The Most Dangerous Place in Pakistan

07/12/2011 03:21 pm ET | Updated Sep 11, 2011

Waziristan may not be the most dangerous area in Pakistan. Karachi, the largest city of Pakistan and its financial and industrial hub, is witnessing increased violence in recent months. Although the cosmopolitan city of 15 million people is not new to violence, body count was relatively low until a few years ago. According to a report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 490 people have lost their lives to inter-cine, ethnic, and sectarian feuds during the last six months. Add to this the over hundred who were gunned down during the last week and the number reaches nearly 600. Add 748 of those killed in 2010 and you have a shocking figure of 1,348, or over two killings a day. The figure does not include murders, suicides, and casualties from terrorist attacks as that data is accounted for separately.

This is not the first time that the streets of Karachi have been bathed in blood. The early years of the 1990s saw the worst of human nature -- and state oppression. First it was the army that launched an offensive to root out what it then believed were separatists belonging to the largest ethnic group of the city. Then the paramilitary force and police took over and set a new record of atrocities and extra judicial killings, numbering in thousands according to some estimates. This happened during the reign of Benazir Bhutto, whose widower is now the president of Pakistan.

Unlike his slain wife, he has not resorted to using military force this time. There are many reasons behind this decision. His own party members are involved in some killings and he has political alliances with the warring groups. MQM, the main representative party of the Mohajirs, immigrants from India who constitute demographic majority, was allied with the government until recently. The last operation was launched against the same party on the pretext that it was planning secession from Pakistan. The allegation was later proved to be untrue.

This time, however, there are no such conspiracy theories. Bhutto had the covert support of the military then but her heirs have largely mended their relations with the MQM in recent years. The latter has also expanded its wings and is striving to become a national party. And it is not the sole perpetrator of violence in recent years. Another factor has entered the picture: the Pashtuns. Four other participants in bloodshed are members of the ruling PPP, sectarian groups, drug mafia, and the Taliban.

Karachi is now the largest Pashtun city in the world, with some estimates claiming their population to be around 20 percent. Over three million Pashtuns -- and another million of Afghan refugees -- provide a natural safe haven to the Taliban. The wafer thin police force of the city is unable to cope with the situation. Rangers, a paramilitary force that has been in Karachi for over 20 years, assist the police in maintaining law and order. There are many allegations of incompetence and high handedness against them, including the recent killing of a young man in a fake encounter.

There is a not-so-open war among these warring factions and the police and rangers can hardly do anything. The assassins enjoy blanket protection accorded by their political and sectarian affiliations. In the recent wave of violence, the government stayed on the sidelines and did not take any action until the death toll crossed 100. It then ordered the rangers to conduct a ruthless operation -- with controversial orders of shoot at sight -- and peace was restored within a few hours. This, however, is only a brief lull before the next storm.

A new storm may hit sooner than expected. The ruling PPP junta has abolished local governments and imposed the colonial police act of 1861 -- a law that was considered Draconian in its heydays. The new laws give the federal government complete authority over Karachi and other parts of the Sindh province. Think of New York mayor, police commissioner, and city council members being sacked and replaced by Washington appointed federal bureaucrats.

"The violence will continue until we see a political will to stop it. Right now, everyone is free to settle one's score," a police officer, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. He also talked about the lack of equipment and ammunition to fight the terrorists. What he said appears to be true but it is also a fact that the Pakistani police is notorious for corruption. Running protection rackets and letting criminals off the hook after taking massive bribes is common. Karachi has thus become the prime example of what is wrong with Pakistan and the irony is that there is no end in sight.