Does Karachi need the Rangers?

Proceedings began yesterday in Karachi’s Anti-Terrorism Court on the case of Sarfaraz Shah, the teenager whose murder by paramilitary Rangers was recorded and shown across Pakistan. Today, all seven accused men will be presented before Judge Bashir Khan Khoso. Though legal wranglings have only just started in earnest, the main subplot of this vicious story ...

ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images
ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images
ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images

Proceedings began yesterday in Karachi's Anti-Terrorism Court on the case of Sarfaraz Shah, the teenager whose murder by paramilitary Rangers was recorded and shown across Pakistan. Today, all seven accused men will be presented before Judge Bashir Khan Khoso. Though legal wranglings have only just started in earnest, the main subplot of this vicious story has already begun to divide opinion in Karachi.

The killing of the young man has been widely condemned and abhorred; yet public discussion has now turned its focus to whether the entire Rangers establishment should be booted out of Karachi. Defenders suggest that the Rangers are providing much-needed security in the city at a time where crime has increased noticeably. For example, only last weekend I attended an exhibition in the Defense Housing Authority (DHA) area -- a safe, largely residential neighborhood -- on truck art. Some moments after friends and I left, the remaining art observers found themselves staring into the end of a gun. Four armed men robbed some 40 people of cell phones and laptops and grabbed the equivalent of $800 from the cash counter on their way out. Ironically, the exhibition was named "Art Loot Maar" -- that is, "Art Robbery." Though no one was injured or killed, such crimes, which occur weekly throughout Karachi, have created a deep sense of insecurity.

But despite this heightened need for security, the majority of people I talk to question whether people in Karachi should face intimidation from the very forces that are supposed to protect them; indeed, apart from extrajudicial killings, the Rangers have also been showing their presence in the city by increasingly occupying public spaces and heritage sites, such as Jinnah Courts. And police investigation reports here have confirmed that no evidence was found to suggest that Shah was the protagonist of any robbery. The city may end up looking more akin to a mini police state, rather than the historical port city that it is. So is Karachi really better off simultaneously facing both growing insecurity and growing danger from the security forces?

Proceedings began yesterday in Karachi’s Anti-Terrorism Court on the case of Sarfaraz Shah, the teenager whose murder by paramilitary Rangers was recorded and shown across Pakistan. Today, all seven accused men will be presented before Judge Bashir Khan Khoso. Though legal wranglings have only just started in earnest, the main subplot of this vicious story has already begun to divide opinion in Karachi.

The killing of the young man has been widely condemned and abhorred; yet public discussion has now turned its focus to whether the entire Rangers establishment should be booted out of Karachi. Defenders suggest that the Rangers are providing much-needed security in the city at a time where crime has increased noticeably. For example, only last weekend I attended an exhibition in the Defense Housing Authority (DHA) area — a safe, largely residential neighborhood — on truck art. Some moments after friends and I left, the remaining art observers found themselves staring into the end of a gun. Four armed men robbed some 40 people of cell phones and laptops and grabbed the equivalent of $800 from the cash counter on their way out. Ironically, the exhibition was named "Art Loot Maar" — that is, "Art Robbery." Though no one was injured or killed, such crimes, which occur weekly throughout Karachi, have created a deep sense of insecurity.

But despite this heightened need for security, the majority of people I talk to question whether people in Karachi should face intimidation from the very forces that are supposed to protect them; indeed, apart from extrajudicial killings, the Rangers have also been showing their presence in the city by increasingly occupying public spaces and heritage sites, such as Jinnah Courts. And police investigation reports here have confirmed that no evidence was found to suggest that Shah was the protagonist of any robbery. The city may end up looking more akin to a mini police state, rather than the historical port city that it is. So is Karachi really better off simultaneously facing both growing insecurity and growing danger from the security forces?

Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah seem to think that Karachi is safer with the Rangers. Malik and Shah have praised the Rangers’ establishment and announced last week that the facilities provided to them, along with the mandate under which they operate, will remain in force. Ignoring the wide criticism emanating from both the populace and other parts of the government, Malik also claimed that Sarfaraz Shah was a criminal, therefore implying that overall, the act of killing him was permissible. Moreover, Malik seems to think that the law-and-order situation has been mostly kept under control by the presence of the Rangers. Facts, however, suggest otherwise. Killings this June are already approaching the number from the same month last year, with a week still remaining.

People tell me that Malik is a good politician, meaning he is able to steer himself through opposing political factions, and the mire that is Pakistani politics, with cunning. But most keen observers of Karachi claim in conversations that the interior minister has failed to understand the tarnished history between Karachiites and the Rangers. The paramilitary forces were utilized in the 1980s to prevent the ethnic muhajir Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and IJT (a student union wing of Jamaat-e-Islami) from grabbing one another’s throats; and again in the 1990s during "Operation Cleanup," which sought to "cleanse" the city of rogue MQM party workers, at the behest of both the military and then-Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. The Rangers shot and killed at will, while Karachiites watched from their windows and streets as their beloved city was turned into a war zone.

The Rangers are not suited to Karachi. The fragile, heavily politicized, and underpaid police force needs extra support and a disciplined hand for guidance; but this does not necessarily have to be provided by the Rangers, who are better-suited to operating in nonurban border areas. Better training and recruitment can forge a more robust police force, but this takes time. The police need additional support to battle drug trafficking, targeted killings, and bombings in the city, right now. However, the Rangers — the only force aside from the military currently able to instill a semblance of order — have proved too volatile a partner for Karachi to handle.

The Rangers will not be pulled out of Karachi anytime soon; this much seems certain. Indeed, they have become part of the scenery in Karachi, where some even occasionally wave at familiar faces. But in the short term, a judicial decision sanctioning the Rangers’ behavior can go a long way toward ensuring that the force does not step out of line and quickly seeks to adapt to the urban environment in which it now maneuvers. The federal government has temporarily brought the Rangers to heel by removing their chief in Sindh province. Nonetheless, the strongest signal to the Rangers to tone down their behavior and act in accordance with their environment may come from having the force of law brought down on those accused of killing Sarfaraz Shah, if they are found guilty. The trial has begun, and we must wait to see how it — and the saga that is Karachi’s most recent violent spasm — ends.

Bilal Baloch is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is currently conducting field research in Karachi.

Bilal Baloch is a co-founder of GlobalWonks, a tech-enabled marketplace connecting global affairs experts with organizations around the world. He is also a nonresident fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. You can follow him @bilalabaloch

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