On March 11, Rangers, a paramilitary unit charged with helping curtail the violence in Karachi, raided the headquarters of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which, along with its competing political party the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), has dominated the city since the 1970s. The early-morning raid resulted in the capture of a large cache of weapons, the arrest of 32 suspects including absconding, convicted criminals, and resulted in several injuries and one MQM party worker’s death, though the cause of death remains unclear. Following the raid, business and commercial centers shut down, schools closed and even postponed exams, and Karachi, as well as several other cities in Sindh province of which Karachi is the capital, came to a standstill. The only other raid against the MQM was conducted in 1992, and it forever changed the political and administrative landscape of the city. The March 11 raid may trigger a new round of changes in Karachi’s already tense landscape, leaving the city in a heightened state of dread.
Karachi was already a city full of tension prior to the raid. It is Pakistan’s most violent city, with an estimated 2,029 violence related deaths in 2014. A significant number of casualties result from rampant crime in the city, but the biggest contributor is the menace of targeted killings, motivated by political, religious, and ethnic reasons, a cycle of unabated brutality that finds roots in the 1992 raid as well. In addition to this protracted problem, militant wings, allegedly of political parties, are also involved in extortion, kidnapping for ransom, and various other illegal activities, sometimes resulting in citywide gunfights lasting for weeks.
The Supreme Court, in a controversial verdict on Oct. 6, 2011, alleged that hardened criminals in Karachi enjoy political patronage from major parties. Allegations of political militant wings have surfaced time and again, even by the city’s police chief and the Director General of the Rangers, but never proven. The idea has been vehemently denied by all parties, and no tangible, actionable links have ever been established.
All of this changed with the March 11 raid on MQM’s headquarters. The Rangers captured a “huge quantity of weapons and ammo” from the compound, including ammunition allegedly stolen from NATO containers, looted while en route to military bases in Afghanistan, via Pakistan, at a time when a senior MQM leader was the Federal Minister for Ports and Shipping, and accused of said crime in 2013. Further, the capture of convicted felonscreates significant problems for the MQM, long -accused of causing unrest and insecurity in Karachi. The party leadership also suffered from a lack of internal communication, first stating that the weapons were for protectionbecause of the Talibanization of Karachi, and later alleging that the weapons were planted by the Rangers.
But the most damaging development came with the allegations from Saulat Mirza, a former MQM worker, and death row inmate, hours before he was scheduled to be hanged for a murder he committed in 1997. A week after the raid, a videotaped confession was released in which he claimed that the killing was done on direct orders from Altaf Hussain, MQM’s self-exiled leader residing in Britain, at the residence of MQM Senator Babar Ghauri, allegations vehemently denied by both individuals.
Never before in the history of Pakistan has the MQM been accused so publically and directly of being involved in murder rackets. A recent intelligence report alleges that security forces are zeroing in on militants wings of all political parties. It is important to note that the operation against the MQM involved no members of the police force, implying a rampant distrust in the highly politicized police force in the city. The Rangers-only operation is the latest in a series of military-led interventions to stabilize the law and order situation in the country, following the horrendous attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar on Dec. 16, 2014, that left 141 dead, 132 of them children.
The repercussions of the raid and increased focus on political party violence have too many variables to be predicted with any degree of accuracy, but three broad possibilities present themselves.
First, the raid may portend a military increasingly involved in the internal security and governance matters of Pakistan causing critics to lambast it as a soft coup. The use of the Rangers rather than the police to raid a political party office confirms an inherent mistrust in the primary law enforcement agency, the police, chastised by the Supreme Court for having “no intention to deliver,” and an implied admission of the state’s failure to curb crime and political violence in the city. Coupled with the full-scale military operation in FATA along the Afghan border, and the recent formation of the military courts for trying terror suspects, the military is getting increasingly involved in areas which would normally be outside its operational ambit. Public and media criticism of the military’s increased involvement is rooted in the fact that for nearly half of its existence, Pakistan has been ruled under military dictatorships.
Second, and perhaps simultaneously, a military-led intervention into the heart of the political strife in Karachi may result in the demilitarization of political parties and the neutralization of the powerful Altaf Hussain. The raid and its fallout, the televised confession of Saulat Mirza, and the continued pressure are all indications of an expanded strategy to deal with political militancy. However, such a demilitarization could bring its own risks if MQM and other major parties lose footing, in which case extremist religious organizations like the Ahl-e-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat (ASWJ), an offshoot of Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) — both proscribed organizations and pernicious sectarian groups with a hyper-violent pasts — would stand to gain. With the Talibanization of Karachi, this will bode ill for the largest city of a country already divided along religious, sectarian, and ethnic lines.
The third possibility is that the MQM and other political parties adapt and reform, acclimating to the new reality driven by the military and backed by the political leadership. Confusion is the name of the game in the politics of Pakistan, and much more so in Karachi. Keeping the narrative muddled, the story disjointed, alleging false claims against potential detractors and opposing forces has served Karachi’s political elite well in the past, and may do so again. However, several missteps since the raid, and subsequent backtracking, stumbling, and the resultant disarray, suggest that the MQM is struggling to portray innocence and stay relevant.
It is, of course, possible, given the history of Karachi, that all of this may blow over in time. But it is more likely that this is a brand new chapter in the fight against militancy and extremism, which will bring new risks that cannot be papered over.