The South Asia Channel

The battle for Karachi

The battle for Karachi

As the insurgencies and drone strikes continue along Pakistan’s northern border with Afghanistan, a different kind of operation has begun in the country’s south: the pacification of Karachi, one of Pakistan’s most important cities.

In early September, after admitting the failure of the police to control the violence, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif empowered a paramilitary group, the Sindh Rangers, to conduct targeted operations within Karachi. These ongoing operations aim to restore peace in the city, but some of the arrests have led to widespread business closures and even more violence. While Sharif has already expressed his satisfaction on the progress of these operations, it is highly unlikely that they will produce any real long-term changes for Karachi, as there are too many militant factions to be quashed in a single campaign and too many groups, including political parties, criminals, and terrorist organizations, with vested interests in the current system to be swept away. 

Though there has certainly been an uptick in violence recently, Karachi has been a center of conflict for years. It was widely considered the most dangerous megacity in the world in 2012, with approximately 2,500 violent deaths that year alone. Indian megacity New Delhi, by comparison, had only 521. Extortion and kidnappings have also become commonplace. But these crimes are not solely the work of ethnic-based mafias or terrorist groups, though groups like the Tehreek-i Taliban Pakistan are known to operate out of Karachi. Many are committed by groups linked to political parties, particularly the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which is a dominant political force in the city.

This fact speaks to a much deeper and systemic issue in Karachi: any and all interest groups, both within and outside of the system, likely have some ties to militants. Politics by the barrel of a gun is nothing new to a country as prone to military coups as Pakistan, but if most vested interests in the city can be presumed to have some violent elements, then the only way for the police and military to regain control is by reining in all those groups, not just a few of the most obvious offenders. This is especially true as previous attempts to quell the violence in Karachi by targeting only some of the offenders have failed.

The Rangers, for example, were called into the city in 2011 in an attempt to end the gang-based violence that was then paralyzing Karachi. These operations were limited to addressing only one facet of the violence, the criminal gangs. Two years later, it is obvious that those operations were unsuccessful as the violence continues unabated. While the current operations have included the arrests of political party members, the operations remain too narrow in scope to address all the violent factions plaguing Karachi.

The use of the Rangers, a paramilitary organization under civilian control, rather than the Pakistani army highlights the government’s continued fear of the military establishment. This, too, has a precedent.

During the 2011 operations in Karachi, the then ruling Pakistan People’s Party decided against using the military amid fears that it would destabilize the civilian government. Sharif may share these fears, or wish to consolidate power in his own hands, or both. While neither is a positive omen for the improvement of civil-military relations in Pakistan, this made end up being a blessing in disguise for the army as their resources are badly needed to fight counterterrorism operations along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Pacifying Karachi might have stretched the army’s resources too thin for effective operations in either arena.

Despite Sharif’s satisfaction with the Rangers’ operations, one cannot expect a single series of operations to end the violence that plagues Karachi. Sending the Rangers into the city can be viewed as a stopgap measure at best. Without a more permanent security and institutional solution, violence and extortion will simply resume after these targeted operations have been completed. What Karachi, and indeed all of Pakistan, needs is a long-term, sustained security and political effort that targets all guilty parties, including the corrupt and militant branches of the political parties. Unfortunately, at the moment, it appears that the current government has neither the resources nor the will for such an undertaking. Coupled with that is the danger that any long-term force in Karachi, be it paramilitary or political, will end up as another well-armed faction pursuing its own interests, thus exacerbating the problem.  

The current security situation in Karachi is in many ways a microcosm of the problems Pakistan faces as a whole: rapidly expanding population with fighting between different ethnic groups, sectarian violence, the strong presence of terrorist groups, and militants linked to political parties, as well as a severe lack of infrastructure and systemic corruption. Karachi is a failed city, and its lawlessness and violence is a picture of what Pakistan could be as a failed state. If the government cannot create a permanent security solution in the city, there is little hope that it will be able to solve the exact same problems on a country-wide scale.

Kathryn Alexeeff has a masters degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University and currently works at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. All views expressed here are her own.