What Happens When the Lights Go Out in Karachi?

Three scary questions that keep Pakistanis up at night.


Since 2001, U.S. dealings with Pakistan have been guided primarily by security concerns — and with Hina Rabbani Khar traveling to Washington for the first time as Pakistan’s foreign minister this week, the buzz about Afghanistan, terrorism, and security is unlikely to abate. Indeed, the last time a Pakistani foreign minister visited Washington, Richard Holbrooke, then the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, felt compelled to remind Americans that "We don’t work with Pakistan because of Afghanistan. We work with Pakistan because of Pakistan itself." It was hardly true in 2010 and it’s even less true now. The possibility of working with Pakistan for its own sake remains overshadowed by the war in Afghanistan — and will likely remain so even after NATO withdraws in 2014 given the negative security outlook.

The preoccupation with security persists because the stakes are so high: the security of the U.S. homeland, stability on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations — the latter, of course, being an important determinant of the first two. Because of this, the dialogue on security should continue, but it has distracted us from other circumstances that are potentially more devastating for long-term stability in Pakistan and which also have broader implications for U.S. national security. For those of you planning to attend one of the events featuring Foreign Minister Khar in Washington or New York, consider asking her about something other than the Haqqani network, al Qaeda, or the Taliban. Below are three non-Afghanistan questions to ask the foreign minister; they keep real Pakistanis up at night, and they all affect U.S. interests.

1. Why is Pakistan a hotbed of religious extremism?

Pakistan, like many other Muslim countries, is experiencing a growing trend towards more conservative religious practice. This alone is not cause for concern, but it does mean the political space for secular and progressive interpretation of law, culture, and social behavior is shrinking. Just in the past month, gunmen pulled several Shiites off a bus in Quetta and shot them; Hindus fled Pakistan for India claiming persecution; and a fourteen-year-old Christian girl was jailed on false blasphemy claims. In an incident earlier this month at a McDonald’s in Karachi, an employee objected to a married couple sitting side-by-side because it broke the rules. (The manager confirmed that such behavior was against the restaurant’s policy on Islamic family atmosphere.) Maybe the owner of McDonald’s Pakistan is an über fundamentalist trying to convert wayward Pakistanis one Big Mac at a time or maybe the franchise simply wants to avoid being targeted by violent extremists who deem such behavior inappropriate. Either way, it’s a distressing sign of the times.

We can’t blame the Pakistani Taliban alone for the rise of extremism throughout the country. Others responsible for fanning the flames include the militant outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba, the pan-Islamist organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and religious political parties like Jamaat-e-Islami. But the real question is not who, but why? Some say it’s because moderate Muslims are unwilling to speak out against militancy. Others believe jihadist ideology justifies violence. A more controversial view holds Pakistan’s legal system responsible for empowering extremists. The trend is a dangerous one where violence is regularly used as retribution for being on the wrong side of politics or religion. The United States could sit back and ignore much of this — conservative social mores and attacks on religious minorities don’t immediately impact its priorities in Pakistan. But the further the pendulum swings to the right, the more challenged U.S.-Pakistan relations will be since railing against the United States is a favorite pastime of violent extremists. Furthermore, the weak civilian government in Pakistan will be in no position to challenge ascendant extremists — either out of fear of retribution or because of election-year political pressures.

2. Why has Karachi become a killing field? 

While Washington has been obsessing about the Haqqani network, Karachi has become a killing field. The problems of the megalopolis do not seem to worry U.S. policymakers — but they should. Karachi is one of the world’s largest and most dangerous cities. The problems of its population, estimated to be anywhere from 14-20 million strong, are representative of the country’s broader struggle to address changing demographic patterns.

Just take Karachi’s changing ethnic composition and city politics — a root cause of rising violence — as an example. Mohajirs — migrants from northern India — have traditionally dominated Karachi’s politics and economy through the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a secular political party with liberal positions on many social and political issues. The 1998 census listed Karachi’s Mohajir population at roughly 50 percent. In the mid-2000s, the balance of power shifted with the influx of Pashtuns, who now represent an estimated 20-25 percent of the city’s total population. This influx enabled the rise of the Pashtun nationalist Awami Nationalist Party, which, along with the Pakistan People’s Party, has sought to carve off a greater share of the revenues from Karachi’s enormous informal sector, which some unofficial sources estimate at $1 billion.

All parties use violence to some extent in pursuit of their economic interests, which has not insignificant implications for the United States. Opportunist criminal networks often collude with anti-American actors such as the Karachi-based Taliban, outlawed sectarian groups like Sipah-e-Sihaba Pakistan, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and other terrorist outfits that hail from the semiautonomous region in northwest Pakistan. More importantly, the Karachi port manages a large portion of imports for NATO troops in Afghanistan. To date, domestic violence in Pakistan has not impeded the port’s operation, but the potential risks create a more hostile operating environment for already strained U.S.-Pakistan cooperation.

3. What happens when the lights go out?

In simple economic terms, Pakistan spends more than it makes. A lot of that spending is devoted to importing oil to meet energy demands at home. Despite the expenditure, the lights can go out for up to 20 hours at a time in some parts of the country. That’s not a shortage of electricity — it is an absence of electricity. Most efforts to improve energy provision are short-lived because the government can’t get buy-in from Parliament, even from members of its own coalition. Long-term reforms will be costly to the government and to the average Pakistani, who will likely end up having to pay more for power that is not guaranteed. The initiatives that do make it through the political gridlock are often temporary measures intended to alleviate short-term economic burden for equally immediate political gain. But when the lights go out, people take to the streets — and this year, several protests turned violent. In July, protesters threw stones at riot police in Rawalpindi and attacked power supply departments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

A Pakistani government has never collapsed as a result of such protest, but government neglect and mismanagement of the economy has historically foreshadowed military coups — of which Pakistan has had many over the years. While this is probably less likely to occur now than ever before — the military simply faces too many challenges of its own to take on those of the civilian government’s — we should not underestimate the extent to which the Pakistani military views itself as a caretaker of the nation. When civilians fail, it stands ready to fill in the gaps. The United States has an interest in striking a balance in civil-military relations in Pakistan — but it will never be able to get it right if the generals and politicians can’t first figure it out.

Taken individually, the three questions above allow us to think outside of the "Af-Pak" mindset we’ve been wed to since the phrase was introduced in 2009. But taken as a whole, the questions are a harbinger of deeper instability. The problems of rising extremism, violence in Karachi, and power shortages will be shaped by one of the biggest challenges of all: a population of 180 million people that is expected to grow to 335 million by 2050. Each of these problems compounded by the others creates a snowball effect that could prove to be more than the state — and its allies and partners — can handle. It would be worth asking the foreign minister about that, too.

Shamila N. Chaudhary is Senior Advisor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and Senior South Asia Fellow at New America. She served as Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010 – 2011.

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