Winning: Killing For Karachi

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July 18, 2011: There is not one war in Pakistan, but several. One of the least reported other conflicts is the decades old battle for control of Karachi. This is Pakistan's largest city, with 14 million people (eight percent of the nation's population) and producer of a quarter of the GDP. Since Pakistan was founded, in 1947, there has been violence between the natives (Sindis, from the surrounding Sind province) and new groups from India (Mohajirs, Indian Moslems forced to flee the religious violence that accompanied the division of British India into Pakistan and India) and Pushtuns from the Pakistani tribal territories. There had long been smaller versions of these two communities in Karachi, but in 1947, hundreds of thousands of Mohajirs showed up. The Pushtun community grew more slowly, as enterprising young Pushtuns fled the poor, and violent, tribal lands for a better life in Sind. The Pushtuns found themselves shunned and feared in Karachi. The Mohajirs were wealthier and better educated, and were soon competing with the Sindis for control of the great city. The Pushtuns produced a lot of criminal gangs, and a poor underclass. On top of this, there was also religious violence between various Moslem groups (especially Sunni and Shia) as well as between Moslems and non-Moslems (usually Christians and Hindus.)

What makes this such an incomprehensible mess is that each group has a different idea of what winning is. Most of these groups see political power as useful, and attach themselves to one political party or another. But political power is a means to an end. The old Sind clans in Karachi want to maintain the power they have held for centuries, and have nowhere to go but down. The Mohajirs have hurt the Sind clans economically and politically. But for sheer body count, the Pushtun groups (both political, criminal and religious) have been the most dangerous. The Pushtuns are pushing for respect, and more economic and political power. The Sindis and Mohajirs are reluctant to give it up. The religious radical groups (including the Taliban and al Qaeda) want a regional religious dictatorship. This puts them at odds with the Sindi and Mohajirs political parties.

This year, the violence has gotten much worse. Starting in January, when there were nearly 200 deaths from political and religious violence, the fighting has continued. Massive police efforts reduced the violence for a while, but the political and terrorist gangs kept at it. Police have now been ordered to "shoot on sight" any of the armed men responsible for turning many Karachi neighborhoods into combat zones.

While the violence is mainly driven by political parties seeking to establish control over parts of the city, Islamic radicals are heavily involved. The Taliban has established a presence among the two million Pushtuns in the city. Many of those killed have been Pushtuns, partly because the locals are hostile to Pushtun groups gaining more power, and partly because many Pushtun groups are fighting each other. But a lot of the violence is the result of the Taliban trying to prevent the police from stopping the Pushtun radicals establishing safe havens in Karachi. The wealthier Sindis and Mohajirs just want law and order, so that commerce can continue uninterrupted. Some of that commerce is illegal, like gun running and drug smuggling. The Pushtun gangs control a lot of this, but getting stuff in and out of the country often requires cooperation from Sindi and Mohajirs officials and gangsters.

Karachi is one the wealthiest parts of Pakistan, but the city itself is an explosive mélange of hostile groups. As long as the violence continues, no one really wins.

 


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