Karachi’s civil war: politics by other means – By Dr Mohammad Taqi

About 90 people — 12 in just one instance — were assassinated in Karachi earlier this week and approximately 1,300 have been killed in various acts of violence in the city this year. These are not random or targeted killings: this is civil war.

Unlike interstate wars, a civil war is defined as “an armed combat within the boundaries of a recognized  sovereign entity, between parties subject to a common authority at the outset of hostilities”. While all wars are hell, civil wars are particularly nasty and are aptly termed dirty wars as the common authority usually stands eroded and the combatants who deem every foul act fair, do not abide by the customary laws of war.

In most instances, a civil war is the continuation of politics by other means and must be understood in this context. An inaccurate narrative of the conflict and use of incorrect nomenclature and descriptive terms, especially by the media and analysts, may mask the political motives of the warring factions and make the already elusive solutions even harder to find.

Whereas an overexposure of the brutalities can desensitize a population, the attempts to sanitise the narrative are also counterproductive. Using euphemisms like target or targeted killing makes the conflict opaque to the people, hampers their understanding of the situation and, in a land where human life is the cheapest commodity, keeps them from demanding answers and definitive action from their elected representatives.

Historically, civil wars have been used to make cities and regions ungovernable, thus making the competing sections of the population and the rulers cede territory and political control. Traditionally, the root cause of many civil wars has been ethnic and religious antagonisms endemic to that region, but in Karachi’s case the continued prevalence of an armed conflict is the composite result of such hostilities, a steady accumulation of unresolved conflicts since at least the 1970s and the gradual emergence of new demographic and political realities.

Political instability — real or perceived — at the federal level indicates disorganization, weakness and erosion of the state’s monopoly over the coercive and administrative apparatus. This provides a milieu as well as a cue for the various competing groups to contest with each other and the state for power and in the process worsens the perception of governmental weakness. In order to protect their interests, the major political players, therefore, respond to this perceived weakness by seeking means to project their soft and hard power.

In a multi-ethnic, mega city like Karachi, where an overt secessionist movement or insurgency does not exist, various ethnic — and occasionally religious — groups use systematic violence to project hard power. Violence is also used as a coercive adjunct to negotiating and obtaining concessions from opponents, competitors and partners. The so-called land-grabber, drug and extortion mafias or the gangs operating with impunity, serve as the coercive muscle that the different ethnic and political outfits use to demonstrate hard power.

Whereas the Mafiosi and gangsters are a problem by themselves, their importance lies in their association with various political outfits. In some ways these gangs are a revival of certain armed student outfits of the 1970s and 1980s that various political parties, especially the Jamaat-e-Islami and later the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), had used to bring the university campuses under their control. It would be erroneous to assume that the criminal outfits of Karachi are just a function of the urban sprawl and disarming them, without a concomitant political solution, is going to be useful or even possible. However, political rapprochement by itself would also be insufficient and ineffective.

This is precisely the predicament that the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) finds itself in: damned if it takes a stern action and damned if it does not. The PPP’s central leadership, especially President Asif Zardari, is under pressure from its own Sindh and Karachi leaders, as well as allies like the Awami National Party (ANP) to call in the military in support of the civilian administration. So far it has resisted these calls because its other coalition partner, the MQM, is totally averse to the idea of an army operation.

The PPP thus faces a political dilemma at two levels. Firstly, and perhaps more importantly for the PPP and others, an army action has its own dynamics and may take a life of its own with consequences that in the long run could undermine the democratic process. Secondly, if the MQM were to exit the provincial and central coalitions, the Sindh government could sustain itself numerically, but the central government would lose its simple majority.

At a juncture when Mian Nawaz Sharif has kept completely mum about the Karachi situation while opting to castigate President Zardari, the PPP would not want to rely on his support to run a minority government. If the PPP’s central government is weakened, Mian sahib — who does not seem to be in a conciliatory mood — may nudge the things towards an in-house change or early polls.

However, the rise in the Pashtun population of Karachi and the resultant ascendancy of the ANP there is something that the PPP cannot ignore. The ANP and its predecessors like the NDP have had political roots in Karachi but the higher profile of the party is reflective of the changing demographics that make the MQM cower. Unlike the rather unnatural and uneasy PPP-MQM coalitions that historically have ended in failure, the ANP perhaps would be the PPP’s natural ally in the Karachi politics in the years to come.

In a situation where the PPP is finding it difficult to break the cycle of violence and an army action may not be in sight, a bolstered police and rangers action with a clear mandate must start in earnest, and soon. The public perception of the PPP’s weakness is seriously damaging its political base, especially in Sindh. However, for such an action to deliver even the bare minimum, the PPP will have to restrain its coalition partners. If the PPP leadership is able to demonstrate some crisis management skills, it could project the party’s soft power through its image restoration. Karachi’s perennial inter-ethnic problems are unlikely to evaporate soon but a proactive PPP could manage to keep them from spiralling into a full intensity civil war.(Source)

The writer can be reached at mazdaki@me.com