With increasing desperation they are watching this drama unfold and their anger only grows because they don’t know how to respond. What is happening is new for them, outside the range of their vast experience.
The sector commanders, lords of Karachi for so long and still a formidable force to reckon with, have withstood army operations. They have a measure of the Rangers and the Frontier Constabulary. The Karachi police holds no threat for them.
True, the Karachi police, under Shoaib Suddle’s command, was the sword arm of Gen Babar’s anti-MQM operation in 1995. But when the tables were turned and Benazir Bhutto’s second government was turfed out by President Leghari, backed by Gen Jahangir Karamat and perpetually-angry Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah, some of the police officers who had distinguished themselves in that operation were discovered thereafter in gunny bags....not just with a shot to the head but their bodies bearing the marks of brutal torture.
Waziristan’s killing fields may be more crude – God’s own warriors using knives, often in the hands of barely-grown boys, on the throats of their victims – but Karachi’s killing fields are no less chilling, the drill machine emerging as the leading symbol of enforcement and terror.
If the army, foolish enough to forget the lessons of the past, were to move in, the sector commanders would know how to deal with it, simply melting away into the urban jungle which Karachi is, and hiding their arms caches. Deweaponising Karachi is a pipedream, easier said than done. A surface calm would return to Karachi but in essentials nothing would change.
What is happening now is completely different: various civilian militias are being encouraged to snipe at the flanks and hit at vulnerable points. The ANP is part of this covert mobilisation, as are Lyari and other gangs, and even, if rumour is to be believed, remnants of the routed Haqiqi, the MQM’s splinter faction, once promoted by the ISI, the bare mention of whose name is enough to set the MQM on edge.
The sector commanders have been used to two things: either outright operations against them, whether by the Rangers or the army; or governments in Islamabad and Karachi capitulating before their demands and currying favour with their leadership. But a combination of smooth words and the guerrilla warfare we are seeing, whose victims for the most part are innocent souls, hapless day labourers and the like, is something for which they have not been trained.
We can be reasonably sure that Liddel Hart’s ‘Strategy, the Indirect Approach’ is available neither in the presidency nor the prime minister’s house, their denizens having better things to do. But in Karachi what we are seeing is the indirect approach in action.
We can attach whatever value judgment we like to this happening. We can condemn its callousness and spin-off brutality. We can shed tears and cry over the victims whose fate, such is the way of the world, we really don’t care about. But this takes away nothing from the central reality, which is the power struggle, the battle for turf and entitlement, the right to become kings of some of the richest real estate in the country, taking place in a city once of lights, now of darkness and unrelieved despair.
Karachi is several cities and its richer and poorer parts do not meet. When revolution broke out in Russia in 1917, with the storming of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, the theatres were open, ballet and opera performances were taking place, and well-heeled ladies went about in their costliest furs. (The street-walkers too were conducting their business.) As killings occur on a regular basis in the lumpen, outlying areas of Karachi, where the less-privileged eke out their precarious living, we can be certain that the lunch routine at the Sindh Club, or the Gymkhana for that matter, is not disturbed. Nor the determined partying at night in the richer parts of town.
Determined because, as Pakistanis, we bring a grim determination to our pleasures. To see Pakistanis imbibing, as if tomorrow will never come, is a sentimental education in itself. We have to thank prohibition for this enthusiasm.
Perish the thought, however, that the wages of social constriction will ever be re-examined. That’s just not the Pakistani way. With soldiers it is a maxim, never to reinforce failure. With us it is almost a national motto to reinforce failure all the time. Call it a special kinship with failed experiments.
(Incidentally, when the Winter Palace was stormed, the Tsar’s cellars were broken open by eager rioters. John Reed in his classic account of the Bolshevik Revolution ‘Ten days that shook the world’ informs us that some of the best wine in the world, vintage produce of years past – after all, those were the Tsarist cellars – flowed like water, leaving champions of the proletariat for days on end rolling in the gutters.)
The sector commanders are taking their cue from their top leadership. In years gone by the undisputed Quaid of Karachi’s discontent would have declared all-out war and brought the government, any government, to its knees. But it is a measure of the changed situation in Karachi, the ebb and flow of the new indirect approach we are seeing, that he is being alternately hot and cautious, not quite able to suppress his anger in his latest telephonic addresses to the party faithful gathered in Azizabad – the faithful not looking too excited as they take in these extended speeches, but then, as an outsider, I could be mistaken – but not altogether forsaking the language of peace and friendship.
True, the faithful have been called upon to stock up on rations for a month, which is reminiscent of the famous call given all those years ago to the people of Karachi to sell their television sets and buy guns instead. But the overall impression remains one of caution, as indeed befits a leader of the Supreme Guide’s experience and standing, because too much is at stake for the MQM to risk an all-out resort to arms.
The strategic equation has changed, not just in Karachi but across the country. Time was when in the list of enemies as prepared in the command headquarters of our strategic grandmasters, if India was at the top the PPP and Benazir Bhutto came a close second. In the domestic arena the guardians of security and ideology supported rightwing political alliances, while in Karachi they propped up Karachi’s largest party, rendering it virtually invincible.
Gen Asif Nawaz’s Karachi operation and later Gen Naseerullah Babar’s onslaught cut this strategic knot asunder. Especially after Babar, Karachi’s majoritarians were on the back-foot, licking their wounds and counting their losses. But Musharraf’s ascent to power was a godsend for them. In return for their support the Haqiqi faction (heretics) were ousted from their Landhi and Korangi strongholds and the keys of the city, so to speak, were handed over by Musharraf’s henchmen to the majoritarians.
Small wonder, for the MQM the Musharraf period were the golden years. Its leaders were masters of all they surveyed and none dared challenge their power.
Zardari had to abide by the terms of this reality when he arrived on the scene. Lacking a majority in the National Assembly he needed the MQM’s support, without which he could not have formed the government at the centre. So cosy was this developing relationship that Altaf Hussein was the first leader across the country to propose Zardari’s name as president. (It may not be out of place to wonder what he may be thinking of his impetuosity now.)
The alliance with the Q-League freed Zardari from the MQM’s yoke, the necessity of keeping it always in good humour. This factor, above all, has been the catalyst setting in motion the new, dangerous dynamic on display in Karachi.
Still, like it or not, it is political forces which have to bring stability to Karachi. There is no other way, no other solution, the army certainly being no solution. From the Indian border to Waziristan it is over-extended. Even otherwise, it has no magic wand to settle the woes of Karachi. It remains to be seen what miracles the politicians, left to their own devices as they have been by fate and circumstances, can bring about.
Email: [email protected]