The South Asia Channel

Failed city? Karachi's violent spiral

Last Wednesday night, four members of Pakistan's paramilitary Rangers force were killed when an attacker threw a grenade at their vehicle in Korangi Town, a neighborhood on the east side of Karachi. Despite the Pakistani government touting its historic democratic victory, concern over escalating violence in Karachi, a sprawling metropolis of 18 million people, continues to grow. A permeating sense of instability has only worsened a deteriorating economic crisis, both of which are stark reminders of the failure of the government and security apparatus to maintain law and order in a city that promises to spiral out of control. In light of upcoming elections, it seems likely that the violence will continue to increase.

According to estimates from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, close to 2,284 people were killed in violent attacks in Karachi in 2012. By some media estimates, targeted killings and a string of deadly bomb blasts cost the lives of 500 people in 72 days of this year alone. Victims range from civilians to policemen, the paramilitary Rangers to development workers, journalists to lawyers.

Pakistan as a whole has recently witnessed a sharp rise in brutal attacks by Sunni extremists on the minority Shia group, which constitutes close to 20% of the population. These attacks have been concentrated primarily in the southwestern province of Balochistan, but Karachi has seen its own wave of sectarian killing and ethnic strife. The city came to a standstill when on March 3, a powerful blast ripped through AbbasTown near a Shia Imambargah, destroying two apartment buildings and leaving 50 people dead, more than 200 injured, and innumerable homeless.

Law enforcement agencies remained conspicuously absent for up to four hours from an area engulfed by flames after the attack, raising serious questions about the government's commitment to protecting citizens from militant attacks, and the functioning of the city's security apparatus. The mourning families endured further injustice and humiliation when two men were killed and a dozen injured in armed clashes that occurred at the funeral procession a day later. Authorities continue to arrest suspects, and many believe that Sunni extremist groups Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which claimed recent massive attacks on Hazara Shias in Quetta, Balochistan, are behind such incidents.

On March 6, just days after the March 3 blast, the entire city of Karachi was abruptly shut down in a matter of just 22 minutes, during which seven people were killed in separate incidents of violence, gunshots were reported, and people scurried to safely get home. Social media was abuzz with those transmitting real-time updates on areas that were blocked or unsafe to travel.  Amid the violence, Karachi's biggest and most influential political party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), called for all businesses and educational institutions to remain closed until the Abbas Town culprits were arrested. Most Karachiites were disgruntled by the ‘indefinite' strike, which they feared would damage the city's economy even further. Daily wagers like Shahnawaz Shahzad, a fruit seller near Karachi's area of Lyari, complained, "I have a family of six to feed. This daily business of strikes affects us very strongly. If I can't make a selling, my family has to sleep hungry."

Businesses and public transportation closed quickly, and hospitals were put on high alert. For a city that is, unfortunately, used to daily violence such as thefts, robberies, and car snatching, Karachi seems to have sunk even further into abyss.

Earlier this month, an attempted kidnapping of a young girl at Karachi's high-fashion Dolmen Mall raised chilling concerns about the collapse of the security apparatus in even the wealthier urban centers. Social media has also been flooded with rumors about the infamous "Black Prado" that preys in Karachi's affluent areas of Defense, Clifton and Zamzama. Gangs of men, traveling in Black Prados with tinted windows were said to be kidnapping two young girls every day. Though no official complaints have been registered, rumors were rife that young girls from elite families were gang-raped, videotaped and then blackmailed.

Whether actual or rumor, violent incidents and petty crime have made Karachi's citizens more cautious about their movements. Many of those living in affluent areas of the city have resorted to enrolling in self-defense classes, particularly the women. Not surprisingly, many citizens feel that with the run-up to elections, bomb blasts, targeted killings, kidnappings and petty crime are expected to worsen, making the city more unsafe. Following the surge of violence in Karachi, an opinion poll conducted on March 9th by the Express Tribune asked whether citizens considered purchasing a gun given Karachi's law and order situation. From a sample of 1,078 respondents, 69% responded affirmatively

In one of the most recent cases of violence, unidentified assassins shot a prominent Karachi social worker, Parveen Rehman, inside her car at a traffic intersection. Rehman was the director of the Orangi Pilot Project, and dedicated her life to working for the vulnerable and disadvantaged in Karachi's Orangi slum. While no particular group has claimed responsibility, suspicion has fallen on Karachi's ruthless land mafia, against whom she remained a vocal critic. Shortly after her death, students and media outlets paid homage to the courageous worker, hailing her as the "Mother of Karachi."

Just two weeks ago, on March 30, the principal of a Karachi girl's school in Ittehad Town, the Nation Highway School, was shot dead, and six girls between the ages of 8 and 10 were injured, in a brazen attack on the premises during an award distribution. Two militants threw a grenade at the wall and entered while opening fire. Attacks such as this continue to raise concern over girls' education, even in urban centers. While physical attacks on girls' schools are so common that they appear to be hardly even newsworthy in areas considered to be backward and militant-ridden like Swat and FATA, similar attacks in Karachi are on the rise, a disturbing trend in Pakistan's largest city.

Many Karachiites claim that the city, instead of being secured by police and law enforcement agencies, is now a level playing field for criminals and militants. Given the mounting security concerns and lack of a healthy investor climate, many businesses have relocated to foreign countries, while close to 5,000 traders and businesses have completely closed down. Moves such as this can have a devastating impact on what is believed to be the country's economic and industrial hub. According to State Bank figures, Foreign Direct Investment stood at an admirable $5.410 billion dollars in 2008. The PPP's five-year tenure has failed to boost the figures. FDI fell to a mere $820 million during the 2012 fiscal year, and the Pakistani rupee dropped in value by more than 63%.

Citizens have called for a military operation against militants and gangs in Karachi, a move that the government has staunchly opposed. Many feel that the PPP government refused to turn to the Army for fear of admitting its inability to maintain law and order right before elections. And a defense source recently admitted that Chief of Army Staff, General Kiyani had taken note of the deteriorating situation of Karachi saying that, "the situation in Karachi has deteriorated to alarming proportions and violence could get out of control if urgent action is not taken immediately."

Unfortunately, the violence in Karachi does not stem from any one particular root. The city is plagued by militancy, ethnic and sectarian strife, land mafia, gangs and petty criminals, amongst others. The dire situation in Karachi is only made worse by a leadership unwilling to conduct major reforms in governance and enforce prompt accountability. The inadequate training and motivation of law enforcement agencies such as the police, partly composed of persons accused of crimes and appointed/re-appointed on partisan grounds, along with a lack of co-ordination between intelligence agencies and effective, pre-emptive actions has led to a complete failure of law and order.

Pakistanis doubt that the new government elected on May 11 will be able address the rampant and swift deterioration of Karachi's security. Many extremist groups have strong bases in Pakistan's largest province of Punjab. A strong contender to form the next government, Nawaz Sharif's PML-N, has had no qualms about forming electoral alliances with the Ahl-e Sunnat Wal Jammat (ASWJ) organization, a political faction believed to have ties to broader and banned jihadi networks such as the deadly sectarian group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and the Tehrik-eTaliban Pakistan (TTP). Nawaz is currently the frontrunner to become Pakistan's next Prime Minister, and alliances such as this further illustrate the improbability of political parties taking concrete actions against terrorist groups, whether before or after elections.  

The escalating violence and disorder has also raised concerns about the likelihood of having free, fair and transparent electoral procedures in Karachi in May. Poor governance will continue to enable disorder, further compounded by the heat and strife of election fever. The interim government, limited by its mandate, will be unable to address the growing crisis. The only alternative seems to be bringing in the Army for a limited period of time to stabilize the situation and reduce violence before polling takes place. However, given the Army's notoriously power hungry history, this, too, seems like an unlikely proposal. Understandably then, most Karachiites feel like they're on their own.

Without a doubt, Pakistan has made history with its first ever civilian government to finish a complete term. However, bad governance and a surge in large-scale violence and petty crime have left many citizens questioning the price they have paid to usher in democracy.

Arsla Jawaid is Assistant Editor at the monthly foreign policy magazine, SouthAsia. Arsla holds a BA in International Relations from Boston University, with a focus on foreign policy and security studies. She can be followed on Twitter @arslajawaid.

RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images