Politics, Karachi style

The Arabian and Indo-Australian tectonic plates meet near Karachi, the Pakistani port city inhabited by at least 15 million people.  But in recent weeks, Karachi has been reeling from violent seismic activity along its ethnic and political fault lines — not the collision of geological plates nearby. Two days ago, armed Sindhi and Pashtun activists ...

By , president of Vizier Consulting, a political risk advisory firm focused on the Middle East and South Asia.
ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images
ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images
ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images

The Arabian and Indo-Australian tectonic plates meet near Karachi, the Pakistani port city inhabited by at least 15 million people.  But in recent weeks, Karachi has been reeling from violent seismic activity along its ethnic and political fault lines -- not the collision of geological plates nearby.

Two days ago, armed Sindhi and Pashtun activists exchanged tit-for-tat murders in the middle class Gulistan-e Jauhar area. Since the start of this year, targeted killings have claimed the lives of over 41 political workers.  And in the last six months of 2009, there were 256 political assassinations in the city, according to Pakistan's interior ministry.

An uptake in ethnic and political violence in Karachi is cause for concern for the prospects for Pakistan's political stability and national cohesion.  Karachi is a microcosm of Pakistan as virtually all of its ethnic groups and power brokers are represented there.

The Arabian and Indo-Australian tectonic plates meet near Karachi, the Pakistani port city inhabited by at least 15 million people.  But in recent weeks, Karachi has been reeling from violent seismic activity along its ethnic and political fault lines — not the collision of geological plates nearby.

Two days ago, armed Sindhi and Pashtun activists exchanged tit-for-tat murders in the middle class Gulistan-e Jauhar area. Since the start of this year, targeted killings have claimed the lives of over 41 political workers.  And in the last six months of 2009, there were 256 political assassinations in the city, according to Pakistan’s interior ministry.

An uptake in ethnic and political violence in Karachi is cause for concern for the prospects for Pakistan’s political stability and national cohesion.  Karachi is a microcosm of Pakistan as virtually all of its ethnic groups and power brokers are represented there.

Massive civil unrest in Karachi is an indicator of the strength of centrifugal tendencies inside multi-ethnic Pakistan, which has historically been deeply challenged in managing its diversity.

Furthermore, as Pakistan’ commercial capital, wide-scale violence there is also deleterious for economic growth countrywide.

Nonetheless, long-term observers of Karachi know that violence is an integral part of Karachi’s politics.  The present-day strife inside Karachi pales in comparison to the ethnic and political violence that killed tens of thousands there in the 1980s and 1990s.  The city is well-attuned to periodic bursts of political violence.  Though the press often refers to the perpetrators of violence mysteriously as "na maloom afraad" or "unknown persons," killings ‘magically’ cease immediately when negotiations between political parties resume.

There’s an obvious strategic logic to the recent violence in Karachi, where security conditions at the moment are far from anarchic.

At the heart of the rise in targeted killings in Karachi is the conflict between the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) — a party that represents post-partition Urdu-speaking migrants from India and their descendants — and the city’s other ethnic and political groups, including the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).  The MQM seeks hegemony in Karachi, while the PPP is actively resisting attempts by the Pakistan Army and rival political parties, including the MQM, to limit its influence in Karachi, urban Punjab, and Islamabad.

The rise in targeted killings has coincided with the breakdown of negotiations between the MQM and PPP over the future of the local government system in the province of Sindh.  The MQM fears changes in the present system could jeopardize its control of Sindh’s two major cities, Karachi and Hyderabad.  As the MQM-PPP negotiations stalled, both parties resorted to belligerent tactics.  The MQM dropped its support for an amnesty bill that would have benefited its members, President Asif Ali Zardari, and his closest allies.  Some MQM officials have also been threatening to leave its federal and Sindh government coalitions with the PPP.

In late December, Zulfiqar Mirza, a Zardari ally and Sindh home minister, claimed that were it not for the moderation of Zardari, he and other PPP members in Sindh would have supported secession from Pakistan after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.  Then there was the suspicious of arson of markets in Karachi, which some believed targeted ethnic groups that traditionally don’t support the MQM. Early this month, an MQM worker was beheaded in a PPP stronghold, which was followed by reprisal attacks on PPP supporters and tit-for-tat violence between PPP and MQM-affiliated criminal syndicates.

The violence in Karachi has cooled since the PPP was forced to call in paramilitary forces against its own supporters and the MQM and PPP.

Not by mere coincidence, the guns turned silent last Friday in Karachi as the two parties have reportedly come to agreement on the appointment of transitional administrators before fresh local government elections later this year.

All is never really well in Karachi.  The city could soon witness another round of political violence if the MQM and PPP come to another deadlock.  Adding to the potential danger, there are growing tensions between the MQM and the city’s Pashtun population, particularly over the illegal appropriation of public land.  Unlike the MQM-PPP dispute, the MQM and Karachi’s Pashtuns lack developed channels of communication and a history of consensus building.  Furthermore, animosity between the two groups are deep-seated and cultural differences are stark. And so the conflict between the MQM and Karachi’s Pashtuns has the potential to become unmanageable.  As bloody as MQM-PPP relations can be, at least their violence is — in a sense — an alternative form of talking.

Arif Rafiq is the president of Vizier Consulting, LLC and a regular contributor to the Pakistan Policy Blog.

Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, a political risk advisory firm focused on the Middle East and South Asia. Twitter: @arifcrafiq

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