Is Karachi the Taliban's New Haven?

05/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The recent arrests of high profile Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders from Karachi have sounded alarms in quarters that are concerned about the security of the largest metropolis of Pakistan. Karachi is the most volatile city of Pakistan and its ethnic and political diversity has failed to meld into a coherent -- and stable -- urban atmosphere. The actual situation is quite the contrary where ethnic and political violence spills into the streets and the city comes to a standstill -- and this happens quite often.

Ethnic tensions -- and their political implications -- have provided the Taliban and Al-Qaeda with a safe haven in Karachi. All the recent arrests have been made in the Pashtun slums of Karachi, cities within a city where there is little rule of law and tribal culture reins supreme. It is easy for the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda cohorts to find refuge in these slums without ringing any security alarms. A sizable chunk of population in these slums comprises of refugees from Afghanistan and tribal areas of Pakistan. There is no registration and no statistical information about them though tribal elders say that there are around 250,000 Afghans living in Karachi. The number can be as high as 500,000 given the geographical spread of the city and the springing up of new slums.

Although Pakistani intelligence agencies have been able to break into the secretive world of Karachi's slums but they are still hesitant to conduct a massive cleanup operation in these areas. The reason behind this reluctance is seeped in the political clouting that has mired the very democratic roots in Pakistan. There is also a strong perception that Pakistani intelligence agencies are still harboring the Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives in these slums and that the recent operations were but just a sham exercise to silence the rising American demands of "do more."

Karachi has a population of more than 15 million but there are only 30,000 semi-trained and poorly armed policemen. Paramilitary forces have also been deployed since 1990 but they mostly remain on the fringes of law enforcement, except during extreme rioting. Corruption runs rampant in both forces and it is an open secret in Karachi that they receive extortion money from criminals and drug dealers. This provides excellent opportunities for terrorists to ensconce themselves into slum areas of Karachi and carry out their nefarious plans.

Although the Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives have made good use of Karachi's mishmash of Pashtun slums, the same very strategy can turn the tables against them. A surgical operation in these illegal slums of Karachi will yield considerable results, if there is serious political will behind that -- and approval from the powerful Pakistani military. But will that actually happen?

Chances of a surgical operation to root out the Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders are quite low. Apart from the ethno-political repercussions of any operation, there are certain elements of the Taliban that get support from the Pakistani military establishment. Even Mullah Baradar's arrest was made only recently although Pakistani intelligence agencies were aware of his whereabouts for months, if not years. There have been reports that they only took action against him after he sidestepped them and charted out his own, individual course in negotiations with the Karzai government. They are still counting on other Taliban leaders to act as their proxies in any future development in Afghanistan and thus cannot take any stern action against them.

Karachiites are concerned about the whole situation but they have no say in matters of national security. MQM, the main political party of Karachi and a junior coalition partner in the provincial and national government, did initially raise its voice against the rampant militarization in Karachi but since has kept mum on the issue given the volatile ethnic repercussions (MQM mostly represents the liberal Mohajirs of Karachi but enjoys little support from other ethnic groups). There have been some hush-hush civil society protests but they have failed to gather any ground.

Given the current geopolitical scenarios, Karachi is most likely to remain as the haven of Taliban. They have maintained a low-key presence in Karachi and have not been involved in any major acts of terrorism. They, however, have an active participation in armed robberies and kidnappings as they use them to generate funding for their activities in Afghanistan and in other parts of Pakistan. Taliban are here to stay in Karachi as long as the intelligence agencies of Pakistan are happy with them and they are ready to do Pakistan's bidding in Afghanistan.