Laiq Hussain, a member of the radical Sunni group Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, was riding his motorbike down a busy street in central Karachi, with a friend on the pillion, when they were ambushed. A bullet hit Hussain in the right temple: “I thought someone had thrown a sharp stone at me. My friend told me to start reciting verses from the Holy Qur’an; that’s when I realised someone was shooting at us, probably using a silencer.” Hussain was blinded; his friend Mufti Saud Rehman died. Theirs is a common story: over 2,400 Karachi residents were shot in the street or kidnapped and tortured to death in 2012.
“Target killings”, as the police and media call them, have become a daily nightmare in Karachi, where security and policing are poor. “We were watching the news about the latest target killings and feeling sad for the parents who had lost their beloved children,” said Fatima Tanveer. “Then someone knocked at the door and told us our son was a victim. He was going to be married in a few months.”
“The wave of killings is mainly due to an increase in sectarian violence, though killings for political or criminal motives are contributing,” said Zohra Yusuf, chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). But the authorities seem to be in denial. In November 2012 Sharjeel Memon, then information minister for Sindh Province (of which Karachi is the capital), told a press conference: “Out of more than 2,000 homicides, only 370 were reported to the police as target killings.”
Nearly everyone in Karachi, regardless of religious, ethnic or political affiliation, fears for their own life or those of their relatives when they leave the house. Huma Habib, 45, a human resources manager for a private company, has great hopes for her two sons, who are currently at university: “But my heart nearly stops every time they leave the house. Life is cheap here.” One can be killed just for a mobile phone.
Many see the lack of security as a kind of social protest, the precursor of a social revolution, yet Shahid Hassan Siddiqui, chairman of the Research Institute of Islamic Banking and Finance, said: “We are going through the worst economic and political turmoil this country has ever known, but I don’t see any revolution emerging from this mess.”
Pakistan has no middle class
The chaos has put many companies out of business, depriving hundreds of thousands of workers of their livelihoods. Tension is high. “Nearly half the year, work is at a standstill because one [political] party or another has called for a strike,” said Amjad Ali, 65, a porter at the Judia Bazar, Pakistan’s biggest market. Ali has a family of seven, but earns 200-300 rupees ($2-3) a day, and he is one of the lucky ones. According to Hassan, 40% of the population earns less than 100 rupees ($1) a day, and a family of two adults and two children living in one room needs at least 12,000 rupees ($120) a month to maintain an adequate calorie intake: “Pakistan has no middle class. Most people live in grinding poverty; a handful are filthy rich.” Economists estimate that Pakistan’s richest 2% control most of the economy.
Even the richest have known easier times. Pakistan suffers from a chronic shortage of electricity, due to the growing gap between supply and demand. Daily power cuts have had a disastrous impact on every industry, especially the garment and textile sectors, which are major generators of underpaid jobs and foreign currency earnings. “The electricity crisis cost our exporters over a billion dollars in lost contracts,” said Ahsan Bashir, chairman of the trade association All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA). This is significant as Pakistan’s total textile exports were expected to generate $13.5bn last year. In 2012 the industry accounted for more than 50% of Pakistan’s exports and employed 39% of the workforce (1). Without unions to defend them, many workers have found themselves jobless.
Social instability and power cuts have prompted a wave of industrial relocations to Bangladesh and Malaysia. The government has offered generous financial incentives for companies to come back, but without much success. “I believe a few companies have returned because of tariff concessions,” said Yasin Siddique, head of APTMA in southern Pakistan. But it would take more to reassure his colleagues: “If your livelihood, your property and your business are threatened, to avoid economic death you just have to find another solution.”
Businesses unable to find “another solution” face another obstacle: extortion by gangs. This is a growing phenomenon, especially in the Lyari district, next to the port and the country’s biggest industrial estate. Traders and industrialists who refuse to pay bhatta (protection money) run the risk of assassination or kidnapping and torture. Many end up in a sack dumped at the roadside. Meetings, protests and lockouts to pressure the administration into taking action have had no result. “To stay alive, many of our members have agreed to pay monthly protection money to the gangs,” said Atiq Mir, head of the All Karachi Traders’ Association. “The government has totally failed to protect us and it feels as if the whole city is falling into the hands of the gangsters. They already control many districts.”
The growth of violent crime is a huge challenge for the authorities, whose incompetence and lack of commitment have never been so obvious. “The pattern of killings in 2012 differed from 2011,” said Zohra Yusuf of the HRCP. In 2011 ethnic conflict was limited to a few districts such as Katti Pahari, which saw bloody clashes between Pashtuns and Urdu-speaking Muhajirs. Today, the violence has spread across the city and permeated every social class. Sharfuddin Memon, security advisor to the government of Sindh Province, talked of “multidirectional killings”, with a variety of motives, political, ethnic, religious and criminal. Some killers, he said, take advantage of the confusion to settle personal scores.
Extremist religious groups play a major part. They exist throughout Pakistan, and have a long history in the country. In 1971 it was ethnic sectarianism that led to the division of Pakistan, the eastern part declaring dependence to become Bangladesh, the land of the Bengalis. Successive Pakistani governments have failed to learn from history, allowing ethnic divisions to grow.
The Muhajirs fled to Pakistan from India in 1947, after Partition (muhajir means migrant in Urdu). Educated and qualified, they made an important contribution to the new country’s development. Over the years, quotas established by the government have given them privileged access to jobs in government and teaching. This has resulted in tensions and bloody clashes between the Muhajirs and indigenous populations, especially the Sindhis and Pashtuns, who have united under the banner of the Awami National Party (ANP).
The clashes intensified as a result of the dispute between Muhajirs and Sindhis in 1972, when the Sindhis refused to accept Urdu as the official language of Sindh Province. In the mid-1980s, the establishment of a Muhajir political party, the National Movement for Refugees (MQM), led to massacres of Muhajirs, instigated by Pashtun drug lords. This violence deepened the divide between Karachi’s two main ethnic groups.
Tensions remained high with further clashes between Sindhis and Muhajirs in 1988 and 1990, and military and police repression of the MQM between 1992 and 1995. These did not prevent the MQM from attracting supporters from beyond its ethnic base, and in the general election of 2008 it won 69.2% of the vote in Karachi.
Karachi has become a battleground for criminal gangs involved in racketeering, drugs, arms and human trafficking. Ethnic and political divisions fan the violence. Turf wars between the many gangs in Lyari, where the ethnic majority are Baluchs, often turn into ethnic clashes. Organised crime is also manipulated by political parties and linked to terrorist movements, which further strengthens its hold on society and economic life. The Lyari gangs wield immense power: they could paralyse the Judia Bazar, or even the entire city centre, if traders grew tired of paying for protection.
The situation worsened in 2007, with the arrival of a new wave of Pashtun refugees. Displaced by the military operations against the Taliban in the tribal regions of Swat and Waziristan (2), a million ended up in the suburbs of Karachi, especially the shantytowns. The authorities hoped to tame the Islamist fighters by letting them live in relative peace, providing healthcare and allowing them to raise funds. But they have declared war on every secular organisation in Karachi, including the MQM and its main rival, the ANP. Although the ANP’s members are almost all Pashtun, the Taliban regard them as traitors, for adopting secular positions and taking part in government in Islamabad. Police sources say attacks by Islamists have weakened the ANP considerably, even in its traditional strongholds.
Chaudhry Mohammad Aslam, a senior police superintendent in Karachi who has led many operations against the Taliban, told how, last year, two men claiming to be volunteers working for Tablighi Jamaat (Society for Spreading Faith) — a widely respected Islamic movement, with a non-violent reputation — recruited seven teenage boys in Karachi. The parents were told the boys would be going to the relatively quiet eastern city of Lahore, to be educated by the movement. Instead they were taken to Miranshah, administrative capital of North Waziristan, on the border with Afghanistan. They were held at a training camp for suicide bombers, directed by a senior Taliban commander, Wali Mohammad. After a US drone hit the camp, killing 17 recruits, the survivors told their story to the police and the principal recruiters were arrested. They told the magistrate who recorded their confessions: “We will attack and kill policemen, soldiers and law enforcement officers, because they are agents of America.”
No mercy for ‘traitors and tyrants’
It was not an empty threat. More than 150 police officers and magistrates were killed in Karachi during 2012 — most, probably, at the instigation of the Taliban. The message is clear. According to Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan, there will be no mercy for “the traitors and tyrants of Karachi”. Wasay Jalil, a spokesman for MQM, said: “We warned the authorities about the growing presence of the Taliban a long time ago, but they didn’t believe us. The war really has come down from the north.” But opponents of MQM shrugged off the warning as a publicity stunt, because of the party’s ethno-political rivalry with the Pashtuns.
The Taliban have followed the example of the gangs and taken up racketeering, attacking uncooperative traders with hand grenades. They also support extremist Sunni groups’ attacks on the Shia minority. In some of the Pashtun areas of the city, barbers are not allowed to shave beards and women cannot go out without a veil. The police offer no estimates of Taliban numbers in Karachi, but insiders say there may be 4,000-5,000 fighters. These numbers could mean trouble not only for Karachi residents, but for the US and its allies: Karachi is the only port through which Nato can import materials for its operations in Afghanistan.
According to Aslam, the Taliban were responsible for 14 bombings in 2011. This January his men seized 100kg of explosives in the Mangopir district. “It’s time to stop [the Taliban], otherwise the city will see bloodshed on an unprecedented scale,” said political analyst Tauseef Ahmed Khan. “That would be a severe setback for secular and progressive Karachi, and might take years to recover from.” But secular and progressive Karachi is already under threat from the violence used by political parties vying for power. “The political divisions here are extremely complicated, and the financial stakes are very high,” said Zohra Yusuf. “Criminal gangs, the Taliban, political decision-makers, banned extremist organisations — there are plenty of people ready to shed blood and burn buildings.”
Criminologist Fateh Muhammad Burfat, head of the sociology department at the University of Karachi, said: “There is only a 5% conviction rate in criminal cases, and 90% of inmates in Pakistan’s jails are awaiting trial.” Sharfuddin Memon blamed “institutional incapacity, due to insufficient police numbers and an intelligence network that is growing weaker.”
Is there a risk that the system will collapse? “We have to accept that the state has failed,” said Burfat. “All political parties should accept this harsh reality if they have any commitment to the nation.” Economist Shahid Hassan Siddiqui pointed out that Pakistan’s education budget is smaller than Ethiopia’s, while its health budget is the lowest in the world, and asked: “How can we hope for even a slight change for the better, let alone a revolution, when the economy is in such a poor state?”
Ashraf Khan is a journalist based in Karachi.
Translated by Charles Goulden
(2) See Jean-Luc Racine, “Pakistan: out of money and time”, and Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, “Pakistan creates its own enemy”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, respectively November 2008 and December 2009.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.