The battle of Karachi

Karachi has a big chink in its armour: it can be paralysed by a single call; by the MQM.

Lt-gen R Asad Durrani September 02, 2011

The unipolar world was out of plumb. Mercifully, it is regaining balance. Now, when America sneezes the rest of the world was is not likely to catch a cold. Barely averting default, the only consolation that the US can hope for is that it takes the euro down with it. Too bad, the Brits, the chronic balancers of power, will once again be gleefully watching from the bank. Too bad, that the metaphor remains relevant to Pakistan: “when Karachi convulses, the upcountry gasps for breath”.

The megacity has many attributes: a microcosm of Pakistan; foreigner-friendly, the largest Pashtun city in the meantime; once the most favourite staging post for all airlines; and much else. But it has a big chink in its armour: it can be paralysed by a single call; by the MQM. Even Edhi, the ultimate humanitarian, with that clout would cause discomfort to his detractors. A political party can use this ability to dictate terms, also to its allies.

No wonder there were so many attempts to dilute MQM’s predominance in Karachi. Two of them were serious. In 1992, when the party was part of the ruling alliance both at the centre and in the province, an army-backed drive was mounted against its command and control echelons. It was aborted on the orders of the president (and the Commander-in-Chief), Ghulam Ishaq Khan. A great balancer of power in his own right, he didn’t like the scales tilting too heavily in the Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) favour. In 1996, the latter now in power, launched an ‘intelligence’ operation to cut its nemesis to size. This also fizzled out when the government was dismissed by its own president (and the C-in-C) later in the year.

This time around it is more complex. For one thing, the large influxes of Pashtuns in the city have helped the Awami National Party (ANP) — tottering on its home ground — field itself as the third political pole. With assorted groups of various sectarian and ideological hues who have emerged all over the country and criminal gangs always game to fish in troubled waters, the battlefield of Karachi is pretty overcrowded. Consequently, and possibly because the PPP now has some street-smart leaders, the MQM seems under sufficient pressure to plead for military intervention. The ANP, too, is desperately seeking the army’s help; for reasons more obvious. In pursuit of livelihood the Pashtuns spread out in the city which makes them vulnerable and, indeed, most of them being daily wage-earners are hit harder by the turmoil.

The PPP’s reluctance to call in the army, too, is understandable. For one thing, it believes that the developments on ground were weakening the MQM and there may just be a chance to break the latter’s monopoly on power; a twice eluded prize. More importantly, it fears that a military operation — even handed as it must be — would also target the ruling party’s goons and restore the status quo ante. The MQM thus salvaging it’s stranglehold over the country’s lifeline. The stakes in the battle for Karachi are high. In 1990, the PPP’s insistence on a selective crackdown cost the party its power in Islamabad.

But the present party leadership with all its ailments is anything but suicidal. The instinct to survive and brinkmanship are probably its only assets. Before going over the brink, it may recall its dogs of war or call in the ‘marines’ (our own, of course; the others have had enough elsewhere). Neither can do more than end the violence. Finding a balanced dispensation, without which this mother-in-law of all cities will remain on the edge, must remain a political call. What model would suit its genius? An agreed power sharing formula like in Lebanon! Governor rule for a few years! A page from the frontier treaties to ensure security of passage and routes! There may be other and better choices.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 3rd, 2011.