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Will Karachi Offensive Target the Taliban?

There has been talk -- and some action -- of starting a military operation in Karachi to root out the miscreants. Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary force with over two decades of presence in Karachi, has already started search operations in some troubled areas. There have been conflicting reports about the government mulling about calling the army into action. There were also some reports of Mullah Omar being facilitated by the ISI for a heart surgery. Being the hub of Pakistan's economy, Karachi's problems need to be examined with a multidimensional lens. It's more than what meets the eye.

Karachi has been plagued with political, religious, and ethnic violence for the last three decades. It started in the 1980s when Pashtuns clashed with the Mohajirs, resulting in hundreds of deaths. The decade saw the birth of Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a party supporting the cause of Mohajirs, who were immigrants from India and constituted the majority in Karachi. The MQM, which follows a liberal agenda, has swept majority of Karachi's seats ever since although it was banned in 1992 and weathered a four-year military and police operation. Thousands of people, mostly innocent citizens of Karachi, lost their lives during the time in extrajudicial killings, internecine battles, and sectarian violence.

Peace returned to Karachi in 1997 when the MQM was allowed a reentry into national politics by the Pakistani military establishment. Its supremo Altaf Hussain, who has been living in self-imposed exile in London since 1992, has been running the party remotely ever since and reportedly has a iron-fist control over its activities. The party, which is still considered the representatives of Mohajirs, has been accused of political violence in recent years. It fights back by questioning the criminal activities of its opponents.

Karachi was still a relatively peaceful city -- with the lowest number of suicide bombings ratio in Pakistan -- until late 2008. In November of that year, violence erupted in parts of Karachi and engulfed most neighborhoods. It fizzled out within a week though the body count was in dozens. Karachi has not seen peaceful days ever since with 2010 being the deadliest year. Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has estimated the number of targeted killings in 2010 to be 748, which appears a conservative estimate given the trend of under-counting and unreported murders in Pakistan.

The onus of these killings is laid on the MQM and the ANP, a party representing the Pashtuns, which constitute the second largest ethnic group of Karachi. There are, however, other groups using the killing fields of Karachi. Pakistan People's Party, which is ruling at the center and in Sindh, of which Karachi is the capital, has been accused of supporting criminal elements. Lyari, a lawless slum of Karachi and a PPP stronghold, has long been known to harbor criminal elements, including arms and drug dealers, with alleged support from the party leadership.

Amid this mayhem and chaos, paramilitary operation has been started in Karachi. Interestingly enough, provincial and federal home ministers have denied sanctioning the action, which gives rise to speculations of Pakistani military at the helm of the affairs.

The Taliban have long used Karachi as an R&R spot and as a fund-raising ground. They also share cultural and linguistic ties with the Pashtuns and enjoy covert support from the military. It has been speculated that some of them are involved in the recent chaos, probably in a bid to silence the opposition put forward by the MQM. The latter has long been crying about Talibanization of the city but its pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The recent killings are reported to be a turf war between the MQM and the Pashtuns. Criminals associated with the ruling PPP are also involved in some killings, especially in Lyari and surrounding areas.

It appears that the Pakistani military establishment is using the chaos to further its goals. The Taliban have found a safe home in Karachi sans any fears of drone strikes. Instead of striking against them, the military appears to be manipulating the waring factions and using paramilitary forces as its front. There are fears that any military action in Karachi will be targeted against the political parties, and not against the lawless Taliban.

The irony of the matter is that the same Pakistani military has been accused of facilitating Mullah Omar in getting his heart surgery done at a Karachi hospital, an allegation which it was quick to repudiate. A parliamentary accounts committee has recently unveiled a scam worth billions of Rupees involving an arm of the Pakistani military. It is not expected of the said committee to take any action on this matter given the military supremacy.

To cut a long story short, any military offensive in Karachi will not be against the Taliban. And that's the real tragedy for common Karachiites. Peace might return for a while but the real threat to their lives will continue growing and flourishing.