Taliban’s rise in Karachi must be stopped

Pakistan should act to contain violence before it spirals out of control

February 3, 2014 10:00AM ET
In Karachi, members of a student organization light candles in front of photographs of Chaudhry Aslam, chief of the city’s Crime Investigation Department, and Aitzaz Hassan, a teenager who sacrificed his life to stop a suicide bomber, Jan. 12, 2014.
Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

There have been more than 80 terrorism-related deaths and about 46 reported injuries in 2014 in Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous metropolis. Most of the incidents tallied multiple fatalities and injuries, including police. In some cases, unidentified assailants ambushed busy intersections or desolate roads, leaving unrecognized after wreaking havoc. In other instances, bodies of victims were found abandoned in ditches. Some of the victims were killed en route to work in their cars by drive-by shooters. Others were attacked leaving mosques, and one victim was killed while selling peanuts on the streets.

The escalation in attacks reflects a significant strategic victory for the Pakistani Taliban. Their ability to target important officials and use attacks to terrorize a megacity shows their expansion and strength. The government, on the other hand, seems powerless to halt the mayhem or to provide the resources it needs to fight the Taliban in an urban battlefield. In a sign of their relative strengths, the Taliban announced on Saturday a five-member committee to pursue talks with the government but did not offer to halt the attacks as a condition. If the Taliban’s rise is to be contained, Pakistan needs to take urgent measures to stabilize Karachi.

A divided house

The month of January brought a series of horrors to Karachi, a port city of more than 23 million people. On Jan. 6, deep into an unusually cold night, six worshipers — all devotees of a little-known Sufi saint, Ayub Shah — found their meditations interrupted by armed assailants at a hilltop shrine in the Gulshan-e-Maymar neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. When their bodies were discovered the next morning, their throats were slit, and two were beheaded. A dagger used for the job lay nearby with a note. Written in Urdu and signed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the note proclaimed a similar end for anyone praying at a Sufi shrine. A flag that had flown atop the shrine lay rolling in the dusty courtyard — a sign of disrespect for Sufi believers. The Taliban, adherents of the Deobandi sect of Sunni Islam see belief in saints and Sufi mysticism as heresy, and the killings were meant to send a message to those in the city who oppose their beliefs and continue to frequent Karachi’s many Sufi shrines.

Two days later, a brazen afternoon attack targeted Chaudhry Aslam, the chief of Karachi’s Crime Investigation Department. A barrel containing over 100 kilograms of explosives, placed on the side of a highway, was detonated near a convoy carrying Aslam. The incident left him and two of his guards dead. Within hours, the TTP took responsibility, saying it was revenge for the operations that Aslam led against them.

After Aslam’s death, law-enforcement officials vowed to eradicate the Taliban from Karachi. On Jan. 13, police carried out raids in various parts of the city, including areas seen as Taliban strongholds, and arrested 29 alleged terrorists. In less than two weeks after the security sweep, 11 police officers were killed in reprisal attacks by the Taliban. 

Pakistan needs more than feeble, reactive measures to contain the violence and ongoing destabilization.

On Jan. 17, six employees of the Karachi-based news channel Express TV, including three journalists, were killed by TTP militants when their news van came under attack. Sajjad Mohmand, a spokesman for the group, claimed responsibility for the attack and promised more against other media in the city.

The guns then turned to health workers. On Jan. 21, two vaccination teams were attacked while they were administering polio vaccinations to children in Karachi. Three people were killed, including two women. Vaccination teams were also attacked in the provinces of Baluchistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. After the attacks, polio-vaccination drives halted in Karachi and in the two provinces.

The chain of arrests and killings, especially involving police officials, is a familiar story in Karachi. On Jan. 29, three members of the paramilitary Rangers, who conduct operations in the city, were killed when two improvised explosive devices were placed close to their checkpoint. Another IED was hurled at a police station in the city the next day, injuring two officers. In 2013, 273 of Karachi’s policemen were killed on the job — 23 more than were killed from 1992 to 2010. This trend underscores an important fact: A police force that is unable to protect its own cannot defend others.

Last March, the Karachi-based Dawn newspaper, for which I am a columnist, said large swaths of Pakhtun neighborhoods in the west and east of Karachi — deemed impenetrable by law enforcement — were controlled by the TTP. The group is now able to use these areas as bases from which to carry out extended operations in other parts of the city.

Both the city and provincial governments seem unable to contain the situation. They seem uninterested in bridging the political differences among the city’s diverse ethnic groups in order to create a united front against the TTP. At the federal level, the government’s offer to hold talks with the Taliban remains tabled and recently became the subject of political wrangling between the ruling party and its opponents.

In the past decade, the TTP has wielded control over various portions of Pakistan, mostly in the sparsely populated northwestern tribal areas. But the flurry of attacks in Karachi represents a crucial advance for the group. The resultant impact on economic activity is a crippling blow to the Pakistani economy. The city’s many fault lines — ethnic, sectarian and economic — provide fruitful avenues for fomenting a long-lasting civil conflict that could permanently destabilize the region. In addition to the dramatic killings this month, the city has been paralyzed by strikes called by various political and religious groups protesting the killings of their members. Educational institutions have been closed repeatedly. In an effort to prevent suicide bombings, it has become a common occurrence to jam cellphone signals in the entire city, despite the burdens it imposes on inhabitants.

Strategic overhaul needed

The task of fighting terrorism, a mainstay of the Pakistan-U.S. relationship, continues to be tailored to targeting militants in the rural areas of Pakistan’s tribal northwest, also the focus of U.S. drone attacks. In keeping with this perspective and to the satisfaction of many in the United States, Pakistani air force jets recently bombed the tribal areas in a renewed effort to hunt down militants. Neither the U.S. nor Pakistan seems willing to note that the militants may have long relocated from their traditional mountain hideouts to urban quarters and are well on their way to claiming a megacity as their own.

Pakistan needs more than feeble, reactive measures to contain the violence and destabilization. The first step should be the creation of a comprehensive anti-terrorism strategy that involves the city’s various stakeholders, including sectarian, ethnic and political groupings. On the enforcement front, anti-terrorism operations in the city are carried out by both the national army and the provincial Karachi police. Lack of communication between the two and their disparate chains of command has weakened the ability to contain terrorism. A hybrid anti-terrorism force should be established to spearhead the operations and better coordinate intelligence gathering.

Karachi suffers from an acute and pressing lack of emergency facilities to handle the aftermath of terrorist attacks. The city’s inhabitants share only 22 fire stations. Taking terrorism out of Karachi would require better firefighting facilities and a well-equipped bomb squad to oversee the disposal of IEDs. In addition, a witness-protection program and crime-investigation teams are needed to collect and document evidence against terrorist suspects — 73 percent of whom are currently acquitted for lack of evidence. Without a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, Karachi will remain mired in chaos. And the TTP would be the main beneficiaries of unprecedented anarchy, graduating from implicit to overt control of Pakistan’s largest city and, perhaps soon, the entire country. 

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher and the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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