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Stabilizing Karachi

Interviewee: Mosharraf Zaidi, Political Analyst, Pakistan
Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria
August 15, 2011

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Karachi is Pakistan's commercial hub and an important entry point for U.S. supplies to Afghanistan, but ongoing violence there killed over three hundred people (BBC) last month alone. This violence, involving armed gangs linked to rival ethnic and political groups, threatens to destabilize the country's fragile economy, interrupt Afghanistan supply lines, and add to the cauldron of security troubles Pakistan already faces. Pakistani columnist and political analyst Mosharraf Zaidi says an ineffective police force and judicial system is the root of the violence, leading ethnic, sectarian, political, militant, and criminal groups  to use violence with impunity. "What Karachi needs," Zaidi says, " is the certainty of rule of law, the confidence that investors would have in setting up businesses there." He recommends a well-resourced and trained police force, which includes a robust intelligence infrastructure and an effective criminal justice system.

What are the causes of violence in Karachi?

Karachi is a poorly policed city. It is a poorly governed, poorly administered, and a poorly resourced city. All the underlying ethnic, sectarian, socioeconomic issues that help ignite violence exist in many other cities across the world. But there are very few, if any, cities that are so easily ignited like Karachi. The state's ability to enforce the rule of law is significantly compromised.

This is a slightly different take on the roots of violence in Karachi because the first thing people tend to go into is a breakdown of the ethnic tensions in Karachi, the political parties that are largely consistent with different ethnic identities, and their desire to sustain power in their traditional constituencies. All these factors are vital to understanding Karachi. But without an effective police force that is properly trained and resourced, the right kind of judicial system supporting it, the right kind of prison system supporting it, a city like Karachi will constantly be on the edge of falling into the kind of violence that we've seen over the last month or so.

Why does Karachi, an important economic center and port city, not have an effective police force?

You see poor resourcing of the police and an ineffective and unsustainable criminal justice system right across the country, and its effects are most sharply visible in a place like Karachi, which is such a mass of humanity and really is a crystallization of all the tremendous challenges Pakistan faces.

[On the other hand] Karachi is also a crystallization of all the tremendous opportunities that are available to Pakistan as a country with a huge population, a huge youth bulge, and a reasonable tradition of enterprising and innovative businessmen. All of those opportunities need  a conducive environment for Pakistan to shift out of its current phase out of instability. But that transformation in Pakistan won't  be possible until the state begins to exert its authority and ensure that criminals, terrorists, militants, corrupt politicians--the whole range of elements that cause the instability and the weakness--cannot operate with impunity.

What has been the government's response so far?

The government's response has been the same that it has been for the last generation. The emergence of the MQM [Muttahida Quami movement] as a major political force in Karachi has  been accompanied by a sense that political compromise would be the best way to go. In theory, that's exactly how politics should work; the public space is an open market and different political groups will compete for control over resources.

Crisis Guide: PakistanThe underlying problem in Karachi is that competition becomes one that requires the use of violent instruments like armed thugs, gangs, murder, and that's not an even playing field. And a democracy means that the state exists to ensure that rule of law is followed and that there's an even playing field for different political groups. In Karachi, and really in the larger context of the province of Sindh, [you have] a multi-ethnic province where traditionally only two ethnicities have had real political power: the PPP [Pakistan People's Party] which enjoys a very large, longstanding, and probably sustainable base of power among ethnic Sindhis, and the MQM, which has enjoyed now over a generation of solid and almost uncontested support among ethnic Muhajirs, people who speak Urdu and migrated to Pakistan in or after 1947. These two groups don't contest for political space or resources just with speeches or votes. They also contest for space using violence, and this is what makes the situation in the province of Sindh, particularly in Karachi, rather unique.

Some government officials, including the interior minister, have called for a deweaponization of  Karachi. Is this a good idea, and how should the government go about implementing it?

Unless Karachi wants to face a future similar to Detroit, it's going to have to find a way of making sure that it's a place that's not just safe, but that nurtures highly skilled young people.

Deweaponizing Karachi is a great idea. The problem is that Karachi is an open space, a place where weapons can be brought to. There isn't any weapons manufacturing  in Karachi; those weapons are coming from other places, including the northwest of Pakistan and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. So, the question is less of deweaponization, even though that's a fine idea if implemented. The issue really is that not only do you need to [take away] the weapons that exist in Karachi, but you also need to find the mechanism to stop weapons from entering Karachi.

Given the size and expanse of the city, a deweaponization program [would] have massive fiscal and administrative implications. Pakistan's record over the last decade or so in transforming rhetoric into actual policy, policies that are implemented successively, is pretty poor. So there is a degree of resistance to embracing deweaponization.

Karachi needs to be flooded both with the strong arm of the law, so you have your traditional police mechanisms, but also with a very heavy police intelligence infrastructure. Something like what the New York City invested in after 9/11--when the NYPD had a relatively small group of intelligence officers--to now, where it's one of the nation's most successful and largest local police intelligence departments. The effort in Karachi in terms of deweaponization or in terms of any kind of law enforcement requires a very large investment in human resources and in equipment for the police. And that equipment isn't restricted to the physical implements of policing, but also to the legal and policy instruments that would enable the police to do its job.

How is Karachi's stability important for Pakistan and the rest of the region?

Karachi is essential to Pakistan. It's the seat of business; the stock exchange is there. Most of the innovation in the country in terms of the economy comes from Karachi. It's got a reasonably high share of the population that is educated, a reasonably high share of the population that can speak English. If not already globalized, [Karachi] is primed for some kind of a global interface.

There's very little that the international community can actually do other than start to look at Karachi as a place that is good for investment.

What Karachi needs is the certainty of rule of law, the confidence that investors would have in setting up businesses there, the confidence that young, intelligent, highly educated, highly skilled people would have in moving there after college, and the confidence that young families would have in not only being there but staying there and raising their children there. If globally competitive human resources don't have that confidence, then a large share of Pakistan's most valuable assets--which are globally competitive, globally mobile, skilled workers--will not stay in Karachi. And no city in the world can survive without highly skilled workers as the backbone of constant innovation and entrepreneurship.

Unless Karachi wants to face a future similar to Detroit, it's going to have to find a way of making sure that it's a place that's not just safe, but that nurtures highly skilled young people.

How does the increasing insecurity in Karachi affect the violence and terrorism in other places in the country or vice-versa?

There's a feedback mechanism between Karachi and the terrorist and militant violence in the rest of the country. Some of the most important ideological centers for violent extremists in Pakistan are located in Karachi, for example the Binoria mosque. A lot of the sectarian groups that operate in Pakistan find a large audience and the space to operate in a city like Karachi. What's worse is the constant effort to balance off one power with another; this is something the Pakistani establishment has done for a long time. If you find one group has too much power, you find another group that can help counter its influence. The problem that's occurred in Karachi is that now there's such a plethora of groups and none of them are under any particular kind of control.

The impunity that people who employ violence enjoy encourages the use of violence regardless of whether you're an individual who uses violence to perpetuate your ethnicity or your political interest, or you're a person that uses violence to perpetuate or sustain the narrative of your version of a religious faith. Both those problems are really a problem of the rule of law not being present and people feeling that there's impunity, [which] enables them to continue to act in ways that are reinforced by the sustained lack of state intervention.

What can the international community do to stabilize Karachi?

Karachi suffers because of Pakistan's reputation, and Pakistan's reputation suffers because Pakistan's leadership often has not been able to engender confidence within the international community. There's very little that the international community can actually do other than start to look at Karachi as a place that is good for investment. Of course that won't happen until some changes begin to occur within Karachi itself. So the international community should encourage Pakistan to make Karachi a safer place so that global finance and international capital can move in and out of Karachi more freely than it does currently.

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