In Karachi, the Taliban Digs In for the Long Haul

The Islamic militants control as much as 20 percent of the city

In Karachi, the Taliban Digs In for the Long Haul
Sidewalk vendors in Karachi
Photograph by Martin Roemers/Panos Pictures

In the mountains near the Afghan frontier, former Pakistan army soldier Abdullah Chachar could take clean shots at Taliban militants. Now a policeman in Karachi, his target hasn’t changed, but he worries about bystanders. “We have to be careful when we open fire,” says Chachar, 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 world’s fastest-growing megacities, with a population of more than 20 million, is becoming a new front in Pakistan’s war on terror as the Taliban moves to the streets from the mountains. Added to the poverty, gangs, and political violence, the insurgency makes the metropolis an extreme case of the chaos and commerce that can co-exist in some of the developing world’s growing cities.

Pakistan has suffered an escalation in violence since it joined the war on terror after the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. Pakistani militants, including the Taliban, are entrenched in the country’s northwest along the Afghan border. The Pakistan army has launched several operations against the Taliban and other groups.

In Karachi, as much as 20 percent of the city is controlled by the Taliban, says Amanullah Mehsud, a member of the anti-Taliban Awami National Party, which comprises mainly Pashtuns, the Taliban insurgency’s main ethnic group. The Taliban runs its own courts and extorts money from people and businesses. Atiq Shaikh, spokesman for the Karachi police, denies such a “huge percentage of the city” is under the Taliban. Shahid Hayat, the city’s police chief, denies it too, but he says Karachi’s gangs of drug peddlers, arms suppliers, and kidnappers have allied with the Taliban and other insurgents. “It’s all meshed up,” Hayat says. “Local criminals start using the terrorists, and the terrorists start using the local criminals.” The result is a city where everyone lives under the daily threat of crime and violence—from the kidnapping of the wealthy to middle-class workers having their phones taken at gunpoint to street vendors getting caught in bomb blasts. “I don’t know anybody in Karachi who hasn’t been held up,” says Sayem Ali, an economist at Standard Chartered and a Karachi native.

Almost 11,000 people were killed in Karachi from 2008 to 2012, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, more than the number of U.S. military personnel killed during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Residents are bracing for worse after a split occurred between rural and urban Taliban factions in February. The urban faction does not want peace talks and threatens to target the cities.

Somehow business goes on. The port is the transit point for U.S. military equipment and Afghan opium. Karachi generates about half the revenue of Pakistan’s economy, and it’s home to the country’s stock exchange and central bank as well as the local headquarters of Standard Chartered, Citibank, and Unilever.

At Cafe Mazeh, in the elite Defence neighborhood, owner Ammar Ahmed serves a young crowd burgers and Cokes. Like many Karachiites, he’s become inured to the crisis. “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,” says Ahmed, playing a game on his iPad and puffing on a water pipe. “Life goes on.”

An influx of Pashtuns from border areas has exacerbated tensions between them and Karachi’s biggest ethnic group: Urdu-speaking descendants of Muslims and Christians who fled India after partition in 1947. Since 2008 about a million Pakistanis have left rural and tribal areas in the northwest to escape the fighting. “The Taliban have a network in the mosques of Karachi and a lot of sympathizers,” says Faisal Edhi, a spokesman for the Edhi Foundation, Pakistan’s largest ambulance service. “In some places, they have very influential support.” The Pashtun migrants swell the slums of cramped one-room houses, while financiers and business owners live in million-dollar homes with swimming pools and manicured lawns in the Clifton and Defence districts.

As the government ordered a crackdown on the Taliban and other criminal elements in Karachi, it also held its first direct talks with the militants on March 26 and subsequently released 19 of the 300 prisoners the Taliban says are noncombatant family members. Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid says the talks made little progress. Chachar, the policeman, says the war must be won on the ground in Karachi. He’s among 1,500 former soldiers recruited to a force in which 220 policemen were killed in the 15 months ended in February. The city has about 1 police officer for every 1,400 people, a sixth of the ratio in Hong Kong. “We’ll make sure we clean the streets here as we did in the tribal areas,” Chachar says. “We will win.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE