By Zia Ur Rehman and Declan Walsh
August 11, 2014
KARACHI, Pakistan — Karachi’s embattled police force recently passed a grim milestone — the killing of its 100th police officer this year, putting the force on track to exceed the 2013 toll of 166 police deaths, which was itself a record.
Some killings stemmed from the factors that have roiled Karachi, a restless megalopolis of 20 million people, for decades: ethnic politics, sectarian militancy and old-fashioned criminal gangs. But much of the toll came from the city’s newest force for violent chaos, the Pakistani Taliban.
The Taliban have been steadily expanding in Karachi for two years, running extortion rackets, killing political rivals and carrying out audacious attacks on prominent targets, including the city airport in June.
Now they have trained their sights on the city police. In the sprawling Pashtun slums on the city’s eastern and northern flanks, Taliban militants have gunned down police officers, assaulted poorly defended police stations and sent suicide bombers to assassinate top police commanders.
The killings offer new proof, officials say, that the guerrilla war that was once confined to the tribal belt in northwestern Pakistan, the Taliban’s stamping ground, has spread to its biggest city.
“It’s a very serious threat,” said Ghulam Qadir Thebo, the Karachi police chief. “The Taliban are well trained and well organized, with a network that is linked to global jihad.”
The Taliban threat has spurred the police, previously known for ineptitude and corruption, to take aggressive action. Security has been tightened at police stations and around police officers’ homes. More than 1,000 former soldiers have been inducted into the force. And officers have mounted a series of hard-hitting operations, in conjunction with the paramilitary Rangers and intelligence services, that have hit the Taliban hard but have also drawn accusations of police brutality and extrajudicial executions.
At least 201 bodies turned up in Karachi in the first six months of this year, many with signs of having been tortured or shot at close range, according to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. The group linked many of the killings to the security forces.
One case that stirred outrage involved Noman Khan, a 15-year-old who disappeared on June 28. In interviews, about two dozen witnesses said uniformed men had picked up the teenager as he ate watermelon with his friends after a game of cricket.
Nine days later, his body was returned to his family. The family and human rights activists said it showed signs of torture.
Police officials initially described the boy as an extortionist and said he had died in an exchange of gunfire. Then they said he was a member of the Taliban.
“This was my son,” his father, Bakht Zada, said in a recent interview, with tears in his eyes. He held an old photograph of the boy standing beside Shahid Afridi, a former captain of the Pakistani cricket team, whom Mr. Zada described as his son’s hero.
A police spokesman did not respond to the family’s accusations that officers had killed Noman, and said the matter was still under investigation. A friend of Noman’s, Ismail Khan, was later charged with the murder of a police officer.
Exactly who bears responsibility for the spate of extrajudicial killings is unclear. Senior police officials privately accuse the military’s intelligence services of committing the worst abuses, and complain that their men bear the brunt of Taliban reprisals. One retired officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, offered a still-murkier explanation: that in some cases, intelligence operatives tortured suspected militants, then handed them to allied police officers for execution.
Whatever the truth, experts say, the growing spate of killings on both sides amounts to a shadow war that, for now, is limited to Karachi’s Pashtun neighborhoods.
“It’s about territorial control,” Laurent Gayer, a French academic and author of a recent book, “Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City,” said in an interview.
“The Taliban have taken over areas, brought in their people and established strongholds,” Mr. Gayer said. “The question is how far they can go.”
In many ways, Karachi has become an adjunct of the conflict in the tribal belt. The city’s militant factions are organized according to conflict-hit northwestern districts like Waziristan, the Swat Valley and Mohmand. Their extortion rackets target ethnic Pashtun traders, and their guns have been trained on members of the Awami National Party, a secular Pashtun party that opposes the Taliban ideology.
The Taliban’s internecine disputes, often over the proceeds of crime, also spill onto the streets of Karachi, although in the past year, the Swat Taliban have become the dominant faction since their leader, Maulana Fazlullah, assumed overall control of the movement.
All of that has made the Taliban powerful players in the city’s already complicated mosaic of violent gangs linked to crime, politics and ethnic groups. Taliban attacks have killed 80 members of the Awami National Party, the party says, and largely driven it from the city. Polio transmission rates have shot up after militant attacks on vaccination teams. And the police have come under unprecedented attack.
In January, a militant suicide bomber killed Muhammad Aslam Khan, widely known as Chaudry Aslam, perhaps the city’s most famous police officer, who used to boast of his prowess in capturing and killing Taliban fighters. In the section of the city where the Taliban are most active, only five of 15 police stations are now considered safe, said Irfan Ali Baloch, a senior police commander.
The police station in one neighborhood, Mominabad, offers an example of the threat. Militants have bombed it three times in recent months, officers said. One policeman was killed and two others were wounded in an attack in June, as they waited to have their vehicle repaired. In July, a police inspector was shot dead as he traveled to work.
The authorities have responded by raising the station walls and installing surveillance cameras. Yet several officers said they had applied for a transfer. Some are considering quitting the force.
The officers, like several other people interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak to the news media, or feared reprisals.
Even the traffic police have come under fire. After June 30, when two traffic officers were shot dead in the neighborhood of Orangi, the traffic police were issued firearms. “We’re a soft target,” said one officer directing traffic at a busy junction.
A police-led crackdown on the Taliban, which started in September 2013, has had some success. A Taliban militant, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the police had killed several leaders of the Mohmand Taliban, which were believed to have killed Mr. Khan, and seriously disrupted the group’s activities in Karachi. In other areas, the police have wrested territory from militant control.
Recognizing that some officers are vulnerable in their homes, senior officers say they plan to move about 225 officers into secure accommodations. Western donors are helping, too. Since 2011, the State Department has donated $29 million to the police in Sindh Province, whose capital is Karachi, for training, equipment and vehicles.
The police are further hamstrung by intense politicization in their ranks — senior officers are often chosen for their allegiance to a political party — while the force is dismally understaffed. Karachi has just one active-duty police officer for every 1,524 inhabitants, said Mr. Gayer, the academic.
The rich and powerful contribute to that weakness. Of the city’s 27,000 officers, including clerical staff members, about 8,500 are permanently engaged in “V.I.P. duty” — guarding businessmen, politicians and government officials.
Experts have long called for an overhaul of the police force as an urgently needed step to bolster Pakistan’s stability. “The people of Pakistan are resilient, but state institutions are failing them,” Hassan Abbas, author of “The Taliban Revival,” a new book on the militant threat, said in an interview.
The Taliban, meanwhile, claimed their 102nd police victim on Thursday, the police said.
Gunmen ambushed the victim, Muhammad Sajjad Abbasi, a 35-year-old constable, as he pulled into a gas station on his motorcycle. He had been dressed in civilian clothing, the police said.
It was the fifth police death at the Pirabad police station this year, and Haq Nawaz, the officer in charge, said the matter was under investigation. But the most likely culprits, he added, are the Taliban.
Zia ur-Rehman reported from Karachi, and Declan Walsh from London. Hasan Abdullah contributed reporting from Karachi.