Karachi security imperative for Pakistan


Karachi – once a vibrant metropolis – is the largest city of Pakistan and home to more than 23.5 million people. The city has an area of 3,527 square kilometers, and is known as the commercial capital of the country. The cosmopolitan city boasts 68% of the revenue share of the country in various sectors. According to the 1998 census, Karachi also enjoys the second highest literacy rate at 72.2 percent. It employs the largest number of people in manufacturing, retail and services sector.

Recently, according to research conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Karachi was declared the world’s cheapest city to live in. The port city located on the Arabian Sea has tremendous untapped potential in terms of its manpower and the as yet unexplored opportunities it offers.

Despite all the positives and potentials, however, Karachi still finds itself firmly planted in the midst of a negative squall. The cosmopolitan city has been marred by violent disruptions, political strife and conflicts which have seriously hampered the growth of the city. In 2013 alone, over 3,200 killings occurred in Karachi making it the deadliest year for the citizens of Karachi.

There are various factors contributing to the worsening internal security situation in Karachi which include its historical background, political, ethnic and religious dynamics as well as the increasing militancy in the city. Numerous operations by the police and rangers have been conducted but without any conclusive result. It is imperative that peace and prosperity return to Karachi; Pakistan’s development and prosperity is directly linked to that of its economic heart.


Karachi once used to be a small fishing village with a very limited population. The fortunes of the city changed with the arrival of the British in the Subcontinent. The British took Karachi under their own command in 1834 and quickly developed it into a major seaport. In 1937, Britain formally announced the bifurcation of Sindh from Bombay, giving it a provincial status. Consequently, Karachi became the capital city of Sindh.

During the Partition of the Subcontinent in 1947, Karachi was made the temporary capital of the nascent state. On May 22, 1948, the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan officially declared Karachi as the permanent capital city of the state.

After Partition, Karachi witnessed an unprecedented inflow of migrants. The first of these migrants were the Urdu speaking Mohajirs. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the continued migration of the Mohajirs from India to Karachi immensely changed the demographic structure of Karachi, making them the city’s ethnic majority. Due to such an enormous demographic shift, the Sindhi speaking residents of Karachi were reduced to minority within some years of the new country—and the first faultlines for conflict were laid.

The second mass migration to Karachi occurred in the 1960s and 1970s when people from two different ethnic groups – the Pashtuns and Punjabis – started to shift to Karachi looking for jobs and other economic opportunities. This movement of people further affected the demographic structure of Karachi.

The third migration occurred in the 1980s, people from rural Sindh moving to the urban areas of Karachi. This further diversified the ethnic configuration of the already populous city, creating strains and antagonism among ethnic communities.

By far the most dangerous and precarious migration to Karachi, however, was the arrival of the Afghan refugees following the Russian incursion in Afghanistan. Afghan migrants also brought with them the culture of Kalashnikovs, violence, drugs and religious extremism.

It was during this period that weapons first started to proliferate easily in the city. Karachi, a city which was known for its peace and its culture of coexistence, soon became engulfed in violence. The migrations which occurred during these four decades, therefore, are what gave rise to the ethnic dynamics and political strife in Karachi, which will be discussed below.

Ethnic dynamics

Today, Karachi is home to the various ethnic groups that have migrated to the city at different periods of time since the independence of Pakistan. According to the census of 1998, the ethnic configuration of Karachi comprises 48 percent Urdu speaking (Mohajirs), 14 percent Punjabis, 11 percent Pashtuns, 7.22 percent Sindhis and 2 percent Baloch.

Some estimates indicate that the demographic structure of Karachi will continue to change with time. The Pashtun population will rise to 19 percent and the percentage of the Urdu-speaking people will decrease to the level of 40 percent of the total population of Karachi. The perpetual demographic change is and will continue to be one of the main causes of conflict in Karachi, unless the core issues of these demographic delineations are seriously addressed by the ruling groups.

Like every urban city of the developing world, Karachi too is divided into planned and unplanned areas. Author Laurent Gayer referred to it as an absolute “urban mess”. The planned areas are comparatively well-developed and equipped with all basic amenities. Contrary to this, the unplanned areas – popularly known as “Kachi Bastian” or mud towns/slum areas – lack almost all basic facilities. Mohajirs dwell in the developed parts of Karachi, whereas the Kachi Abadis are inhabited by the migrants of other ethnicities. This class division remains one of the prime causes of conflict in Karachi and exacerbates ethnic tensions.

The first full-blown ethnic conflict in Karachi occurred in October 1986 between Mohajirs and Pashtuns, and required an army operation in December of that year to bring a resolution. The second major ethnic conflict occurred in 1988 between the Sindhis and Mohajirs. Additionally, another major ethnic confrontation between the student organization of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) took place in 1990, resulting in the loss of hundreds of innocent lives.

Apart from the MQM’s conflicts with other ethnicities, there have also been intense intra-Mohajir conflicts as well. MQM Haqiqi is a splinter group of MQM that parted ways from the base for being “too soft” toward the state and other ethnicities. During “Operation Clean Up” against the MQM in the 1990s, MQM Haqiqi controlled many areas of Karachi and turned them into no-go areas for MQM members. The MQM Haqiqi could not develop into a major political force for the Mohajirs in Karachi but it continues to have its presence in areas like Landhi.

Religious dynamics

After Partition the majority of the Mohajirs joined the Jamaat-e-Islami’ (JI) to enter and influence the mainstream national political discourse. At that time, they preferred to identify themselves with a political party which propagated a Muslim identity rather than an identity based on ethnicity. On the bases of this Muslim identity, Mohajirs completely disowned the politics based on ethnicity. As a matter of fact, Mohajirs were very liberal and progressive within their social domain. Their proclivity toward a conservative party like the Jamaat-e-Islami was solely based only on their newly adopted identity and the need to integrate into the mainstream as quickly as possible.

However, the situation changed with the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan in 1979 and the resultant influx of a huge number of Afghan refugees. These refugees also brought with them a culture of guns, violence and extremist thoughts to the port city. Henceforth, religious extremism and sectarian hatred started to gain roots in Karachi’s social realm. The first cases of serious religious and sectarian confrontation began in 1994, greatly disturbing the law and order situation of the city.

Beside this, all religious parties in the 2002 elections forged an alliance which became known as Muthehida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), comprising Jamat-ul-ulama Islam, Sunni Tehrik, Wahdat-ul-Muslimeem, etc. The formation of this alliance by the religious parties further strained their relations with MQM.

Since religious parties and the MQM never saw eye-to-eye in Karachi, it created a space for the more turbulent factions and organizations like Sipah Sahaba, Sunni Tehrik, as well as for the Shia militant groups to emerge. Since their emergence, they have been involved in a perpetual and fatal turf war with MQM, especially in the northern areas of Karachi. Some of these outfits, like Sipah Sahaba, openly propagated violence and incited hatred, and were banned by the Pakistan government in 2002; but the damage had already been done.

Another turning point for the city was when the Pakistan Army launched a major military offensive in 2009 in Swat and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Militants fleeing the north poured into the port city. A similar response was noted to the intensified US drone strikes in FATA, with even greater migration of Jihadi and extremist groups to Karachi. Once safe in the city, these same outfits then pronounced war against the city’s law enforcement agencies and political parties supporting the military operation against terrorists in the tribal areas.

These terrorists managed to inflict severe damage on these political parties by killing their leading figures and leaders, especially the senior leadership of the Awami National Party (ANP) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Karachi. As a result, the once ANP-dominated areas in Karachi are now dominated by various factions of the Taliban and other extremist groups.

These terrorist groups have adopted more innovative tactics over time, learning to operate in small, multiple, undetectable cells to elude the police and other law enforcement agencies. These mini-cells of militant groups comprise of locals recruited from various localities of Karachi. Reportedly, the infamous Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi are active in different areas of Karachi.

Political Dynamics

As explained above, after the split of the subcontinent, Urdu speaking people who migrated from India to Pakistan mostly joined or had sympathies for the Islamic parties operating in Karachi. Things started to change with the emergence of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in Sindh. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the then head of the PPP, introduced a number of reforms to assuage the grievances of the Sindhis. Some of these reforms included increasing the quota for rural Sindh and introducing Sindhi as the second official language. This move made Sindhi language a compulsory subject to be learnt and taught in schools and colleges.

Consequently, these moves also led to the rise of ethno-nationalism of the Mohajirs and soon after, the All Pakistan Mohajir Student Organization (APMSO) was established on June 11, 1978 by Altaf Hussain who, in leading APMSO, was successful in formulating a popular political party and in March 1984, the Mohajir Qaumi Movement was established. Following the military operation though, MQM changed its name from Mohajir Quami Movement to Muttahida Qaumi Movement in 1997.  At the moment, MQM represents 70-80% of the electoral mandate of Karachi. In the 2013 elections, it won 18 general seats in the National Assembly and 42 provincial seats.

The second major ethnic group in Karachi are the Pashtuns, comprising about 15-19 percent of the city’s population. Since Partition, Pashtuns have migrated to Karachi from different parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Tribal Areas and Baluchistan in search of work. Surprisingly, Karachi is the city with the highest concentration of Pashtuns – even higher than Peshawar. This population rose further with the migration of Afghan refugees to the city.

ANP claims to be the representative political force of the Pashtuns in the city. It won two provincial seats in the elections of 2008 and this is when it made its first ever entry into the Provincial Assembly of Sindh, The rise of ANP from Karachi to the Provincial Assembly greatly irked MQM, and strains started to develop between the two parties; it  has been a key victim of terrorist violence both in Karachi and Pakhtunkhwa.

However, the 2013 elections introduced another political upset with the entry of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), which emerged as the second largest party in Karachi, and thereby a huge political threat to the MQM. PTI has a massive following, particularly in the urban areas of Karachi, and is often seen by people as a softer and more likeable political party than the MQM, which has become infamous for allegations of extortion and violence especially against its adversaries.

Militancy and party politics

It is widely believed that most parties in Karachi, allegedly, possess militant wings. These wings at times are not even within the control of their political leadership. This militarization of parties is what has given birth to the abysmal security environment currently prevalent in Karachi, and has rendered the life of an ordinary man barely bearable. Extortion, targeted killings, land grabbing, drug smuggling, mobile phone snatching, mugging and violence have become daily norms. Each party blames its opponents of being responsible for the chaos and deteriorating law and order situation in the city. Since 2011, the number of human lives lost to various acts of terrorism in Karachi is estimated to be 5044 deaths, including security forces members.

The political parties of Karachi are reportedly in a continuous struggle in the areas of Kati Pahari and Banaras; Abdul Hassan and Isfahan Road; Gulistan-e-Jauhar and Pehalwan Goth. Similarly, in areas of Landhi, MQM and MQM Haqqiqi are engaged in a zero-sum relationship. In the sections of Lyari and Malir, People’s Aman Committee, the PPP and the MQM are said to be in a perpetual state of war as all sides want a broader area of influence and are continuously but covertly engaged in a turf war.

The armed wings of political parties operate clandestinely to promote the interests of their parties. A prime example is the recent statement of the police which claims that most of the people detained during Karachi operation are criminals and target killers hired by political parties.

Although, all political parties have time and again categorically denied possessing militant wings and refuse to acknowledge the criminals who, when caught, reveal their linkages to those parties. As a recent intelligence report stated, key political parties have militant wings and certain political parties have wreaked havoc in the city. This report came at a time when a major surgical operation had been launched in Karachi by the Rangers.

Rangers and security forces

In 1992 the Pakistan Army launched “Operation Clean Up” in Karachi to dismantle criminal groups and bring peace to the order-less city.  The operation continued for some time and a short period relative peace and calm was witnessed following its conclusion. But it was short-lived. Violence and a bad law and order situation has become the norm for the citizens of Karachi.

The law and order situation increasingly worsened after the Swat operation. Pakistan Rangers launched a similar operation in the latter half of 2013 in an attempt to tame terrorists, militant gangs, extortionists, water and land-grabbers and the drug mafia. The operation is still in progress and has reached a very crucial point against the terrorists and militant wings of the political parties.

On March 11, 2015 Pakistan Rangers raided the MQM headquarters at nine-zero and captured a number of wanted criminals and killers. These wanted criminals included the notorious Faisal Motta, the convicted murderer of Wali Khan Babar. The Rangers also detained some members of the Rabta Committee of the MQM for further investigation.

On April 17, 2015 the meeting of an apex committee, which includes the Prime Minister, Chief Minister of Sindh, Chief of Army Staff, Director General Inter-Services Intelligence, Army Commander of Karachi and members of the Provincial Assembly, was held in Karachi and all the stakeholders displayed their firm commitment to eliminating terrorism and cutting off their funding sources.

Since the start of operation in 2013, the security forces have captured over 6000 militants from the city, and a majority of these offenders are affiliated with political parties in one way or another. The main focus of the security forces so far has remained to restricting space for anti-state elements, individuals associated with outlawed militant organizations and their financiers. Security forces are working closely with intelligence agencies to collect data of all seminaries present in Karachi and their main sources of fundraising. In addition to these, the data on land is also being collected to clamp down on the land mafia in the city.

Pakistan Rangers, aside from a huge number of terrorists have also apprehended politicians having links with terrorist groups or involved in terrorists’ activities. The list is long, but the topmost political figures so far are the Dr. Asim Hussain, a former PPP minister, Qamar Mansoor and Amir Khan from MQM.

The current operation by the Rangers seems to be progressing successfully, as a drop in militant attacks in the country was witnessed at the start of the Karachi operation. The decline was noted in the wake of the ongoing operations in North Waziristan and Karachi, also in the aftermath of the National Action Plan which was announced on December 24, 2014.


Karachi is the lifeline and principal economic hub of Pakistan. Most of the revenue of the state is generated from taxation and exports from the ports of Karachi. Similarly, it is also one of the main sources of revenue for Sindh province, producing more than 95 percent of the provincial revenue. Apart from its importance for the state, the city remains the conduit for trade for the landlocked nations of the Central Asian Republics.

Unfortunately, the city has been wracked by ethnic and religious violence for the last two decades. The security situation in the city began reaching its lowest point since 2009, finally culminating in a long-desired operation against the terrorists and other miscreants’ stronghold in the city by Pakistan Rangers. The operation is currently in progress and major achievements have already been seen in this regard. Since the launch of the operation, the crime rate in Karachi has fallen quite sharply.

It is hoped that by the end of the operation, peace, stability and economic prosperity would return to the city and Karachi will once again be known as a “City of Lights”. As Karachi’s progress and development is directly linked to that of Pakistan, it is vital that peace is restored here. The city’s important location and vast manpower bestow it with boundless potential. This potential, if utilized properly, can prove to be a game-changer for Pakistan and also impact the South Asian region.

Way Forward   

Following steps should be taken to improve Karachi’s internal security and general situation:

  1. All militant wings of political parties should be banned immediately. If any party is found to be operating a militant wing, then that party should be blacklisted.
  2. A parallel political process should be conducted along with the armed operation. It is important to eliminate terrorists, but it is also vital to eliminate terrorism.
  3. The government, along with the military and the civil society, should start a broad campaign for the de-weaponization of Karachi.
  4. Special emphasis should be laid on the development of the under-developed areas of Karachi.
  5. Karachi police needs to be de-politicized, and should be allowed to carry out their duties without any political pressure or interference.
  6. Any entity, political or religious, if found guilty of disturbing the peace of the city, should be brought to justice under the fullest extent of the law.