The residents of Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, are no strangers to death and destruction. One of its most popular bazaars was bombed in the 1980s. Its parks have been strewn with human flesh. Its roads have been full of men shooting blindly at anyone and everyone. Its alleyways have been home to bodies in gunny bags.
Over the past few decades, Karachi’s battle-weary citizens have grown familiar to the depressing series of headlines, and now, to "targeted killings." Over 1,000 people were killed in the first ten months of 2010, a 15-year high, and 43 people have been killed since March 18.
As I write this, news comes in that a 17-year-old man’s body has been found, after being missing for two days. He was shot four times – in the head, back and hand. He is another victim of "target killings," though the term does not encompass who is being targeted, and why. On paper, the "who" is simple: The victims include members of political parties, religious organizations and groups with criminal links. People have been targeted on the basis of their ethnicity – shot for being Baloch, Mohajir (those who immigrated from what is now India following partition) or Pashtun, or because of personal enmity. The question of ‘why’ is far more difficult to understand. Many of the deaths are a clear-cut case of revenge. The death of a political party member, especially from those parties that were formed on ethnic platforms, is enough to provoke their members to engage in tit-for-tat killings.
Political parties have made loud noises of how these targeted killings are an attempt to "destabilize" Karachi, the country’s economic capital. The death of even one person sparks another round of "targeted killings," derails the fragile political coalition and the security situation. Who gains from this instability? Opponents of the government, for one, who can point a finger at the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and say it is not serious about controlling crime. The small-time gangs, jostling for a piece of the lucrative pie that is Karachi, use the killings in an attempt to show their importance. The various mafias that control the drugs and arms trade or are involved in land-grabbing and extortion also use the killings to give political cover to what is sometimes just petty murder.
Any analysis of Karachi’s violence is made complicated by the variety of killers operating in the city at any given time. On the one hand there are the criminal gangs large and small, who can arrange anything from a kidnapping to a murder for a price – whether it be money or political favors. And on the other, many political parties have provided patronage to groups of trigger-happy individuals ready at their beck and call, fuelled by a combination of party ideology, ethnic and sectarian hatred.
To their credit, the cooler heads in the main political parties in Karachi – the ethnic Muhajir Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Pashtun-dominated Awami National Party (ANP) and the PPP – have all appealed for peace. The ANP has even advocated calling in the army to deal with the violence.
But taking ownership of difficult decisions is a burden few want to bear. When the paramilitary Rangers started a search operation in the low-income area of Orangi Town, the Sindh Home Minister claimed that he, the provincial chief minister and the city police chief had not been informed beforehand. So did Interior Minister Rehman Malik, despite the fact that the Rangers come under the purview of his ministry.
The fragile relationship between the MQM and the PPP is hanging by a thread, and the MQM has publicly said the government must do more to act against criminal groups.
But even if political parties are serious about stopping target killings, the underlying causes of crime have been left unresolved. The sale of licensed and illegal weapons continues unabated. The legal system is beset with lags and threats to prosecuting lawyers, and the untrained and badly equipped police are largely incapable of carrying out any proper action without running into bureaucratic snags, turf wars and political conflicts. Kidnappers and extortionists have plagued businessmen. And police "raids" net scores of people – often based on their ethnic affiliation – fueling further discontent amongst the families who have to endure constant police harassment and limiting the ability of the security services to operate.
There are no easy solutions to the issue, and the PPP is in the unenviable position of having to shoulder the responsibility alone. But as the city’s morgues fill up, political parties will have to realize that they cannot afford to sit back and simply make grandiose statements; it is time for action to fix what ails Karachi.
Saba Imtiaz works at The Express Tribune, an English-language newspaper in Pakistan.