x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

In a city of ethnic friction, more tinder

Afghan Taliban militants hiding in Karachi are becoming more serious players in its bloody ethnic politics pitting Pashtun against, Mohajir.

The Former Afghan Taliban commander Okasha shows where a bullet struck during an attempt on his life in June.
The Former Afghan Taliban commander Okasha shows where a bullet struck during an attempt on his life in June.

KARACHI // A former Afghan Taliban field commander who goes by the code name "Okasha" pointed to a bullet hole in the floor of his bedroom, which opens on to a side street of the poor western Karachi suburb of Saeedabad. The hole was centimetres from the edge of a woven plastic mat on which he had lain, trying to catch a breeze from the open doorway during a power blackout in the early hours of June 7.

"I was lying just there, using my Kalashnikov [rifle] as a pillow. I heard a motorcycle, and then two shots were fired," he said. One of the 8mm rounds lodged in the wall to the left of the doorway; the other had whizzed into the room and struck roughly 28 centimetres from where Okasha's head had been, ricocheting to the right into a cupboard, which still bore the scar. Had the shooters attacked from the opposite direction, the bullet might have skidded left and found its target. But, then, he would probably have seen them coming and fired off the first shot.

Considering this, Okasha grinned, his nonchalance reflecting the 17 of his 28 years spent fighting on the battlefields of Afghanistan. He picked up his AK-47 and casually ejected a bullet from the rifle's chamber, reloading it into the clip. He was adamant this was not a random attack, as is often the case amid rising political violence between Karachi's two largest ethnic groups: the Mohajir, Urdu-speaking migrants from India who make the majority of the city's 17 million residents, and Pashtun from both north-west Pakistan and the neighbouring provinces of Afghanistan, who are the largest minority.

"It was an attempted assassination," he said, sitting on his small bed surrounded by an array of Afghan militant paraphernalia, including a clock set against a simplistic cut-and-paste background of jihadist slogans and destroyed Nato weaponry. "I think that the MQM have found out that we are using this bedroom as a safe house for fighters returning from jihad," he surmised, referring to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a political party hugely popular among the Mohajir.

The MQM has for the better part of a year been warning that Taliban militants have infiltrated Karachi, but this has mostly been dismissed as ethnic hatemongering against the Pashtun, who have largely been on the receiving end of ethnic violence that has plagued Karachi since October. Subsequent police investigations have unearthed terrorist cells affiliated with Baitullah Mehsud, the commander of Pakistan's biggest Taliban faction, now believed to have been killed, which have provided safe havens to al Qa'eda militants in the tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan.

However, Okasha mocked the implied link between Mehsud and Afghan militants resident in Karachi, many of whom - like Okasha - were born and raised in refugee camps in Pakistan during the 1980s Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and hold dual Afghan-Pakistani citizenship. He said the militants have settled their families in Karachi because of the presence of a supportive network of relatives and employment opportunities with construction, transport and security companies.

But, in doing so, they have joined a Pashtun community that has been engaged in intermittent urban warfare in Karachi with Mohajir hardliners for almost 25 years. Tensions between the two communities first flared in April 1985, after the death of a Mohajir college student, Bushra Zaidi, in a road accident involving a bus driven by a Pashtun. About 400 people died in subsequent mob attacks, ambushes and bombings that plagued the city for the next two years, with the fledgling MQM rising from the ashes as the most potent of Karachi's political parties.

In the years since, various federal administrations have tried and failed to bludgeon the MQM into submission. An estimated 18,000 activists and innocents were killed in an army clampdown between 1992 and 1996, prompting the MQM leader, Altaf Hussain, to flee into exile in the United Kingdom, where he still lives. The Pashtun ethnicity of Naseerullah Baber, a retired army general who oversaw the most brutal phase of the operation as minister for the interior, was exploited by the MQM to paint the operation as a race-driven pogrom.

The sense of victimisation that followed the army operation convinced many Mohajir that the MQM was their only political recourse, and that unshakeable voter support has ensured the party enough parliamentary seats to make it an important player in any national government building exercise. However, the experience of being a key partner in two successive ruling coalitions over the past seven years has failed to soften its position towards the Karachi Pashtun and the Awami National Party, the political party they tend to vote for.

Relations between MQM and ANP have deteriorated markedly since May 12, 2007, when armed gangs opened fire on anti-government protesters, sparking a day of carnage in which 56 people were killed. Analysts said the large number of Pashtun killed that day had sparked a vengeful shift in the community's mood, snatching political leadership away from the gentle ageing left-wing ideologues of the ANP and placing it into the hands of local leaders involved in Karachi's transport and construction businesses, both notorious for their links to organised crime.

"The new leadership are toughs, not socialists committed to politics of non-violence, and that hardly augurs well for Karachi," said Amir Zia, the director of news at Samaa TV. Although otherwise undesirable, characters like Shahi Syed, the new Sindh provincial chief of the ANP, have proven effective in Karachi's polarised politics by forming alliances with other Pashtun parties and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of Asif Ali Zardari, the president, to secure two seats in the Sindh assembly in general elections in February 2008.

The PPP won an outright majority in the province but, sensing the growing angst between the Mohajir and Pashtun, Mr Zardari wooed the MQM and ANP into a coalition arrangement, in both the Sindh and federal governments. Rather than acknowledge the symbiotic nature of the coalition, the break-up of which could see all three parties lose their grip on the national government, hardliners in the MQM and ANP have over the past nine months pushed tensions in Karachi dangerously close to a boiling point, with tit-for-tat killings that have claimed more than 150 lives.

The Pashtun hardliners are pitted against commanders of the MQM militia, who take their orders directly from Altaf Hussain, the exiled leader, and have become increasingly dominant over the party's members of parliament, analysts said. "Many of the MQM parliamentarians rose to prominence during the violence of the 1980s and '90s, but they are now grey-haired, middle-aged men with families who want the protection of being part of the state. But they aren't the ones calling the shots," said Mujahid Barelvi, the senior current affairs anchor of CNBC Pakistan.

The ethnic battleground is marked for all to see on the streets of Baldia Town, an enormous suburb that stretches along the motorway skirting western Karachi for 18km. It is a flashpoint for violence because of the virtual borders between Mohajir and Pashtun neighbourhoods, clearly marked out by the flags of parties on either side of the ethnic divide. Utility poles bearing MQM flags line the streets of Mohajir-majority neighbourhoods like Rangarh Mohalla. The scenery changes at the entrance to Baldia Town No 9, a front-line neighbourhood where there are exchanges of gunfire most nights.

For the first few hundred metres, the flags are predominantly ANP and other Pashtun parties such as the Pukhtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP), leading up to a makeshift stone bunker. A hundred metres on and the flags are exclusively MQM and a brightly painted party office marks Mohajir territory. It is only a short drive from there to the neighbouring Pashtun stronghold of Ittehad Colony, where the flags advertise an anti-MQM alliance of the ANP, PMAP and Jami'at Ulema-i-Islam, a Pashtun-dominated religious party that is also part of the federal government coalition.

Distinct among them is the occasional appearance of the black flag of the Taliban. The mood in the bazaars of Ittehad Colony is vengeful and ugly. "We are waiting for the Sindhi's [a reference to the PPP leadership] sense of honour to awaken. Then we will fix the MQM," said a notable local activist of the ANP, who insisted on anonymity before agreeing to speak frankly. "If they fail to act, and the MQM pushes us too far, we will attack and take Orangi," he vowed, referring to a neighbouring Karachi suburb that was the scene of some of the worst strife in the 1980s, and which has since become an MQM stronghold.

The death toll of recent ethnic violence, in which the Pashtun have suffered the most casualties, initially suggested that his words reflected frustration rather than a strategy for urban warfare. However, it soon became obvious that the co-operation between the secular Pashtun parties and the Taliban went beyond putting flags on neighbouring poles. The ANP office in Ittehad Colony was opposite a mosque, the prayer leader of which was a Taliban associate of Okasha from Kandahar in Afghanistan. And when Okasha introduced himself to the ANP activist, he responded by repeating the name and paying the Muslim compliment of "Mashallah".

After a meal of Karachi chicken, Okasha agreed to talk about the ANP activist's warning about Orangi. "We are waiting to see how the situation develops. If the killing of Pashtun does not stop, we will launch an operation and conquer Orangi in two hours," he said. The decisive factor, he said, would be the involvement of militants living in Karachi but who have, till now, kept a low profile because they want to avoid a confrontation with security forces, limiting their activity to mounting defensive positions on the periphery of Pashtun neighbourhoods.

"We are about 17,000 in all, about half of us Afghan," he said. A week later, he said investigations had revealed that the attack on him at his home in Saeedabad had been ordered by "Irfan", the head of the MQM's political militia in the adjacent neighbourhood of Rangarh Mohalla. "We have returned the compliment," Okasha said. When asked what that meant, he chuckled sinisterly, and reverted to Bollywood gangster film colloquial.

"Arre, tapkadia usse!" "We've dropped him!" foreign.desk@thenational.ae