Shadowy Forces In Karachi


There were a number of Kodak moments for the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan in Washington last week. But back in their respective countries, the world’s media were transfixed by images of civilians suffering from the unending war with the Taliban. In Afghanistan the images were of the horrific bombardment of civilians in the southern province of Farah. And next door in Pakistan, there is little doubt that army operations against the Taliban along the foothills of the Himalayas are having a devastating impact on tribal societies.

Meanwhile, far to the south of the country, a long way from the tribal areas, the last couple of weeks have seen outbreaks of serious ethnic violence in the streets of Karachi. Around 35 people died in gun battles between political activists from two warring parties, with many bystanders among the dead.

But while some are quick to see the violence as further evidence of Taliban activity, there is much more to it than that.

Karachi, the country’s largest city and economic hub on the southern coast, is home to a large Pashtun population. In the plush suburbs of Clifton and Defence, it isn’t uncommon to see old Pashtun men with their signature blue security uniforms and flowing beards holding what appear to be ancient shotguns outside the mansions and shopping complexes of the wealthy. Poor migrants from the North West Frontier Province, they have been coming here for decades — since well before the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan — in search of a livelihood.

Their migration is one consequence of the severe shortage of opportunities in the underdeveloped village communities most come from. Yet there is deep mistrust of the Pashtun among some of Karachi’s citizens, for whom the strength of the Taliban in Pashtun areas like the North Western Frontier Province colours their attitudes to the Pashtun people as a whole.

"All of our problems started with the Pashtuns," says fruit seller Nadeem, himself a Sindhi, the native ethnic community of the province of Sindh in which Karachi is located.

Politicians are adept at tapping into sentiments like this, and anti-Pashtun feeling is being most vigorously exploited by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the country’s only mainstream party built around the ethnic identity of the "Muhajir" — Muslims who arrived from India following Partition in 1947. According to MQM leaders, the Pashtun community threatens Karachi with "Talibanisation".

It’s mentioned less frequently, of course, that the vast majority of Pashtun here support the secular Awami National Party (ANP) that has for decades had close ties with the United States, and been strongly critical of elements within Pakistan for not doing enough to control the Taliban. As well, ANP activists have been violently targeted by the Taliban in the North West Frontier Province. And now, although the ANP swept into power in the North West Frontier Province on the back of a landslide general election victory in February 2008, with the Taliban spreading throughout the province the ANP’s hold on government outside Peshawar is tentative.

But none of that has stopped the MQM from claiming that the ANP has created a safe haven for the Taliban in this southern port city. MQM leader Altaf Hussain even went as far as demanding that the Pakistan army and its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence investigate alleged collusion between the Taliban and the ANP in Karachi.

Hussain himself is no stranger to controversy. In the early 1990s the MQM leader fled Pakistan for the United Kingdom after several of his relatives were murdered in political vendetta attacks. As a result, Hussain, with his big tuft of hair and large tinted glasses, speaks to his members via satellite with an air reminiscent of the Christian Phalange leaders of Lebanon.

When Hussain’s party controlled Karachi in the 1990s, the city was engulfed by Mafia-style terror that saw many kidnapped, tortured and murdered in a range of extortion rackets.

One random encounter I recently had with a Karachi taxi driver illustrates the casual, widespread experience of violence in those days, and why not all locals are buying Hussain’s line that the ANP are in league with the Taliban, or that the city’s problems are their fault. The driver, Asif, described to me his kidnapping and torture in 1994, during that period.

"It happened just before I was going to return [to my village in the Punjab]," says Asif. A group of men took him from the street at gunpoint to a cell and tortured him until he told them where he’d put the money he’d saved for his family’s train tickets home. Asif was left bound in a dark, rank-smelling cell for another 24 hours before eventually being released.

To this day, he blames the MQM for the ordeal, just as many Karachi residents blame them — and not the city’s Pashtun population — for the current mayhem.

The recent havoc in the streets is just the latest violent incident between the Pashtun and MQM-supporting Muhajir communities. Similar clashes occurred in Karachi in early December last year, immediately following the Mumbai attacks in India. Many ordinary citizens still believe Indian intelligence to have been behind the tensions on that occasion, but no concrete evidence has ever emerged.

On Tuesday further potential bloodshed was averted when strikes planned to commemorate the second anniversary of the bloody clashes in 2007 were cancelled. Both the ANP and the MQM backed the strikes until the Chief Minister of Sindh, Syed Qaim Ali Shah, a stalwart of Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party, called a public holiday on Tuesday.

That move may have been enough to quell the situation that time, but the potential for further violence along ethnic lines remains, whether Taliban-related or not. And it’s not limited to Karachi.

In the north, a huge crisis is brewing, as Pakistan tries to cope with the enormous numbers of Pashtuns displaced by the conflicts on both sides of the Afghan border, living in conditions of poverty and despair. There are now around two million people sheltering in mosquito-ridden, makeshift tent camps throughout the North West Frontier Province.

The refugee camp of Kutcha Guri outside Peshawar is one of these — a sprawling shamble of tents and water pipes sitting on the baked, red clay that leads off towards the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan. The camp had been built for Afghan refugees in previous decades. Now it houses refugees from within Pakistan itself.

When I visited it late last year, refugee Karim Jan expressed his frustration at their situation, saying "We feel betrayed."

Pakistan faces a huge challenge if it wants to prevent further radicalisation of these people.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.