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What I didn’t know about Karachi: Insights into the future of Pakistan

I’ve just finished reading an advance copy of Steve Inskeep‘s Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, which comes out this fall. I don’t much like the title, but I really enjoyed the book. I feel like I have a much better understanding of Pakistani politics now. He takes us through a terrific journey through ...

Amazon.com
Amazon.com

I’ve just finished reading an advance copy of Steve Inskeep‘s Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, which comes out this fall. I don’t much like the title, but I really enjoyed the book. I feel like I have a much better understanding of Pakistani politics now.

He takes us through a terrific journey through a sprawling, terrifying city that might be the most important place in the world right now. To my surprise, a lot of the book is about fights over land development, which gets wrapped up in ethnic and political tensions. Imagine Donald Trump as a Pashtun warlord/developer. One of the most striking sections of the book is about a man who protested the misuse/theft of park land, and the day after giving a press conference was shot in the head and killed. His successor in the save-the-park movement also was murdered.

Here are some of the other things I learned about Karachi and Pakistan.

–The military is the single largest property owner in the city, and control of land (not necessarily ownership) is the biggest game in town.

–At the time of the Pakistani independence, Karachi was majority Hindu. That changed quickly.

–Pakistan’s parliament building and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. had the same architect. (One more Pakistani grievance against America!)

–The city’s police answer not to the mayor but to the provincial government.

–Most of the city’s violence is not related to Islamic extremism.

–Karachi has 70,000 Boy Scouts

–Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, owned 200 fine English suits. Also, he was Shiite, as was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the most important leader of Pakistan since Jinnah.

–You always see news photographs of torched busses when ethnic violence breaks out because the bus business is seen as dominated by Pushtuns, and their busses are attacked in retaliation for the burning of shops.

If this book has a warning for the rest of the world, it is this: “When a growing city maintained public services and protected the public interest, then private interests had a chance to prosper. But when the public interest was neglected and the environment was debased, then private interests, too, would be steadily and inexorably destroyed.”

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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