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Karachi Burning

By Najam Sethi

Aug. 26, 2011

OVER 400 people have been killed in gang and party political warfare in Karachi in the last two months. No permanent end to the senseless violence is in sight because of several factors.

The three- way struggle for turf and power in Karachi among the PPP, MQM and ANP overlaps with violent gang wars among the criminal drug, extortion, arms and land- grab mafias that have come to dominate the underworld of Karachi and established quid pro quo links with each of the three parties. The problem is that the PPP government is helpless to establish law and order because it cannot afford to launch any serious and sustained “clean- up” operation that targets and antagonises its provincial coalition partners whose support is needed to prop up its government in Islamabad.

In the early 1990s, the army was used to “clean- up” Karachi. At that time, the MQM was the single most important political determinant of war and peace in the city. There was no significant Pashtun or ANP factor to contend with. Nor were there many heavily armed gangs and criminal mafias. So the MQM’s militant wing was the primary target. The operation led to extreme tensions between the MQM and ruling PMLN in 1992 and PPP in 1994.

It was replaced by a Rangers- cum- Police operation because the military didn’t like being accused of acting as an instrument of oppression and repression by one party against another. But the new civilian operation was equally effective because the PPP government in Islamabad was not dependent on MQM support to stay in power and could afford to let strong and independent policemen like Shoaib Suddle, Tariq Lodhi and Masood Sharif Khattak have their way.

The situation is markedly different and more explosive and complex today. The demographic profile of the city has changed in the last two decades with a steady stream of armed Pashtun migrants from the NWFP, FATA and Afghanistan. These Pashtuns have acquired great clout because of the boom in transportation trade triggered by the American pipeline of 500 container- trucks per day in the last decade to Afghanistan. This has given them economic power that is backed by political power following their banding and organisation under the banner of a bargaining agent — ANP. The party has great influence with the PPP in Islamabad and Peshawar. The PPP is also more emboldened now to drive a hard bargain with the MQM, partly because of this factor and partly because it has a majority in the Sindh assembly and doesn’t require MQM support there.

The problem arises because the MQM is unable and unwilling to accept a fair power- sharing formula in the new situation. It ruled the roost for ten years under General Pervez Musharraf ( who outlawed the PMLN and KARACHI BURNING PPP, sidelined the ANP and tailored the 2001 Local Bodies law in Sindh to enhance the MQM’s political interests in Karachi and Hyderabad) and will not countenance any dilution in its vested economic and political interests.

M EANWHILE, there has been a proliferation of various criminal mafias who have cunningly allied themselves to the three political parties for maximising their advantage and autonomy. This basically means that the potential for armed warfare and conflict in the city has increased significantly since each armed mafia has become an adjunct non- state actor allied to one political party or the other. In the old days, only the MQM had an armed criminal wing. Now the PPP and ANP have their own armed supporters and criminal wings among the various mafias. An added complication is the budding relationship between the anti- MQM Afaqled- Haqiqi faction and the ANP that is protecting Haqiqi cadres in Sherpao Colony with the approval of the PPP. The hapless people of Karachi are so sick and fed up with the situation that they are demanding an army intervention to clean up the mess as in 1992.

The MQM and ANP have joined the chorus only to “ prove” that they are innocent and have nothing to fear from such an operation. But the PMLN and PPP are opposed to it because the former fears an army intervention in Karachi could become a precursor to an army intervention in Islamabad that could hurt its budding interests while the latter is opposed to it because it would signal the end of its coalition government in Islamabad by targeting the ANP and MQM in Karachi. The fact also is that if Mr Zardari were prepared to risk a collapse of his coalition in Islamabad instead of doing exactly the opposite by going the extra mile to woo the MQM back into his fold, he could easily emulate the Police- Rangers option exercised so effectively by his wife Benazir Bhutto from 1994- 1996 when she was prime minister.

What happens next depends on how and when Mr Zardari concedes the MQM’s remaining demands: immediate action to eliminate the Afaq- Haqiqi faction and an announcement of an early date for local body elections without changing the favourable constituency delimitations agreed upon between the MQM and General Musharraf in 2002.

This is a tall order. Mr Zardari will definitely want to restore the pre- Musharraf status quo ante in Karachi and Hyderabad in deference to the wishes of his Sindh PPP. The MQM will also have to accommodate the legitimate demands of the ANP and the Pashtuns to reflect the demographic changes that have taken place since the last census.

If the MQM balks at joining the PPP government and refuses to accommodate the legitimate demands of the PPP and ANP in exchange, the stage will be set for fresh bloodletting in Karachi. Conspiracy theories will then fly about regarding Altaf Hussain’s “real intentions” to create mayhem in Karachi as a prelude to foreign intercession and secession from Pakistan at the behest of hostile foreign powers.

The writer is the editor of The Friday Times

Source:  Friday Times