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Tuesday October 26, 2021

‘The keys and chronicles of the Karachi Operation’

A couple of winters ago, four security officials - an intelligence chief, a service chief and a senior officer in charge of law enforcement in Karachi among them, were huddled in a room. There was another three-star general in the mix, too, but he was rather powerless, as most corps

February 25, 2015
A couple of winters ago, four security officials - an intelligence chief, a service chief and a senior officer in charge of law enforcement in Karachi among them, were huddled in a room. There was another three-star general in the mix, too, but he was rather powerless, as most corps commanders tend to be. The topic was Karachi. There was consensus on driving out the militant factions linked to the Taliban, which were threatening the city’s outskirts, but an old debate was brewing: how to deal with Karachi’s powerful ‘political militias’ and how to resurrect its weak, politicized police.
“You have the keys to the kingdom, Sir”, said the Karachi law enforcer, the most junior officer in the room, to the intelligence chief. He was referring to two arrests, linked to the Imran Farooq murder investigation, made a couple of years prior, by Pakistani security agencies. Farooq, a stalwart of Karachi’s powerful Muttahida Qaumi Movement, was killed in London on 16th September 2010, and there had been word of two suspects linked to the assassination being picked up at Karachi airport, perhaps based on a British tip off, even before they had reached immigration after their flight from Colombo.
“Let’s hold on to those keys, general,” said the senior-most man in the room, the service chief, a smoker with a tendency to overthink. In the deep background parlours of Islamabad and Washington, the Americans would patronizingly term his overcooked strategizing the “sitzkrieg”. But this is not his story.
The intelligence chief, himself a former veteran of all affairs Karachi, who had custody of the suspects, braced to weather the storm from the junior officer, who was, operationally, the most well placed man to take a position on the subject.
“Well, Sir. The keys are yours,” submitted the youngest general, but with a warning. “But let’s hope they don’t get rusty by the time you want to use them.”
And so, Karachi was left to its own

devices. Soon after, an election happened. The MQM-owns-Karachi myth wasn’t shattered, but checked by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, as rigging, caught on tape, became an issue. Soon enough, a PTI leader, Zahra Shahid Hussein, was killed outside her house. As the Khan and his PTI led the charge against the Muttahida, blaming the hit as well as the rigging on Karachi’s largest party, on May 19th the MQM went through what the military assessed as an ‘internal coup’; after a fiery speech by Altaf Hussain admonishing his commanders for failing him, its Rabita (Coordination) Committee went through the MQM’s version of a cabinet reshuffle, with elected stalwarts beaten and locked up in their offices.
In the days to come, as a new civilian regime settled in every province, and the MQM lost more political ground in a Karachi re-election, a trend was noted in urban Sindh: there was a tolerant, kosher MQM, ever present on primetime TV and Twitter – the Sattars, Rizvis and Subzwaris - fighting extremism and promoting national unity, which was allowed to stay alive, but only by itself.
But very resurgent was a mean-streets MQM, a revivalist Muttahida; the Muttahida which meant business. The Muttahida that really ruled Karachi - the sector in charges and unit bosses (see MQM’s Sector/Unit organogram, provided to The News by a security source) - which believed in the one and only, Altaf Hussain, and only answered to him. These players sounded like they belonged in a movie screenplay - Raees Maama, Salim Inqilabi, Hamid Piya, Sami Irani - but they existed. And this MQM, like always, did what needed to be done, or what it had to do, to control its battle space.
Thus, as a democratic transition took place, and the post-election crumbs of power were clutched at, a new wave of target killing in the summer of 2013 inspired an All Parties Conference in the fall. The Director General of the Pakistan Rangers Sindh, a Frontier Force Piffer named Rizwan Akhtar, who had a habit of speaking his mind, even if it meant semi-loudly muttering a complaint to his wife under his breath about the annoying remarks of his American host at a convocation at a US war college, was put in charge of an open-ended “Targeted Operation” – the theoretical anti-thesis of a 1990s-like broad-based Operation Clean Up - that saw a beginning, but really, no end.
Too many players, too much turf and not enough capacity made him soon realize that Karachi had to be won by everyone, politically and in uniform, everywhere. And so he set upon a premise to fix the megacity, but with a tough caveat: all uniforms and politicians would have to align for the plan to work.
It wasn’t that simple, really, but Akhtar tried to stagger the approach. Whoever wouldn’t play ball with the law would be hit, but “Freelancers” and “Tangos” - code for those who didn’t enjoy political cover and Taliban factions, respectively – would be targeted first, and more frequently. As for those who enjoyed political patronage, they would be encircled politically, too, not by the force of arms alone.
Rizwan Akhtar targeted the truly lawless, for starters. Thus, the Mangopirs and the Kanwari Colonies and the Kati Paharis – areas no better looking or capable than Badaber or Buner - were ’opened up’ with Waziristan-like piquets and patrols, and the TTP splinter groups there started getting hit with raids and ambushes. When it came to ‘IBOs’, intelligence based operations which were becoming a new fad in the services, his Rangers assisted the ISI do its ‘snatch and grabs’ and conduct its IED [improvised explosive device/s] busts.
In similar fashion, the mega-slum of Lyari was partially cleared, as many of the gangs there, recipients of political patronage, had become too anarchic, even for the reaches of Bilawal House (see the Lyari Gang Wars organogram, provided to The News by a security source). And so the kinetic operation played out, with Rizwan Akhtar, once a brigadier in North Waziristan and a formation commander in its South, fighter of Somalians and student of laws of war in Italy, applying his counter insurgent learnings to the peripheral suburbs of violent Karachi.
But, for the militants connected to Karachi’s largest and second largest political machines, the MQM and/or the PPP, or groups associated with the other parties, a special arrangement had to be made downtown. Major operations – search and cordon type of campaigns that would produce mass arrests, or high profile detentions – would be run with the Governor House looped in. If he took interest, the Chief Minister would be briefed, too, but Rizwan Akhtar followed protocol when he could, and Governor Ishrat-ul-Ibad, ironically of the MQM banner, was branded a believer the security agencies could talk to, if not rely on.
In these tales, Rizwan Akhtar was to become many things for Karachi: an organizer (he rejigged the immobile and scandal-prone Rangers into smaller, quick reaction commando-like squads, besides pumping their ranks with better training and equipment); a prosecutor (he worked with the courts and cops to try to enhance the conviction rates in the city); an activist (he coordinated with local industrialists to come up with community-centric task forces and helped raise funds to develop long term security solutions for neighbourhoods and industrial areas that weren’t Rangers-dependent, and coordinated with the MQM/PPP to set up a “Grievances and Processes Committee” when the politics of ‘Missing Persons’ started affecting the operation); even a friend (he went on a limb and took hard positions when political appointments, good and/or bad, were made in the Karachi police and administration).
But, it is said, Rizwan Akhtar was an equal opportunity offender, too. He made the Tapis and Shakebs [PPP fixers, really] of the world uncomfortable by not shaking hands with them in public; it was rumoured that once he didn’t attend Altaf Hussain’s constant phone calls, for days; he didn’t stay silent in meetings at the Chief Minister’s house when he saw dead ends block agenda items; internally, he scoffed at his own spooks in briefings for having tunnel vision (“myopia”, he called it) and reorganized them into smaller, more controllable bureaux, creating intelligence fusion cells that would combine the technical advantages of the military’s signals intelligence arms with the superior human intelligence the police enjoyed in the urban jungle.
Sometimes, he would let the police take credit for the hard kills and convictions that his own men crafted; other times, he pushed for budgets to swell police ranks with former army servicemen, when he could have opted to beef up his own force. In private, he would admit that Karachi was a tough fight, tougher than any he’d seen before in the northwest. In public, he would pray for the day when the Rangers would return to the border.
As for the paramilitary chief’s secret weapon, it wouldn’t be his own men, whom he would reorganize into smaller, tactical units geared for anti-terror operations. Nor would it be the Field Security apparatus he had empowered to enhance the Rangers’ own intelligence wings, moving them beyond dependency on classic military intelligence platforms like the ISI/MI/Sector/Survey. Instead, Akhtar would bet, and bet big, on the Karachi Police, a renascent force under a lean, mean Additional Inspector General of Police called Shahid Hayat.
Over 2013 and into 2014, Akhtar and Hayat would forge a strong partnership; they were very different men, with very similar objectives. The Ranger would drive himself into Karachi’s “no-go areas”, addictively communicate with his staff via instant messaging into the early morning, and fight off the blood pressure with both fruit as well as “scandal control” - his word for any confrontation, like the Sarfaraz shooting case from 2011, that might make his men look bad, optically.
Moreover, he centralized the command and control structures of the loosely formed Rangers so tightly that all major operations had to go through him. If a raid were conducted, if a major arrest were made, by the Rangers, in the world’s fifth largest city, Rizwan Akhtar would have likely given the go-ahead to his wing commanders. That obsession with micromanagement was to ensure accountability with his political bosses; Akhtar didn’t like walking into meetings at the Governor or CM House without a black leather bag filled with data, photos and charts mostly, and he wrote notes so prolifically in his personal diary that he needed three different coloured pens to track them. He was obsessed with order, and in late 2013, he had a window to bring it to Karachi.
Down the street from Akhtar’s barracks opposite the Eid Gah, Police Headquarters was also transforming under a new leader, installed after the fall 2013 APC. But Shahid Hayat was a different kind of soldier. Inspector Generals – technically his bosses - would come and go (five in three years would be in and out of the corner office above his) but while he was AIG, the Karachi Police would look and feel like it was ready to get reorganized. Hayat liked the good life, enjoyed a good meal, but here was another workaholic, holding midnight jirgas in his office to resolve disputes even as he planned joint dawn raids with Akhtar. Initially, he would give Akhtar the intelligence, and Akhtar would give him the muscle.
Eventually, he was empowered enough by the relationship to do both, the watching and the hitting. Sometimes, before heading home, he would take the western route on I.I. Chundrigar, drive around Lyari without armour, his windows down, evoking a “Shahid Hayat Zindabad” from the locals of Karachi’s toughest streets. He had rescued these people, he believed. It wasn’t an inaccurate self-assessment. Even though Hayat had suffered political scandal and jail – he had served time for alleged involvement in the Murtaza Bhutto encounter in 1996, but had won his freedom and job back - he got Karachi. The city was all he’d ever policed. Akhtar knew this, and knew he needed Hayat and his 27,000 policemen. And so they made their gains, separately, but more together.
In fact, till Hayat would be ousted in the summer of 2014 by the PPP/MQM regime in deliverance of a Supreme Court qualification of service order that the Chief Minister’s Secretariat could have reviewed, but chose not to, he and Akhtar would pull that rare feat – civil-military solidarity – and once, famously, took a walk around a Lyari square after an hours-long gunbattle, minus their flak, alone and on display. The cops and the Rangers would cheer, and turfs and forces would be united. When a glorified bagman of a cop was installed the Chief Minister’s Secretariat as the Senior Superintended of Police in Malir, and Hayat bristled because it would be bad for morale, it was Akhtar who went to bat for him in the press.
But even together, despite their alliance and gains, they couldn’t convince their political bosses to stick to the code the Rangers would draft and the police would underwrite: if Karachi had to be fixed, then politically-backed militias and mafias – the construction-based “raitee bajree” gangs, the land-grabbers, the water hydrant crews, the extortion expert “bhatta” collection parties, even the police’s own “beaters” – had to be targeted, not just the Taliban wreaking havoc on the outskirts of the killer city. And the process would need a development prong, too.
“Once the operation was started, it was decided to commence with political management, administrative actions and development measures to make the effects achieved by the operation itself sustainable,” said then Major General Rizwan Akhtar to The News in a series of interviews in 2014. “The plan was ambitious, and driven by both guns and butter.”

It would be futile. The political establishments between and among Nine Zero and Bilawal House would drag their feet with bureaucracy, if not breathe down Akhtar/Hayat’s necks with a media blitz or a legal hurdle, every now and then.
By the summer of 2014, the time Shahid Hayat would be left rudderless and jobless and Rizwan Akhtar would be getting ready to ship out for his third star and the ultra appointment at Aabpara, the Islamabad headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Karachi would not only have lost its toughest cop, Chaudhry Aslam, in a terrible assassination, but also only be getting what Rizwan Akhtar would tell me were “diminishing returns” from the surge of the ‘Targeted Operation’ that had been godfathered by the likes of Nisar Ali Khan, even the prime minister himself.
“The operation made excellent progress for about three to four months,” said Akhtar to The News before assuming office in Aabpara, referring to the gains made and reported in late 2013/early 2014. “However, the usefulness of the operation started diminishing due to a lack of political will and unwillingness to stop supporting criminals. And, of course, bad governance.”
By late 2014, security officials assess, the PPP/MQM combine had savaged the Karachi police with ‘friendly’ appointments and wrapped up the ‘Operation’ narrative, slowly and painlessly removing it from the mainstream of parliament and media.
In the civil-military power corridors of Karachi, a new corps commander and a new chief of the Rangers wouldn’t have the same ingress into the establishments at Nine Zero and Bilawal House. On the streets, the paramilitaries would be deprived of their biggest ally in the city: Karachi’s cops. It would be an angry parting of ways, and for those moving on from the city, a lot of unfinished business would remain, pending.
But more days have gone by. Now, Peshawar has happened. Now, the service and intelligence regimes have changed, and Karachi’s security equation is being rebalanced, again. Yet, the megacity of over 20 million – Pakistan’s largest, and most unruly, urban real estate turf – has seen the images which flashed last Monday before: Generals and elected leaders seated around a massive table trying to rethink the way out of the mire and kick off the next Operation Cleanup, lest anyone shouts “ethnic discrimination”. But don’t get your hopes up, tweet the skeptics and grumble the veterans. Nobody goes to bat for Karachi that easily. It’s No Man’s Town, and no man can fix it.
But this time, things may be different. This time, an ugly, complex attack in a city far away that consumed 150 of Pakistan’s finest – its teachers and students – has lent momentum to a National Action Plan which is as controversial as it is controvertible. The NAP has given Pakistanis a strange chain of events: images of hung terrorists with their tongues flapping out, grotesquely carried from the gallows to the front pages; judges who just also happen to be brigadiers for the sake of ‘speedy justice’; the strangely named ‘Apex Committees’ where corps commanders and chief ministers sit across the table from each other, fighting crime together; police cases registered against ‘watched mullahs’ using loudspeakers; well heeled Facebook activists laying siege to the Red Mosque; a weekly promise from the increasingly synchronized Rawalpindi-Raiwind combine to eliminate “all colours and hues” of terrorism. Even the civilian security boss, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, is finally publishing press releases, lighting up the rather dark Interior Ministry and, as the most taciturn member of the cabinet, has just wrapped up a surprising public diplomacy mission to Washington.
Couple those shifts with recent events, and the rusty wheels of counterterroristan seem, somewhat, in motion. While there has been bloodletting in Shikarpur and Peshawar and Lahore and Islamabad, the poster-boys of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi like Usman Saifullah Kurd have been killed as they lunch on Sariab Road in Quetta; less well known officeholders of the uber-Deobandi Ahle-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat have been executed mysteriously in urban hits in Rawalpindi, only surviving them narrowly in Karachi. Across the border, the Omar Khalid Khorasanis have been critically injured as the ‘Bad Taliban’ are finally engaged by NATO and Afghan troops. And just as the Emiratis get ready to extradite the Lyari warlord Uzair Baloch, the Afghan National Security Forces have helped nab some of Peshawar’s butchers and – believe it or not – ISPR and the Kabul Presidency have thanked each other over last weekend, welcoming the prospects of a peace process with the Afghan Taliban. Even diplomatic engagement with India is on the horizon, again. Thus, a new, holistic regional anti-terror narrative is coming to town.
But is the writing on the wall for Pakistan’s largest city: Read the 20 points of the National Action Plan, and two clearly have ‘Karachi’ all over them: Point 3) “A commitment to ensure that no armed militias are allowed to function in the country”, which is reminiscent of the ‘militant wings of political parties’ argument that was revisited several times during the early days of the Karachi Operation; and Point 16), which really seals the deal, as it resurrects the ‘Unfinished Operation’ narrative: “Taking the ongoing operation in Karachi to its logical conclusion”.
That’s where, on paper, the megacity figures into the National Action Plan. But how will this play out? Presumably with the MQM in the crosshairs, again.
“Seven to eight out of ten” cases of organized violence can be traced to the MQM, says a senior Karachi police officer.
“If all roads once led to Rome, they now lead to Azizabad”, scoffs a military source about the MQM’s notorious address, privy to the series of meetings held last week between the Prime Minister, the Army Chief, the Corps Commander, the new boss of the Rangers, and “the others” – Karachi’s elected power elite who have been given a show cause notice, of sorts, by the slowly minted “Sharif & Sharif” civil-military alliance.
“The TTP is a curse for the country, and maybe for the Muslims, but at the Karachi level, the MQM is an even bigger threat,” stressed a military source with operational experience in Karachi, making statistical comparison between the forces of the TTP (see the TTP organogram shared with the The News by a security source) and political militias.
These are strong words, from powerful security players. Maybe that’s why the Baldia Town Joint Investigation Team report that holds the MQM in disdain is now suddenly out there. Maybe that’s why the Citizen’s Police Liaison Committee, a group suspected to be on Nine Zero’s “payroll”, according to a paramilitary source, is being frisked. Maybe that’s why Islamabad isn’t holding back from slamming MQM brass on the Exit Control List. Maybe that’s why Imran Khan smells blood and is closing in for his righteous kill. And maybe that’s why even the ISPR is weighing in on Karachi’s affairs.
Surely, that’s definitely why, after a rollicking few episodes of freewheeling insults against the security and intelligence apparatus, Altaf Hussain is playing nice, sucking up to the military courts theorem when it comes to the Baldia inquiry, neatly aligning with the PML-N’s ‘anti-horse trading’ initiative in the Senate polls, even as he drafts public service messages to consumers to convert from CNG to petrol.
But on the ground, MQM’s serious minds admit that the party has “command and control issues that are linked to Altaf Bhai being in London and not here”. They also admit to a “weaponization problem”, but claim it is not unique.
“If you’re going to hit me on the street, at my home, in my college, in my imambara, then how do you expect me to not arm myself,” said a senior MQM leader, also involved in student politics, to The News in a no-names interview.
“It’s filled with weapons, this city. But that’s the nature of any large urban area anywhere in the world! But is every [MQM] sector or unit violent? Is every worker a ‘dada’ [don] or a target killer? Is every vote cast for us by the barrel of AK [47]? No, sir. Only in the imagination of Pindi.”
Operationally, the Pindi plan is simple, and reminiscent of 2013/14: it all starts with the cops. Rizwan Akhtar’s old allies, the Karachi police, who he enjoyed empowering, will have to be saved before Karachi is secured. That’s why Point 20 of the NAP is key: “Revamping and reforming the criminal justice system, to strengthen counter-terrorism departments including granting of powers to the provincial CIDs to intercept terrorist communications.”
That’s essentially what General Raheel Sharif has emphasized, and re-emphasized, as well: The police must be depoliticized, and beefed up. Thus, brave whispers from Karachi’s cops can be heard about the JIT. Thus, al Qaeda and the LeJ are being hit on the streets again as the police ride the new anti-terror wave, while a new political resolve is procured - or hammered out - to bring it all together. This all because the military is coming to Karachi; not with boots on the ground, but with order in the air.
But with the PPP in tow (and there are several versions floating around of the way the Prime Minister coddled and/or coerced Asif Ali Zardari, Qaim Ali Shah and their pals last week to get in line with the demands of the brass) and under pressure (the Armoured Personnel Carriers scandal involving the provincial ruling party is not over yet, nor is the Zulfiqar Mirza comeback), the frictional political triad born in the 1990s seems resurgent, again: It’s the MQM vs. the Army vs. the World.
Usually, Karachi’s largest party has switched political lanes with the tactical ease of a Formula One driver, careening past civilian administration after military administration, through the deadly curves of intelligence regimes and law enforcement pit stops, not deterred by the upstart mobilization of the Taliban factions or the Lyari gangs, focused on being the most potent and organized driving force in Karachi as it consistently laps the power circuit of the city never dies, but only kills.
Sometimes, it would cite extrajudicial killings. Other times, it would play the Mohajir card. Of late, it has found it fashionable to up the secular anti-extremism narrative. Less frequently, it has ducked and covered behind anti-Shia violence, terming it yet another discriminatory wave targeting its rank and file.
But no doubt about it: The MQM is reputedly Karachi’s most violent political group – or group, period – yet, presumably, the most readily available ally and/or perennially vocal adversary in parliament, not to mention Pakistan’s most organized, secular and moderate party, on paper. For those in the practical business of governance, it’s the perfect weapon, but also a crucial tool. The MQM is important. It’s modern. It’s connected. It’s optically savvy. It exercises methodical control over cable operators, ratings indices, and even entire media houses. It can mobilize thousands before Imran Khan can say “Dharna”, before the Jamaatis can scream “Jihad” or even before Edhi can get an ambulance to a murder scene. And it can grab Karachi – the burnt, brutalized but still productive workhorse of the country - by the throat almost anytime it wants, choking the economy and energy out of that factory slum of a city within hours. Heck, it can even turn up outside 10 Downing Street, in droves, within minutes.
Thus, the once Mohajir, now Muttahida [and very muttahid] Qaumi Movement has remained modern Karachi’s institutional memory: past slain cops and missing workers, enduring half-dead chief ministers and half-baked paramilitary operations, survivors of the flak of the May 12th 2007 carnage and riders of the target killing waves that emanate from its neighborhoods, dissipating with a splash of blood into the Arabian Sea like an inland tsunami that one man can reputedly trigger and remote control from thousands of miles away.
And so, the MQM legend remains: the Muttahida is Karachi, and Karachi is Muttahida’s. Add ethnicity and a paramilitary/police operation to that compound, and changing the city’s political stability equation becomes an issue of perceived and projected guilt, too, because the establishments – civil and military – remain not-so-Urdu-speaking.
But in a country sans a singular nationalism, sans a singular religiosity, sans a singular language, the ethic card can always shut the house down. That’s the transition, from l’guerre total to l’enfer total, Karachi really fears.
Perhaps the keys to the kingdom may come in handy, yet.