Fareed Khan / AP

The betrayal of Karachi

Leadership vacuum has enabled the Taliban to overrun Pakistan's fastest-growing metropolis

June 11, 2014 1:30AM ET

Karachi has been smoldering for more than a week. On June 8 it burst into flames when the Pakistani Taliban laid siege to the city’s main airport, Jinnah International, killing at least 36 people. The firefight between the attackers and security forces was broadcast live on television, delivering images of carrier planes in flames and the sounds of gunfire and explosions. The megacity, with a population of 23.5 million, has been in a standstill since June 3, after the London arrest on money-laundering charges of Altaf Hussain, a prominent Pakistani politician and chief of the opposition Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). All transportation, businesses, schools and offices remain closed. Leery of violence from MQM activists protesting Hussain’s arrest, the city’s residents have been effectively confined to their homes. When he was released on bail last week, it seemed as though calm would finally return to Karachi.

The escalation of violence exposed the city’s vulnerabilities, including its lack of political leadership and deteriorating security infrastructure. The local law enforcement responding to the airport attack did not even have bulletproof vests and other requisite equipment to engage the assailants. Worse, it’s unclear who was in charge of the operation at the airport until the military took over.

On June 9 the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack and promised more to come. In a similar ambush on June 10, unidentified gunmen attacked a security post at Jinnah, briefly engaging local police in gunfire. That the Taliban were able to take over the city’s only gateway to the rest of the world with little resistance underscores the MQM’s weakness and Karachi’s susceptibility to extremism. After controlling the city for more than two decades, the MQM is in total disarray — unable to advocate for Karachi’s security needs at the federal level or defend it from militants, including the Taliban.

The rise of MQM

Understanding the political and economic crisis in Karachi requires a return to the 1988 elections, a triumphant time for the city. Democracy was beginning to take hold, and the death in a plane crash of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s longest-serving president, facilitated the return of the Bhutto political dynasty. Many expected Benazir Bhutto — the head of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and heir to his political legacy — to make history as the country’s first female prime minister. She did, but she suffered a heavy blow in her home city of Karachi. The newly formed MQM won 13 of the city’s 20 seats for the National Assembly. Hussain orchestrated that electoral victory by rallying the city’s muhajirs (immigrants who settled in Karachi from India after the 1947 partition and their descendants) into a political bloc.

The rise of the MQM parallels Karachi’s tumultuous political fortunes. In the 1988 electoral rout, the MQM’s emergence represented a tremendous change. For the first time, Karachi’s muhajirs had political representation in the federal government. The muhajirs became the fifth nationally recognized ethnicity (Pakistan previously recognized only four) and slowly gained a foothold in local politics through involvement in student activism, including the All Pakistan Muhajir Student Association, the precursor to the MQM.

But electoral victory did not bring peace to Karachi or bring the MQM acceptance in the country’s politics. Instead success led to escalating tensions between MQM-dominated urban Karachi and the nearby Sind province, ruled by the PPP. The frictions devolved into ethnic war in the early 1990s, prompting the Pakistani military to set up tanks and checkpoints in Karachi and target MQM political workers in its Operation Clean-Up. Thousands of MQM activists were arrested, many disappeared, and those found dead were said to have been tortured. The people of Karachi endured curfews and riots as the city was turned into a battle zone for the MQM, its detractors and the Pakistani military.

In January 1992, amid an increased crackdown, Hussain left for London, where he has remained ever since. (The party claims his long self-imposed exile is due to medical reasons.) In his absence, however, the MQM grew stronger, and physical separation did not lessen the cult of his leadership. By the end of the ’90s, after years of tension and conflict, the MQM’s incontrovertible control over Karachi and Hussain’s unchallenged leadership was more or less accepted. 

With the Taliban’s increasing incursion into the city, Karachi now has a caustic mix of demographically driven tensions and extremist encroachment, all of which the MQM is ill equipped to handle.

The change brought good fortunes for both the MQM and Karachi. In 2005 municipal elections, Mustafa Kamal, a young, urbane and articulate MQM leader, became the city’s mayor. As with Hussain, Kamal’s victory represented the triumph of an ordinary, self-made man rising through the ranks. A former telephone operator at MQM headquarters, Kamal set the city on a rapid course of development. Many parks and bypasses were built, and for a brief moment it seemed that Karachi would rise to meet its destiny as a megacity of the future, home to global businesses.

But Pakistan’s other political parties, which had a feudal and industrialist leadership base, could raise money from their inherited wealth and vast land holdings. The MQM, an urban-based party of the middle class, had no such troves to trawl. Soon its activists began extracting rents from Karachi’s shopkeepers and small-business owners. At first the collections were billed as donations, but as the imperative to maintain power became stronger, officials began to penalize those who did not pay up. This alienated the party’s base. Kamal left his mayoral post last year, taking up an unspecified job abroad. In the 2013 elections, the MQM lost 10 percent of the vote compared with 2008. And for the first time since 2002, it was excluded from the governing coalition at the federal level. In an angry speech from London, Hussain threatened to “separate Karachi” from Pakistan, bellowing to his enemies that the entire country “will burn down.”

Karachi put its faith in the MQM. But the party, so long loved, has betrayed that trust. In Pakistan’s nepotistic political realm, some of the MQM’s disloyalties are not unusual. Before her assassination in 2007, Bhutto and many other Pakistani politicians faced corruption charges such as embezzlement and bribery. But the MQM failed in its promise to be a party of the middle class, different from the PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, whose leadership is dominated by feudalists and industrialists. Besides, Hussain’s unchallenged centrality as the party’s lifelong leader has left the MQM ineffective, unable or unwilling to cultivate new leadership and open channels of promotion. If proved, the money-laundering charges underscore the depth of MQM’s corruption and Hussain’s desire to cling to power at any cost. The cumulative effect has been costly for Karachi. Even when there are no massive terrorist attacks like the one on Jinnah, skirmishes between MQM activists, its political opponents and a slew of land and drug mafias, take two to 10 lives each day. From 2008 to 2012, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported 10,693 civilian deaths in Karachi alone.

Betrayals of circumstance

There are also the betrayals of circumstance, which are punctuated by the political vacuum left by the now dithering MQM. The U.S.-led war on terrorism and violence in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa meant the arrival of an uncounted number of Pashtun migrants in Karachi. With the Taliban’s increasing incursion into the city, Karachi now has a caustic mix of demographically driven tensions and extremist encroachment, all of which the MQM is ill equipped to handle.

The MQM’s leadership, shuttling between Karachi and London to receive guidance from Hussain, has failed to provide social mobility that could enable the children of Karachi’s grit and grime, the new Hussains, to ascend within its ranks. To make matters worse, their attention has been redirected from the city’s problems to Hussain’s arrest. This has left Karachi — a onetime fastest-growing megacity — betrayed, paralyzed and in deep peril.

When the recent attacks are put in the context of the city’s political history, Karachi is revealed as a conundrum: A megacity alienated from the rest of Pakistan, with its traditional political forces unraveling and its demography changing, providing a perfect opportunity for the Taliban to claim it as theirs. 

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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