Last month, a Canadian family went to Karachi for a wedding. The day after their arrival in Pakistan’s centre of commerce, crime and terrorism, their ancestral home was invaded in broad daylight by three armed men. They held a gun to the mother’s head and threatened to kidnap her 3-year-old granddaughter.
For the next hour-and-a-half, they helped themselves to the bride’s trousseau, including gold ornaments and jewelry, and almost everything else of value. But they did leave behind, after much pleading, the family’s most valued possession: Canadian passports.
A few days later, a neighbour was kidnapped and released for a ransom of 20 million rupees ($222,000 — a princely sum in Pakistan). And the neighbourhood grocer was robbed and gunned down dead, along with his two sons and two assistants.
Such harrowing incidents are routine in the city of 18 million, Pakistan’s largest.
More people are being kidnapped and killed in Karachi than in the Afghan-Pakistan border areas that provide sanctuary for Al Qaeda, Taliban and other militants.
Karachi is arguably more Talibanized than Quetta (the exile home of Taliban leader Mullah Omar) or Abbottabad (where Osama bin Laden was killed) or Peshawar (home of Afghan refugees).
Taliban and several associated militants raise funds in Karachi, and run guns and drugs.
Karachi is also crawling with other armed political and criminal gangs engaged in turf wars, bank heists and other robberies, occupying properties that are even temporarily empty, organizing labour strikes, shutting down industries and bazaars.
Pistol-waving youth go carjacking and holding up people for a cellphone or gold rings, bangles or necklaces.
Police are under-resourced or complicit in the crimes. Other state institutions are equally ineffective and corrupt.
About 500 people have been killed so far this year. At least 800 were killed last year, and 775 the year before.
The downfall of Karachi is tragic.
It was Pakistan’s capital until 1960 (when it was shifted to Islamabad). It remains the capital of the province of Sindh. It has long been the economic engine of the country, generating more than two-thirds of national tax revenues. It is home to a highly cultured elite of industrial tycoons, landed gentry, the intelligentsia as well as the media and high fashion establishment.
The port city has also been a key transit point for the underground economy of smuggled goods into Pakistan and landlocked Afghanistan.
During the 1980s, Karachi was where the CIA delivered 5,000 tonnes of arms and ammunition per month for the Islamic Afghan warriors fighting the Soviet occupation. The hundreds of Arab jihadists who joined them also passed through Karachi, including bin Laden.
Post-Sept. 11 when Pakistan joined the American-led war on terror, the jihadists declared war on the Pakistan government as well and have waged part of it in Karachi.
Khalid Shiekh Mohamed, the mastermind of Sept. 11, operated from there. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was beheaded there.
“Karachi is microcosm of Pakistan,” says Shuja Nawaz, South Asia expert at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C.
“The future of Karachi is the future of Pakistan. You get Karachi right, you can get Pakistan right. If you fail Karachi, you fail Pakistan.”
But getting it right is not easy.
Karachi is now Pakistan’s largest Pushtun city, home to 5 million Afghan Pushtuns as well as Pakistani Pushtuns. These Pashto-speaking people are represented by the Awami National Party.
The majority in Karachi consists of Urdu-speaking people, immigrants from India who constituted Pakistan’s original political and administrative elite. They are represented by a party known by its Urdu initials MQM.
The third major group consists of native Sindhis, represented by the Peoples Party of Pakistan (of the Bhuttos). It is in power both federally and provincially, in coalition with the MQM.
But Karachi municipality is controlled by the MQM, using “guns and goondas” (thugs). What seems to be happening is that the other two parties are battling the MQM on its own terms.
Pakistan has a dizzying array of problems, most of them self-inflicted. It has also been duplicitous, allied with the U.S. but also supporting the Taliban.
Equally, there’s no denying that Pakistan has paid the price for Afghanistan, co-operating with the U.S., first against the Soviet occupation and then in the war on terror.
In that war it has lost 5,000 troops and policemen, more than all NATO fatalities in Afghanistan. It has lost about 37,000 civilians to terrorist attacks and collateral damage — nearly 10 times those killed on 9/11. While it got $10 billion from the U.S., it has lost an estimated $100 billion in foreign investments in the last decade.
Its democracy is semi-functioning. For the first time in its history, an elected government may last its full term until next year. Its judiciary is independent. Its economy is doing badly but is not bankrupt.
A failed Pakistan would threaten the stability of Afghanistan and the entire region. As a paper commissioned in 2008 by Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, put it: “The U.S. has no vital national interests in Afghanistan.
Our vital national interests are in nuclear Pakistan.”
That holds true for Canada and all NATO partners.