed Bilal Mehbood, who heads the pro-democracy Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, says the administrative structure and the under-trained police force of less than 35,000 personnel in Karachi have been deeply politicized in recent years.
“It has led to a situation where now civil administration and police have become totally incapable of administering Karachi. So, I think it is basically the ineffectiveness of the civil administration. And, the political forces are unable to exert the authority because they are afraid that, if they let justice prevail across the board, then some of their own supporters might be affected," said Mehbood.
In a judicial review prompted by deteriorating security in Karachi, the country’s fiercely independent supreme court, late last year, also called for political parties in the city to denounce ties with criminal gangs to help end the worst ethnic and political bloodshed in more than two decades. Independent rights group estimate that the violence in Karachi claimed nearly 2,300 lives in 2012.
The intensity in the targeted attacks is also being attributed to an ongoing voters’ verification process by election authorities in Karachi. Critics say that, in the past, the MQM has been able to manipulate electoral rolls and is trying to thwart the verification effort. Party leaders deny the charges.
Elections in Pakistan are expected in May and most parties are demanding deployment of troops at Karachi’s polling stations to keep the peace. Ahmed Bilal Mehbood and other independent observers are skeptical about the city’s ability to hold an election without the assistance of the military.
“I think in Karachi, as long as the armed forces are not there quite visible and in the vicinity of polling stations during elections, we may be witnessing some violence. Even before that," he said. "I think the verification of voters also requires the presence of armed forces personnel. I don’t think that the normal arrangements which are made for elections would suffice in the case of Karachi and Baluchistan.”
Baluchistan, in southwest Pakistan, is another worry for election organizers. There, a low-level separatist insurgency coupled with deadly attacks on minority Shiite Muslims have also raised security concerns. In the northwest, the Pakistani Taliban continues its insurgency.
But, the turmoil in Karachi could be far more significant in the long term to the national economy. Analysts say the violence in Karachi, in addition to an ever worsening energy crisis, has scared away foreign investors in recent years and frequent economic disruptions have caused millions of dollars a day in losses.