Friday, August 15, 2008

The Specter of Talibanization in Karachi

The author of the widely acclaimed Military Inc. writes an insightful column in today's Dawn (Aug 15): State of the State.

Ayesha Siddiqa's theoretical discussion at the beginning on states and their need for centralization is intriguing. However, it should be noted also that how states 'have' historically developed in the Western European experience is one thing. How states in other parts of the world 'ought' to exist and function is quite another.

In the later half of that piece, she takes a critical look at the recent specter of "Talibanization" in Karachi. Her points are insightful and demand immediate attention.

I quote from that piece: "Regarding the MQM’s move, there appears to be no entity to challenge the party’s assumption regarding the increase of Talibanisation in the city, which many believe is not happening but is merely an excuse to checkmate the movement of people, especially those from the Frontier province to Karachi. Given the increased insecurity in the Frontier, there is a demographic shift with people moving to other cities, Karachi being one which offers greater opportunities.

Also, there is a sizeable community of Pathans already living in the city which attracts a similar kind to the city. Surely, there is a difference in the style of living and social conditions of the Pathan and the Mohajirs whom MQM claims to represent. However, this does not mean that the new migrants are Talibanising the metropolis.

So, what does one make of MQM’s claim? The party probably wants to stop the flow of Pathans or any other community into Karachi which would challenge the current demographics of the city and have an impact on MQM’s political authority. However, it is also a fact that some banned militant outfits have resurfaced in the city resulting in the setting up of defence committees by MQM. Is it that those who control the militant outfits and are part of the state are connected with MQM?"

Ayesha Siddiqa is not the only person who has raised concerns about the convoluted politics surrounding the so-called Talibanization threat in Karachi. A number of informed sources in Karachi have, for quite some months now, warned that certain ethnic groups may be targeted in the name of talibanization. The Shias would be forced to be at the forefront of what is an ethnic conflict, but which would be perceived and represented in the media as a "sectarian" conflict - that is, the Taliban on the one hand and Shias and perhaps one or two sects within Sunnis on the other. This is how general Shias and Sunnis would also perceive this conflict. This warning was given long before the SSP did the provocative wall chalking in a few Shia populated areas of Karachi recently, indicating its return, and before Musharraf's weakness became very apparent to everyone.

Scholars also suggest identifying the interests of other political players in this game, the interests that would be affected or challenged by increasing turmoil in Karachi.

One opinion is that the Karachi port delivers 85 percent of the logistic support to NATO forces in Afghanistan, according to Bruce Reidel at the Brookings Institution. The US is simultaneously pressurizing the security establishment on certain demands, related to their control in the country (vis-a-vis the civilian government) and the nuclear issue. The establishment would gain some leverage against the US by allowing the militant elements - sectarian or ethnic - to carry out their agenda and cause turmoil in Karachi.

Yet, looking at it from another perspective, an increase in trouble in the region also allows the powers-that-be in Washington to keep on shifting the focus (in the media and elsewhere) from the failures in Iraq to the Afghan-Pakistan region. Polls in the US support a surge in Afghanistan. Because the specter of Taliban in this region is seen to be locally and 'internally' developed, a Star Wars kind of morality tale could be easily constructed where it is the duty of the good, civilized people from the other end of the world to come to this end to fight the 'evil' and make the wrong right.

The policy decisions made in the next few months and their outcomes are going to shape the possibilities and constraints for the new administration in the White House. The Georgia fiasco along with the escalation in Afghan-Pakistan region violence indicates that this region would be in high focus for years to come. Pakistan's own future is deeply tied to this geo-strategic politics. The choices that Washington makes in how it deals with the civilian government as well as the establishment in Pakistan will have long term consequences for the people in this region.

In addition to external influence, the policies of the security establishment have done no good to Pakistan either (under both General Zia and General Musharraf). Their policies have bred the terror that it wants to fight off now. Their misadventures - like the Red Mosque incident last year - continue to polarize the Pakistani society and multiply extremism. George Bush's 'war on terror' is doing a similar job, albeit on a much larger scale, around the world.

Back to the situation in Karachi. It seems that the coming months are going to be very challenging. As various local and international powers in Pakistan may be pursuing their interests - not necessarily in active coordination with (or knowledge of) each other - one wonders, who is there to protect the common people?

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