Karachi violence and political pragmatism
The recent violence in Karachi is a tragedy no doubt. But perhaps no less tragic is the handling of the situation by those at the helm. Imran Khan and many others have justifiably taken flak for being Taliban apologists who provide the ideological milieu to religious zealotry and terrorism but, unfortunately, several government officials also keep adding to the national confusion. Of course, some Shia clergymen blaming the US and Israel for their plight do not help either. But the fact remains that the present government has presided over the wholesale massacres of the Shia Muslims and religious minorities not known since perhaps the mid-1980s. And yet the Minister for Interior Rehman Malik rambles on that “an invisible force was engaged in disrupting peace in Karachi and Quetta on sectarian basis, but it would not succeed in its negative plans against the country.”
Mr Malik’s boss, President Asif Ali Zardari is not far behind. Just as Karachi burns, the president in a meeting with the US Ambassador to Pakistan Richard Olson “stressed that Washington should review its policy on the war on terror”. Really, Mr President? How about you consider developing a policy against terrorism or would that be too much to ask? Unleashing Mr Malik on everything from YouTube to your own city, Karachi, is not a policy. There is nothing invisible about the perpetrators of sectarian cleansing whether they operate in Quetta, Kurram or Karachi. That is if one wishes to spot them — without the blinders of political pragmatism.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government had to look no further than its coalition partner the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) for advice. The MQM has been shouting at the top of its lungs for almost a decade that Karachi is teeming with the Taliban of assorted varieties. From the 9/11 terror attack mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad to the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Ghani Baradar to the Jundallah kingpin Abdol Malik Regi to the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) operational commander Asif Chottu, all had taken sanctuary in Karachi at one point or another. Chottu is also believed to be instrumental in the present round of violence. The present chief of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) Karachi wing, Qayyum Mehsud apparently was a confidant of the TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud. And lest we forget, the alma maters of the exterminated chief of the terrorist Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Mullah Omar were in Karachi. The who’s who of jihadist terror is not so invisible after all and also not hidden is the fact that all of them have had the patronage of the Pakistani security establishment at one point or another. In fact, the SSP’s first inroads into Karachi were facilitated to support the Haqiqi faction when the Army operation was underway against the MQM in 1992. In this context, the rising chorus to call in the army to wipe out the militants becomes really interesting.
It is unfathomable that with the omnipresent security apparatus of the Pakistani state, the militants could make Karachi home with such impunity let alone raise money through extortion unless there was a wink and a nod. We have lamented in this space umpteen times that the operations in South Waziristan and Swat were conducted with such fanfare — and time lag — that there was no reason for the terrorists not to make good their escape. And a fair number of them did make it to Karachi. The MQM’s caution about the terrorists trickling into Karachi was thrown to the winds for political expediency at various levels. The Awami National Party (ANP) was not willing to alienate its Pashtun base in Karachi by calling to look for terrorists hiding among the thousands of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) migrating out of the war-ravaged Pashtun territory upcountry. But as the ANP Karachi leadership has apparently discovered now, there are areas where they cannot venture not because of the MQM but the jihadists holed up there. For the first time, the ANP and MQM appear to be on the same page vis-à-vis the jihadist terrorists in Karachi. And if there can be a silver lining in the present disaster it is the two parties realising that a third force has been introduced to encroach upon their political turf.
In Punjab, a peculiar phenomenon has played out over the last 15 years or so. The Takfiri/sectarian militant outfit SSP and its several leaders were graduated into a ‘legitimate’ political entity that was now rechristened the Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (ASWJ). Contrarily, the Shiite political forces were banned and stigmatised as terrorist outfits. The net result was the mainstream political parties becoming beholden to the Takfiri ASWJ, which by its own admission entered into electoral adjustments with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, including in the by-elections that brought Mian Shahbaz Sharif to power. The terrorist wing of the ASWJ ostensibly was spun off as the LeJ but for all practical purposes the two outfits are joined at the hip.
The MQM and ANP run a similar risk in Karachi where ceding a political inch to the terrorists might start a process akin to Punjab where the PML-N — and in many constituencies the PPP too — is held hostage by the ASWJ through its militant wing. Calling for the army to sort out the mess that it created in the first place would thus be a double-edged sword for the secular MQM and ANP. And doing so without clearly identifying the enemy and naming the objectives of any operation could be counterproductive. If the president and his lieutenant’s statements are any indication, their political priorities are elsewhere and certainly do not include the Shia vote bank, which the PPP takes for granted. It is unlikely that we will see a comprehensive policy from the PPP to handle the Karachi situation as well as the greater question of the Pakistan-wide Shia genocide. The Shia would be well advised to seek alternative secular political platforms, especially in the 50-plus National Assembly constituencies where they hold sway.
For the MQM and the ANP — two principal political players in Karachi — however, it is a matter of pragmatism to join forces in weeding out not just the terrorists but also their political front(s). The MQM and the ANP may have to spell out the political objectives of any military or paramilitary operation for their senior coalition partner. The two parties have been at odds for long but this time around, they sink or swim together.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets at http://twitter.cm/mazdak