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Can the army save Karachi?

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, September 02, 2011

With a population of over 17 million, including up to 4 million Pashtun and more than 2.5 million Punjabi settlers, Karachi makes an ideal arena for conflict, particularly when it is about protecting or expanding political and economic interests. It virtually turns the city into a socio-political volcano that can erupt any minute. What we witness in Karachi today is a combination of conflicting political interests and warfare among criminal gangs involved in extortion, bank robberies, mercenary acts of murder, and abductions for ransom (meanwhile a huge business). Statistics are simply telling. Without a closer look at these figures it is probably difficult to imagine the scale of the challenge that any administration can face.

Let us first have a look at the city's socio-criminal scene; law-enforcement agencies claim that around 65 percent of bank robberies in the city can be traced back either to various militant groups such as TTP, or the gangs that enjoy political patronage. During 2010, as many as 55 people were abducted for ransom. These numbers rose to 422 by August this year. The famous case of the kidnapping of Satish Anand, a Hindu film director, at the hands of pro-Taliban militants originated in Karachi. He was kidnapped in October 2008 in Karachi and released in April 2009 after the payment of a ransom amount of Rs15 million (Zulfiqar Mirza now claims he made a five million contribution to the ransom for Anand). Another noteworthy kidnapping for ransom case was that of Shaukat Afridi, a transporter and businessman, who was kidnapped by militants in Karachi and was killed in a rescue operation by the security forces.

Intelligence agencies and the police are privy to the operations of a number of gangs in the city but find themselves helpless; several considerations - fear, favour, self-interest, and even sympathies with a particular political party - nevertheless prevent them from cracking down on the gangs.

That is why the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI) established a crisis management cell in February to try to protect its members against organised criminal groups. Data compiled by the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) indicates that criminal incidents average about 4,500 a day - compared to 2,500 in March 2010. Additionally, the less-publicised telephone complaint centre set up by the Sindh home minister has been receiving up to 60 complaints daily, most of them being reports on cases of extortion, kidnapping and police excesses.

Politically connected criminal gangs and mafia dons practically hold the city hostage. Business is practically impossible without coughing up "protection money".

These gangs encroach upon government and private land, sell drugs and weapons and kill rivals. Often the assassinations of political activists - or even notorious gangsters - bring armed youngsters on the roads, who force shops and commercial centres into closure every now and then. Intimidation and death basically stalks the roads of Karachi, where officials say more than three dozen big gangs operate, most of them also in cahoots with religious militant outfits such as the TTP and Afghan militants who use Karachi as their purse.

Karachi today is virtually under siege by a number of vested interest lobbies, ethnic political groups, militants, and politically connected criminal gangs - who have largely rendered the city's 110 police stations with roughly 55,000 policemen and paramilitary troops virtually helpless. The year 2010 saw a 20% surge in crime - from around 49,500 in 2009 to 59,000. This year's killings and crime have broken all records, with August having been one of the bloodiest months.

Police and intelligence categorise some 50% of murders as political, religious or sectarian. Statistics released by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan suggest that 242 people were killed in political strife in 2009 and 748 in 2010. The police put the total number of murders in 2009 at 801 and 1,339 in 2010.

As a whole, Karachi represents an extremely daunting challenge because of the nexus between crime and politics. Police or other security agencies can do little if key members of the government serve as the cushion between law-enforcers and law-breakers - a phenomenon not typical to Karachi only. The nexus between crime and politics exists in other major cities of the country as well. Almost 75 criminal gangs in Balochistan, for instance, allegedly enjoy support of key political figures.

This essentially means even the military can offer little solution in this situation. The army can serve as a big helping hand in cracking down on criminal gangs but prosecution of those arrested becomes a fish-bone in the throat. Can they be tried in military courts? What implications would such trials have, particularly when we have precedents of miscarriage of justice at the hands of summary military courts?

It will have to be a combination of surgical military-led operations, effective and independent judicial process, and enforcement of the punitive measures decreed by the courts. In the larger context, Karachi represents a socio-political challenge and the answer lies in a socio-political approach to a solution. Of absolute importance, however, is the enforcement of law, ie certainty of punishment by the judiciary - free of fear and possible intimidation by vested interest groups. Military or para-military, together with the intelligence apparatus can of course play a crucial role in this regard.

Enforcement of the law across the board is therefore the key. While the military can take on criminal groups and neutralise them to a great extent with the help of the judiciary, it certainly cannot fight a war that essentially stems from interests rooted in politics. The turf wars among major political stakeholders - the MQM, the ANP and the PPP, will come to an end only if these parties come clean on a) their connections with the criminal underworld, and b) their actions against each other's followers (to stem the target-killings). The explosive situation - that also flows from deep-seated mutual hatreds and dislikes - is political in nature and requires a politically-charted way out because a military operation primarily is an administrative measure in a city of highly polarised millions.

Across-the-board administrative measures can of course arrest the spiral of violence but the long-term remedy lies in political means for issues that bear strong socio-political trappings.

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk