In the mountains near the Afghan frontier, former Pakistan soldier Abdullah Chachar could take clean shots at Taliban militants. Now a policeman in Karachi, he worries about bystanders getting in the way.
“We have to be careful when we open fire,” said Chachar, 41, who joined the force in February after three years on the border. “Because of the buildings and general public, Karachi is a more dangerous place than the tribal areas to fight.”
Karachi, one of the fastest-growing megacities on the planet, is becoming a new front in Pakistan’s war on terror as the Taliban moves to the streets from the mountains. Mixed with poverty, gangs and political violence, the insurgency makes the metropolis an extreme case of the chaos and commerce that coexist in some of the developing world’s growing urban centers.
“You’ve got other cities where the problem is of crime or criminal gangs taking over parts of the city like Rio de Janeiro,” said Sakib Sherani, chief executive officer at Macroeconomic Insights, an Islamabad-based research firm. “But Karachi is unique because it represents a failure of the state, where the state has initially ceded to organized crime and now it has ceded to armed militias.”
The port and financial center of more than 20 million people is the transit point for everything from U.S. military equipment to Afghan opium. Karachi generates about half the revenue of South Asia’s second-biggest economy. It’s home to the nation’s stock exchange and central bank as well as the local headquarters of Standard Chartered Plc and Unilever Plc.
Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was murdered here in 2002. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York, made it his base. The International Monetary Fund in January declined to hold talks in Karachi over a loan to the country, holding them instead in Dubai.
Since the 1970s, Karachi has been racked by violence among armed wings of political parties and criminals linked to weapons suppliers and drug mafias. As many as 10,693 people were killed between 2008 and 2012, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, more than the number of U.S military forces killed during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Residents are bracing for worse after a split between rural and urban Taliban factions in February. As much as 20 percent of Karachi is controlled by the Taliban, who run courts and extort money from people and businesses, says Amanullah Mehsud, a member of the Awami National Party, which comprises mainly Pashtuns, the insurgency’s main ethnic group.
While authorities reject the claim that the Taliban controls a fifth of the city, Shahid Hayat, the city’s police chief, says gangs have allied with the insurgents.
“It’s all meshed up,” Hayat said in an interview. “They develop inter-linkages -- local criminals start using the terrorists and the terrorists start using the local criminals.”
The result is a city where people from every walk of life live under daily threat -- from the kidnapping of the wealthy to middle-class workers having their phones taken at gunpoint to street vendors caught in a bomb blast.
“I don’t know anybody in Karachi who hasn’t been held up,” said Sayem Ali, an economist at Standard Chartered, who was born and raised in the city. “The big problem is kidnapping and extortion.”
At Cafe Mazeh in the elite Defence neighborhood, owner Ammar Ahmed serves a young crowd burgers, Cokes and sheesha water pipes with flavored tobacco. Like many Karachiites, he’s become inured to the crisis.
‘Life Goes On’
“You never know what you will face: bomb attack, strike, roadblocks for a VIP motorcade, mobile-phone service switched off to prevent a bomb being detonated,” said Ahmed, playing a game on his iPad and puffing on his sheesha. “We’ve found a solution for all the odd things that happen here: Life goes on.”
Indeed, signs of commerce are everywhere, partly thanks to remittances from abroad and international aid.
In the 12 months ended June last year, Pakistan’s 10 million overseas workers sent back a record $13 billion, according to the central bank. That equals about 6 percent of the gross domestic product. The IMF talks yielded a $6.6 billion loan for the country and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said this month that growth will accelerate to 4 percent this fiscal year, from 3.6 percent last year.
In Jodia Bazaar, one of Asia’s biggest wholesale markets, vendors sit behind mounds of red chilies and turmeric powder, waving knitted-straw fans to counter the stifling heat. Workers push carts piled with cartons of produce through the narrow, dusty lanes, dodging donkey carts, motorcycles and pedestrians.
In middle-class neighborhoods to the north, women covered head-to-toe in burqas haggle over the prices of glass bangles and fabric they will have tailored into shalwar kameez -- the traditional Pakistani long tunic and baggy pants.
At the southern tip of the city on the Arabian Sea, families crowd the beach on weekends, taking camel rides and buying delicacies like samosas and pani-puri, a popular snack of spicy chickpea sauce in fried flour cups. In ritzy Clifton nearby, women in designer outfits emerge from luxury cars to shop at the Debenhams, Mango and Nine West stores in Dolmen Mall on the seafront.
Against the bustle is the knowledge that even routine events may be harbingers of disaster.
“Is it an ordinary traffic jam or something more sinister? Will I come back home alive when I go out to the mosque, or to work, or travel on the bus? That’s a feeling that people outside Pakistan can’t even begin to comprehend,” said Bina Shah, a novelist based in Karachi. “Safety and security are impossible to have in today’s Karachi.”
In the centuries since Alexander the Great’s fleet sailed from the port more than 2,300 years ago, Karachi has been a melting pot for immigrants from Arabia, Europe, Africa and Asia.
More recently, economic development has drawn villagers from the countryside. About 38 percent of Pakistan’s 196 million people live in urban areas, up from 28 percent in 1981, according to government statistics.
An influx of Pashtuns from border areas has exacerbated tensions with the biggest ethnic group: descendants of immigrants from India who arrived after partition in 1947. Since 2008, about a million Pakistanis have fled rural and tribal areas in the northwest to escape the fighting there.
“The Taliban have a network in the mosques of Karachi and a lot of sympathizers,” said Faisal Edhi, a spokesman for the Edhi Foundation, Pakistan’s largest medical emergency service. “In some places, they have very influential support.”
Migrants from rural areas swell sprawling slums of cramped one-room homes bisected by open sewers, while financiers and business owners live in million-dollar homes with swimming pools and manicured lawns in the Clifton and Defence districts.
“Karachi is now at a juncture where we need to redefine what we mean by the word ’city,” said Nausheen H. Anwar, who teaches at the National University of Singapore. He wrote a 2013 paper on Karachi’s future. “The extent of urban sprawl, the blurring of boundaries between the city and the hinterland, all this demands we take a hard look at what we mean today by urbanization.”
Following a bloody offensive against the Taliban, the government held its first direct talks with militants on March 26, and subsequently released 19 of the 300 prisoners the Taliban says are non-combatant family members. Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said the talks had made little progress. The government will release more prisoners soon, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said on April 13.
Chachar, the ex-army policeman, says the war must be won on the ground in the city. He’s among 1,500 former soldiers recruited to bolster a force that had 220 policemen killed in the last 15 months. The city has about one police officer for every 1,400 people, one sixth of the ratio in Hong Kong.
“We’ll make sure we clean the streets here as we did in the tribal areas,” Chachar said. “We will win.”