Karachi — moment of reckoning

By some estimates, the Taliban already control one-fifth to one-third of areas on Karachi’s periphery. They are running rings that dominate extortion, bank robberies, kidnap for ransom, paid target killings, drug trafficking and land grabbing in the city

The arrest of Altaf Hussain by British authorities has created panic and chaos in Karachi. The present turmoil, violence, and agitation are a serious threat to the city and its denizens. However, it is the long-term implications of what may happen that are worrisome and need immediate attention of the state and all the key stakeholders. Whether one likes him or not, there is no denying that Mr Hussain commands the following of a very large segment of the population in Sindh’s urban centres, particularly among the Urdu-speaking community. Over the years, he has commanded this support with absolute authority and any challenge that has emerged to his leadership has fizzled away. This time, the story may be different though. For one, Mr Hussain faces serious criminal charges against him outside Pakistan and if he is tried and sentenced, he will lose any means to control his vast political empire. To top it are health concerns, which put a question mark over his ability to lead the party. And here emerges the real threat. If Mr Hussain is abruptly removed from the leadership of the party, the party faces the risk of disintegration. There may be factions within the MQM that will try to fill the vacuum created. Keeping in view the violent political landscape of Karachi, this can quickly turn into an all-out war within the MQM. Sensing an opening, the MQM’s rivals in politics and territory may try to encroach on MQM space. Liyari gangs, the Sunni Tehrik, etc, may come after MQM territory and this will further intensify the violence and destroy the law and order of the city. Even entities like the PML-N, PTI, PPP, and JI may try encroaching on the MQM’s political space and this flux will lead to a new cycle of violence in Karachi. But that is not where it will all stop. Had it been all, Karachi may have suffered a few more months or years and would have lived in the sense of constant fear as it has been living in for over three decades, and the state would have opted for a policy of appeasement and containment to move from one stalemate to another.
What adds complexity to the present situation is the fact that over the last one decade, the Taliban have infiltrated Karachi and as a result of infighting within MQM and between various other factions in the city, they are the entity that could gain the most. By some estimates, the Taliban already control one-fifth to one-third of areas on Karachi’s periphery. They are running rings that dominate extortion, bank robberies, kidnap for ransom, paid target killings, drug trafficking and land grabbing in the city. They run a parallel system of dispute resolution in many of their controlled areas. They have been involved in sectarian target killings and have been involved in targeted bomb blasts to assassinate key security officials. They are organised, have established channels to smuggle arms and ammunition into the city, and have infiltrated the security services. And with this degree of organisation and firepower, in the case of infighting between key stakeholders of Karachi, the Taliban are likely to dominate the city. The potential of dominance of the third largest city in the world by the Taliban is a nightmarish scenario. And if the situation is not appropriately handled, a city accounting for one-eighth of the country’s population and one-third of its GDP will soon become a no-go area for the state. Without exonerating him of all wrongdoings, maybe the best outcome is hoping that any transition that happens within the MQM is carried out by Mr Hussain, in a smooth manner. However, if this is not the case, the stakes are too high to be ignored. 
Three key stakeholders, the security establishment, federal government and Sindh government have very little time to formulate a comprehensive policy to deal with the looming threat. The policy should focus on minimising violence, a mechanism to rapidly restore law and order in the event of violent incidents, and above all containing and eliminating the Taliban from the financial hub of the country. The challenge also offers an opportunity to establish the writ of the state in the country’s largest city that has been crippled for three decades. The moment can be used to define new rules where the state allows no one to have the power and means to resort to violence. This will require a clear plan, political will, and leadership. Two key political stakeholders, the PPP and PML-N, can choose to use this opportunity for political gains or can turn it into a defining moment for the country. And the country’s security establishment can use this opportunity to establish the supremacy of the state and law in Karachi rather than falling for their usual power-plays and picking favourites. A candid analysis will make all parties realise that the only option they have is to be history-makers, for any gains on the route of self-interest will be short-lived in the face of the rising tide of the Taliban.
In the wake of the PML-N government’s inaction on the Taliban, this may be the moment of truth for the PPP. Being the largest stakeholder in Sindh and claiming to be a party of the federation and constitutionalism, it is an opportunity for the PPP to redeem its fading lustre. Taking ownership of a plan for a violence-free Karachi, taking key political and administrative stakeholders onboard, and delivering on it may be the opportunity that allows the PPP to capture the imagination of the nation once more. Whether it rises to the challenge or falls for self-interest will be a test of the party’s and leadership’s character. What faces us in Karachi is scary to say the least. However, in challenge lies the opportunity, the opportunity to reclaim the state that we have been losing in the last three decades inch-by-inch. It requires will and leadership, and for some reason, I have hope.

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Aaj Kal