Study identifies urban drivers of political violence in Karachi

May 30, 2020

Rather than merely being stages on which broader conflicts between national political actors and transnational armed groups are enacted, cities themselves give rise to political challenges that...

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Rather than merely being stages on which broader conflicts between national political actors and transnational armed groups are enacted, cities themselves give rise to political challenges that profoundly affect state authority and institutions. This is clear in the four cities of Mogadishu, Nairobi, Kabul and Karachi – all of which are in countries where institutions and the rule of law are chronically weak.

This observation was published in a study titled ‘Urban drivers of political violence: declining state authority and armed groups in Mogadishu, Nairobi, Kabul and Karachi’. The study, which came out recently, was carried out by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based security think-tank. Based on field research, this report identifies urban drivers of political violence in the four cities located in what it describes as fragile states.

The report observes that the ensuing governance problems have been severe in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest and most populous city, which is now home to 21 per cent of the country’s urban population. Between 1988 and 2018, its population surged from 6.6 million to over 15 million, an increase of 130 per cent, making it the twelfth-most populous urban agglomeration in the world. Evidence of Karachi’s inability to cope with this demographic explosion is visible in its sprawling slums, home to 55 per cent of the population.

Karachi’s spiralling armed violence during the first half of the 2010s was to a large extent linked to militias maintained by legal political parties, the report states. The city’s low-income areas were split into fiefdoms controlled by rival militias linked to parties such as the Mutahida Qaumi Movement and the Pakistan Peoples Party. “The militias’ presence, in turn, meant that local community leaders would help them influence the way residents voted at elections – a process that has been referred to as the ‘enclavisation’ of low-income areas,” it says.

Rapid and unmanaged population growth in Karachi has added further governance and political challenges in a city that also has to deal with ongoing sectarian rivalries, organised crime and armed militias, the report observes.

Also, in the slums of Karachi, criminal gangs and political militias have been able both to generate revenue and achieve some political legitimacy by exploiting the state’s weak provision of services such as healthcare, water and dispute-resolution mechanisms such as courts, according to the IISS report. “The way that political parties in power at the municipal level have tended to favour their own constituencies when providing services has reinforced the role of violent actors in low-income areas.”

While the political violence that takes place in Karachi is intertwined with broader conflict dynamics in Pakistan – such as activity by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – it has also been driven primarily by tensions specific to the urban environment, such as rapid urbanisation, disputes over influence in densely populated areas, and illicit provision of services in the absence of effective provision by the government, it observes.

“The inability to extend services and development to Karachi’s sprawling peripheries has driven local people further away from the state and towards political parties organised along sectarian lines, armed militias, gangs and the other groups vying for territory, extortion money and revenue from land-grabbing and the illicit provision of water.”

Drawing similarities between cases of Karachi and Nairobi, the report underlines the value that densely inhabited urban areas have for political actors willing to ally with non-state armed groups. “In exploiting these armed groups’ influence over territory, parties and politicians in both cities have been able to secure the votes of the local electorate and also access to the profits of local criminal enterprises.”

Karachi offers an example of how the issue of land tenure can end up having severe security consequences. Criminal groups who profit from illegally occupying and then selling land transferred their allegiance from the secular Awami National Party (ANP) to the TTP when the latter began to infiltrate Pashtun peripheries of the city in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the report observes. “These so-called ‘muscle men’ were necessary allies even for a well-armed group such as the Taliban, due to their connections to government agencies and the police. And the muscle men, for their part, benefited from having an armed backup for their land seizures.”

For those who take control of urban territory, another valuable resource is the land itself. Increasing land prices have been one of the consequences of urban population growth in all four cities, including Karachi, the report observes.

In Mogadishu, Kabul, and Karachi, this growth of urban population has been uninterrupted for at least 20 years, driven to a large extent by the displacement of huge numbers of people by armed conflicts and poverty elsewhere in those countries, it says.

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