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
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