Armed gangs are proxies for political parties vying for electoral territory and extortion opportunities in the run-up to elections.
Political violence shifts to Karachi
The competition to be Pakistan's most violent place is intense. The obvious main candidate for that title would be the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the north-west border with Afghanistan, a territory that is home to dozens of Islamist militant groups, including the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Not far behind would be the vast, sparse western province of Balochistan, where security forces have been fighting a nationalist insurgency since 2004. This year, however, that unwanted title belongs to Karachi, a sprawling port city of about 17 million people, according to calculations by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the country's top NGO.
This conclusion has found support from the Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary force usually responsible for patrolling the eastern border with India. Days before Eid Al Fitr the organisation was given the unenviable task of restoring some semblance of order to Karachi, an industrial and financial centre that dominates the country's economy.
And it is the accumulation of wealth, rather than the decades-old bloody rivalry between ethnic groups, that is behind a recent campaign of carnage, according to analysts, businessmen, knowledgeable residents and, privately, even the gangsters in a series of interviews conducted for this story.
There is consensus among them that the combatants of this gang war were the proxies of leadership figures of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and its Awami National Party (ANP) coalition partner, and their on-again, off-again ally, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).
The MQM pulled out of the federal and Sindh provincial coalitions on June 26 and rejoined them on October 5. In the days in between, the parties' militants and associated criminal gangs waged urban warfare, with those backed by the PPP and ANP putting the MQM under intense pressure. The parties fought for control of territory - both because of the votes that will be at stake in the 2013 election, and to extort money to fund their forthcoming campaigns.
"Karachi is the country's business, financial and industrial heart, and the amount of money open to extortion is vast - you're talking about several billion dollars," said Mujahid Barelvi, a veteran newspaper columnist and the host of a television current-affairs show. "PPP politicians have told me a 200-billion-rupee [Dh8.4 billion] war-chest is being accumulated. Their rival parties will naturally try to keep pace ... a lot is being throttled out of Karachi."
Asif Ali Zardari, the current president of Pakistan, leads the PPP.
The MQM is hugely popular among Karachi's majority ethnic Mohajir, descendants of Urdu-speaking migrants from India. For decades, the Mohajir have jostled for dominance with the city's second-largest community, the ethnic Pashtun from north-west Pakistan and Afghanistan, who are represented by the ANP.
The ANP, a notably non-violent party in its Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial stronghold, is another active animal in Karachi. Mohammed Khan Afridi, a property developer, funds it. Afridi also enjoys a close working relationship with the estimated 8,000 Afghan Taliban fighters resident in the parts of Baldia and Ittihad towns he controls.
Taliban contacts based there said the Pashtun "qabza mafia", as they are known locally, were responsible for ethnic-cleansing attacks against Mohajir living in the Qati Pahari and Qasba Colony areas immediately after the MQM walked out of the ruling coalition. Gangs set fire to Mohajir homes, forcing residents to flee and setting the tone for the mayhem that ensued.
"They saw the MQM no longer had the protection of the government and decided to grab the opportunity to push out the Mohajir," said "Okasha", a retired Taliban shura (cabinet) member now settled in the Saeedabad neighbourhood of Baldia Town.
Similar attacks recurred in August, but the Pashtun have otherwise taken a back seat, fortifying their strongholds to prevent overspill from a more intense war between the MQM "unit" militia and ethnic Baloch mafia connected to the PPP.
These Baloch-led criminal gangs live predominantly in the south-west slums of Lyari and the adjacent Sher Shah and Orangi town areas, much of it a maze of six-storey terraces and alleyways that are almost impenetrable to vehicles and strangers. Made up of a patchwork of distinct organisations led by Baloch and Pashtun dons, the mafia operates under the political umbrella of the People's Aman Committee (PAC), previously a public affiliate of the PPP, but banned by the government in 2009.
Faisal Sabzwari, a former Sindh minister, recalled how, during a cabinet meeting two years ago, Zulfikar Mirza, the former home minister, had boasted he had eliminated Rehman Baloch, the head of the PAC, to appease the MQM.
"Now we are fighting for our lives because of Mirza," said Sabzwari, who is convinced that Mirza is the political patron of the PAC. Even some of the underworld characters interviewed by The Review concur. They suggest he took sides in the war of succession that followed Baloch's killing. The gangsters and residents said the minister had backed Baloch's lieutenants, Uzair Baloch and Baba Ladla, in a brutal leadership fight with a rival criminal organisation.
They also believe the Baloch-Ladla gang had, in 2009, come into possession of an armoured personnel carrier used by the Karachi police and had used it to infiltrate rival territory. It was, they said, subsequently turned into a slaughterhouse-on-wheels, in which the gang tortured, murdered and mutilated their rivals.
Hacked corpses were stuffed into sacks and dumped from the back of the vehicle in the Yousaf Goth neighbourhood in broad daylight. One body was later deposited right outside the Mochko police station, but the authorities did not intervene. Witnesses to that event asked to remain anonymous on the ground that they would be killed if their names appeared in this report.
"Bao" (a common nickname), an ethnic Punjabi criminal who claims he was working for Faisal Pathan, one the PAC dons, said he was one of the killers inside that armoured police vehicle, and had been hired to carry out the murders under a contract worth Rp28 million (Dh1.18 million). He expressed no remorse, however, and mentioned the subject only to complain about how he had not been paid his expected cut by Pathan.
The armoured vehicle, with its cloak of officialdom, is one of a series of clues that hint at a direct relationship between the PAC and notable figures of the PPP.
Mirza resigned his Sindh cabinet job in late August in protest at the federal government's deployment of paramilitary Pakistan Rangers in Karachi trouble spots. Noticeably, PAC's leading lights had fled to Balochistan before the troops moved in, suggesting a tip-off might have been delivered from the inside.
Mirza has since publicly owned up to his relationship with the PAC, going as far as to describe them as "innocent people fighting for their honour against MQM terrorists".
He is a close friend of the president, as well as husband of the speaker of Pakistan's parliament, Fehmida Mirza.
Violence has subsided since the paramilitary deployment, and subsequent rapprochement between the MQM and PPP. It has earned Karachi a breather from the bloodshed. Mirza, meanwhile, has kept up his rhetorical assaults on the MQM and its sympathisers within the PPP, providing the party with plenty of scope for plausible deniability.
However, the MQM is no victim.
Sired in the mid-1980s by Gen Zia-ul-Haq, then Pakistan's military dictator, with the aim of establishing a formidable rival to the PPP in its Sindh provincial stronghold, the MQM shot to national prominence as the political and militant face of the Mohajir during bloody street fighting with Pashtuns. These disturbances flared in 1986 after Bushra Zaidi, a Mohajir student, was accidentally killed after being hit by a Pashtun-driven bus. Prior to this incident, the Mohajir were widely regarded as a cultured, docile community.
The MQM changed that perception, asserting its dominance in Karachi and the nearby city of Hyderabad through armed political and territory-specific militia cadres organised, improbably, on the model of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party. These cadres have been extorting money from businessmen and residents since the MQM established its political dominance of Karachi in the 1988 general election.
By 1992, the MQM's brutal intolerance prompted the federal government to deploy the army in Karachi. This operation, which lasted until 1997, uncovered illegal jails packed with torture devices. As many as 15,000 party activists as well as their friends and relatives were killed in this period, referred to by the MQM as the "era of oppression". Most party leaders fled Pakistan at the time and the MQM chief, Altaf Hussain, has never returned, instead choosing to rule the roost from London, where he sought political asylum.
Gen Pervez Musharraf, the next military dictator, politically rehabilitated the MQM in 2002 as part of efforts to cobble together a friendly civilian government. Notoriously, he used the MQM to violently stymie a May 12, 2007, visit to Karachi by the rebellious chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry.
The violence that has periodically plagued the city since then is widely considered to be a continuation of the May 12 disturbances, in which police were disarmed and the streets of Karachi were handed over to roaming, armed MQM gangs who let loose on lawyers, rival political activists and the media.
It has continued to enforce its writ through violence, notably through "target killers" based in South Africa, according to intelligence agency reports. The Pashtun community lost more lives than any other on May 12, and its militant politicians have since been plotting revenge.
They seized their opportunity on June 26, when the MQM split with the PPP-led government.
An obvious question about Karachi's political violence is: where do the political militias and criminal gangs obtain their vast arsenals?
A major source of supply is the multitude of licensed gun retailers that dot the city, whose legal sales of pistols and shotguns pale beside the scale of the under-the-counter business they conduct, investigations revealed.
One such outlet is Iqbal Arms, a gun shop that enjoys two significant advantages: its location in the impoverished Sher Shah suburb of south-west Karachi, an area lorded over by ethnic Pashtun gangsters affiliated with the PAC, and the fact that it is run by an officer of the city's police force.
The licensee of Iqbal Arms is Mohammed Iqbal Arab, but his son, Mohammed Zubair Arab, an investigations officer at the SITE industrial zone police station, runs it.
A contact led us to the store in May, and introduced us on the pretext that a fictitious Pakistani news organisation was in the process of being set up, needed weapons for security but wanted to avoid the bureaucratic rigmarole of obtaining legal licences.
Zubair, aged about 30, did not bat an eyelid. He pulled down the shop's sheet-metal shutters, and led us to a storeroom in the back that, at first glance, looked like an armoury for M-16 assault rifles and MP-5 sub-machineguns. Closer inspection revealed the guns were, in fact, 8mm automatic rifles and 12-gauge shotguns dressed in fancy casings to look more menacing.
The 8mm rifles had been converted for automatic fire and came with a variety of clips, from the standard 20-round version to a ludicrously long 55-round stick. Karachi's hitmen favour them because of their range and formidable stopping power, according to Zubair.
Those poor-man's Uzis cost Rp20,000 (Dh843) each, while the shotguns range between Rp6,000 and Rp18,000, depending on manufacturing quality.
For the right price, automatic weapons were available at short notice. A Pakistani version of the Kalashnikov AK-47 would cost us about Dh2,500, he said. An American M-16 could be delivered the next day if we forked out Dh37,800.
The negotiation progressed on to arms licences. He said he could obtain legal, verifiable permits for all parts of the country, except for the central province of Punjab, which has the most effective law-and-order apparatus.
Licences for Balochistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh (of which Karachi is the administrative capital) were on sale for Dh420, while an all-Pakistan permit could be arranged from Islamabad for Dh672. A supplementary permit, allowing the licence holder to carry his weapon, irrespective of temporary local bans, would cost an extra Dh630, he said.
For the princely sum of Dh2,145 each, we could walk away with an 8mm machine-pistol - subject, of course, to discounts for bulk orders - and take it anywhere, without the police being able to do anything about it.
In the event that we used it to kill somebody or were arrested, Zubair guaranteed the government's weapons records would show that we were long-time licence holders. He said the licences were arranged through officials of district administration offices in a position to manipulate the official record, which is still kept in paper files, and is only beginning to be computerised.
Typically, the officials look for old licences that have not been renewed for years, change the name of the licence holder, and pay off any outstanding dues. He said he paid Dh84 per pistol licence and Dh211 for a semi-automatic rifle licence.
The sound of thumping on the shop's shutter interrupted our conversation and somebody shouted Zubair's name. It was the MQM, he said. He raised the shutter and 11 angry men entered. The head of the MQM local unit militia - identified in passing as "Baig", a surname - had been shot dead by the PAC and his men wanted to buy Zubair's entire stock of 8mm and 9mm pistol ammunition.
Revenge was on the menu, and it was time for us to leave.
"Tell your boss I can get them anything," Zubair said, quickly ushering us outside.
Two months after the bloodshed in Karachi peaked, the MQM and PPP - and, by association, the ANP - are once again allies.
In August, the MQM leader, Altaf Hussain, launched one verbal attack after another on Asif Ali Zardari, the president and PPP chairman.
In stark contrast, on October 30 the MQM staged a massive rally to protest similar attacks on Zardari made two days earlier by Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of central Punjab province.
The renewed bonhomie is the result of a political trade.
Zardari has practically ceded political control of Karachi to the MQM, cancelling reforms to local councils that would have left the MQM in control of two of the city's five administrative districts, compared with four previously.
Instead, the PPP has promised not to field candidates in MQM safe seats - something that will facilitate the electoral debut in 2013 of Bilawal Bhutto, Zardari's son, from the Lyari constituency, Karachi's fifth district and the PPP's only stronghold.
In return, the PPP has secured the MQM's support in the federal and Sindh provincial assemblies. Such support will be key to Zardari's re-election as president in September 2013, following a general election in February that year.
Zardari has emerged from Karachi's bedlam as the clear winner - a fact acknowledged even by his fiercest critics.
For Karachi's terrorised residents, at least, there has been one ostensible benefit.
Under intense pressure from the media, the Supreme Court and the powerful armed forces chiefs, the PPP, ANP and MQM have publicly disowned the militiamen and hired assassins in their ranks.
To date, the paramilitary operation launched against them in September continues to yield arrests of hooded men who, at press conferences, each confess to killing between five and 40 people at the behest of one political party or another.
Despite the intricate political arrangements now in place, however, nobody is convinced that the violent character of Karachi's politics has changed.
The most notorious political henchmen remain untouched and occasionally appear on television, sitting ominously next to mainstream politicians at press conferences.
They are, it seems, biding their time, waiting for today's convergent political interests to once again diverge.
Tom Hussain and Amjad Hadayat are freelance journalists living in Islamabad.