All of a sudden some of the high and mighty of this country seem to have woken up to the fact that Taliban insurgents have gained a foothold in Karachi. These religious zealots are resorting to bank robberies, kidnappings and extortion to raise funds for the so-called holy war that has consumed nearly 40,000 Pakistani lives since early 2002. Apart from operating crime rackets, the Taliban are also carrying out systematic assassinations of political rivals in Karachi’s Pakhtun-dominated neighbourhoods, where they have established control by ousting the nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) workers. A network of seminaries, mainstream religious parties, and new and old Islamic charities provide the militants a platform from where they penetrate, organise and entrench themselves in the city.
Therefore, the honourable Supreme Court – during a suo-motu hearing last week on the law and order crisis in Karachi – ordered action against the Taliban. The same week, President Asif Ali Zardari also asked authorities to present a report on the Taliban’s activities, while Interior Minister Rehman Malik informed the nation that Pakistan’s financial and industrial capital has transformed into a hub of these religious militants.
On its part, the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) added the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) to its ever-expanding list of declared enemies. A TTP spokesman vowed that the Taliban would target MQM workers as a “religious obligation.” In his statement, he also encouraged the small Baloch and Sindhi militant bands to continue their struggle – in an apparent bid to find new allies and fuel ethnic, political and sectarian violence in Karachi, where more than 1,900 people have been killed so far this year. With the master of orchestrating suicide bombings and terror assaults formally announcing to join the fray in Karachi by throwing the gauntlet to the MQM, this means graver times lie ahead for the city.
Terrorist groups like the Taliban thrive on anarchy and disorder. Karachi’s fractured and highly polarised economic, social, ethnic and political environment makes it an ideal choice for all kinds of radicals and militants who want to confront and topple the existing order.
Although the Taliban presence in Karachi hit the headlines only in recent days, they have been expanding their network in the city for the past several years. The process gained momentum with the increased influx of the Pakhtun population to Karachi following the military operation in Swat and South Waziristan in 2009, and an escalation in US drone strikes on the militant-infested North Waziristan region. The majority of the refugees were ordinary citizens trying to escape the conflict, but a large number of militants also managed to find a safe-haven in the vast urban jungle of Karachi during this period.
The TTP’s hostility towards the MQM is understandable, since MQM leader Altaf Hussain and his supporters were the first to raise an alarm over increasing Talibanisation and the misuse of seminaries by extremist religious forces in the city. However, the MQM’s early warning shots were largely ignored by friends and foes alike. Forces like the ANP saw it as a tactic by the MQM to protest against the continued influx of Pakhtuns in the megalopolis, while the concerned government officials and state institutions remained in a state of self-denial by design or default. The PPP – MQM’s senior partner in the ruling coalition – also failed to grasp the gravity of the situation as all the mainstream forces remained locked in self-defeating turf-wars and infighting at the cost of vital issues. The lack of focus and absence of any broad counter-terrorism strategy for the city allowed Al-Qaeda-inspired militants to rest, regroup, expand and carry out their activities – almost with impunity – in Karachi.
The MQM also emerged as the strongest and most vocal critic of the Taliban and their mindset following the assassination bid on Malala Yousafzai, in which she and two of her friends were wounded. In contrast to the other mainstream political parties, the MQM tried to challenge the orthodox militia by trying to come up with an ideological counter-narrative, underlining the vision of Pakistan’s founding father, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who stood for a modern, progressive and secular state fused with the best traditions of Islam. While doing this, the MQM tried to mobilise people at different levels – especially the intelligentsia and the educated urban middle and upper-middle classes. The MQM’s plan to hold a referendum on November 8 to ask the people to decide whether they want Quaid-e-Azam’s Pakistan or the Taliban’s – is a positive initiative to mobilise public opinion against religious extremism and intolerance.
However, the MQM – with all its support in urban Sindh, a well-oiled organisational structure, die-hard workers and muscle power – is hardly in a position to take on the terrorist threat of the Taliban. In fact no political party can match the Taliban and its other Al-Qaeda-inspired allies on their turf of terrorism and suicide missions. A party the size of the MQM remains a soft target for the extremists, who already have a history of targeting the two other partners of the present ruling coalition – the ANP and the PPP – and depriving them of their some top leaders and scores of workers. Now the religious militia has added a new and dangerous element to Karachi’s ethnic and political minefield with their pledge to target the MQM. Dealing with the Taliban’s terror threat remains the sole responsibility of the country’s security forces, which too have remained the prime target of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents.
But the Taliban challenge in Karachi should push the mainstream political parties to shun their petty differences and unite on the minimum agenda of fighting religious extremism in all its forms and manifestations. Any such consensus remains a must to mobilise public opinion against the Taliban and other non-state actors. It will isolate Taliban apologists like Imran Khan, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and various factions of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and allow the security forces to move against militants decisively on the back of popular support.
The PPP, the MQM, the ANP and other mainstream democratic forces – despite their differences and clash of interests – have a lot more in common when it comes to their politics and ideology. They cannot defeat terrorism alone, and need to join hands and unite the people if they want Pakistan to keep up with the 21st century world. The civil leadership must rise to the challenge in this battle of ideas without which the real conflict can never be won by the security forces in the short to mid-term.
In the long-term, both civilian and military leaders must focus on rehabilitating the foot-soldiers of these militant groups and focus on reforming seminaries, and providing modern education and economic opportunities to poor students. Karachi can be a game-changer in this conflict, but the window of opportunity in the election year might be very small.
All we need is a little common sense, a clear vision and some sincerity on the part of the politicians and military leaders to save Pakistan, which is teetering towards complete anarchy and chaos. Although the past offers little hope, rational thinking and sane decisions remain our only bet. Do we have any other choice? It is a matter of life and death now.
The writer is editor The News, Karachi. Email: [email protected]