War Zone in Karachi, Pakistan

July 8, 2011

Pakistani children mourn during a funeral procession of a man shot and killed by unidentified armed men in Karachi. © ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images

Violence in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city continued on Friday as the death toll in the embattled city rose to over 88 in the past four days. A protest call by the Mottahida Qaumi Movement, the political party that represents much of the city’s Urdu speaking population, paralyzed the city of eighteen million.

Busy streets usually teeming with crowds remained eerily deserted and all petrol pumps were closed preventing city residents from leaving their homes.  Pakistani television reported that many with small children or elderly relatives are suffering owing to the inability to obtain food and supplies.

Uncertainty and tensions in the city have been exacerbated by the “shoot on sight” orders given to security personnel patrolling city streets.  The order leaves Karachi’s citizens vulnerable not only to the ethnic violence ravaging the city but also to excesses by security forces posted around the city who can now kill with impunity.

In the words of Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International Director for Asia and Pacific “Given the Pakistani army’s record of human rights violations and impunity, such license given to the security forces, in a volatile situation, can only be a recipe for disaster, encouraging lawlessness, further violence and killings.”

The violence in Karachi also marks the growing urbanization and ethnicization of the War on Terror whose impact now seems to have spread from rural Pakistan into its urban and densely populated heart. In June 2010, Amnesty International released a report “Eyes on Pakistan” on the internal displacement of millions of Pakistanis, primarily ethnic Pashtuns, who were forced to flee their homes owing to drone attacks and operations by Pakistani security forces.

The report detailed how many of these refugees were headed to Karachi in the country’s south, a city already crumbling under the weight of poor infrastructure and limited opportunities. The current violence in the city reflects tensions created by these very demographic changes whose calamitous consequences have been largely ignored by policy makers in the United States in their push for a continuation of drone warfare in the region.

According to media reports, nearly 1100 people have died in Karachi since January 2011. The two warring groups include the city’s existing residents; descendants of migrants from India who came to the city following Partition in 1947 and new migrants whose numbers have been swelled by incoming Pashtun refugees. The history of ethnic tensions in the city, which saw a long drawn out ethnic conflict in the mid-nineties, presents a novel opportunity for terror groups to arm one or other of the groups and achieving the ultimate goal of destabilizing Pakistan’s largest urban center.

The city’s vast informal settlements, controlled by land and transport mafias, providing safe havens for a variety of non-state groups interested in extending their reach beyond the tribal hinterlands of the tribal northwest.  Caught in the middle, Karachi’s terrified residents watching helplessly as the War on Terror moves into their neighborhood bringing with it endless calamity and unceasing violence.