By Zia ur-Rehman
NOV. 7, 2015
KARACHI, Pakistan — Paramilitary troops have become ubiquitous around this sprawling Pakistani port city. They watch over police officers at traffic circles, their convoys patrol thoroughfares, their raids drive daily headlines.
After years of crime and militancy that had made Karachi a byword for violence, an extended operation by the paramilitary force — the Sindh Rangers, who are ultimately answerable to the powerful Pakistani military command — has been working. Officials and residents report that crime is notably down across the city.
But in the name of security, the force in recent months has also begun upending the city’s political order. The crackdown has expanded to target two powerful political parties that have long been at odds with the military establishment. And it has left a broad trail of human rights violations — including accusations of extrajudicial killings, in which officers shoot suspects after taking them into unlawful detention, according to rights advocates and members of those parties.
The crackdown, which began two years ago, was initially limited to the slums and outskirts of the city, where Taliban militants and gangsters wielded influence. But this year, the military ordered that the dragnet be thrown wider, especially targeting the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or M.Q.M. The political party has controlled the city for decades through the powerful combination of a large ethnic support base, political acumen and armed gangs.
And in August, the Sindh Rangers arrested and brought charges of financing terrorism against Dr. Asim Hussain, a close aide to former President Asif Ali Zardari, who heads the Pakistan Peoples Party, or P.P.P. Several top leaders of the party, which in addition to its national profile controls the government of surrounding Sindh Province, have left the country, fearing arrest.
“We have dismantled the network of Taliban and criminal gangs of Lyari,” said one senior paramilitary security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the news media. (Lyari is the name of a poor Karachi neighborhood infamous for gang wars.) “Now, it is the turn of militant wings of political parties and those who provided finances to armed groups.”
The leaders of both the parties say they are being targeted for political reasons and accuse the Rangers, and their military masters, of overstepping their mandate and meddling in civilian politics. Interviews with the police and paramilitary officials and political leaders reveal that even among those who support the military, there is a growing sense that the country’s generals have made a concerted decision to wrest Karachi from the M.Q.M.’s control.
The intervention comes as the Pakistani military — and particularly its popular top commander, Gen. Raheel Sharif — has been ascendant in the nation’s affairs over the past year, sidelining the elected government on the most critical points of foreign policy and security questions.
In Karachi, the military’s main publicity tack in justifying its crackdown on the M.Q.M. has been to challenge the conventional wisdom about the party’s methods. Rather than treating it as a political party that employs gang violence, as most analysts describe it, the military is in effect categorizing it as a militant group with a political wing.
“The party has a strong and well-organized militant group who has been involved in every sort of terrorism,” said one intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a continuing operation. “Our main target is the M.Q.M.’s militant wing, not its political wing.”
The Rangers have staged raid after raid against the party’s interests over the past few months, including arresting senior party officials at Nine Zero, the nickname of the party’s headquarters in Karachi, long seen as above any police intervention.
Other kinds of pressure have been brought to bear as well.
Some in the local media sector say that Karachi news channels have been warned by the authorities not to cover the live speeches of Altaf Hussain, the leader of M.Q.M., who lives in London. He and his inner circle have also been the focus of a corruption and murder investigation by Scotland Yard; he is free on bail after being arrested in June.
Beyond that, there has been a rash of news reports linking the party to interests within India, adding the suggestion of treason to the other accusations against the party. The drumbeat has grown so intense that in late September, some M.Q.M. party leaders publicly urged clemency from the military and sought to dissociate the party from allegations of Indian ties.
“The M.Q.M. is a patriotic political party, and it will continue to be loyal to Pakistan without any condition,” the party said in a statement.
One result of the campaign has been a visible decline in the party’s ability to command loyalty on the street. It has long held the trump card of being able to shut down the city with protests. But on Sept. 12, a call to stage huge protests over the alleged extrajudicial killings of its workers by the Rangers failed to have much effect.
“Now, the M.Q.M. cannot close the city,” said one gas station manager. “It seems the armed workers have gone underground due to the ongoing operation.”
The M.Q.M. said that since the start of the Rangers crackdown, at least 54 of its workers have been killed in extrajudicial killings and the whereabouts of 231 activists are not known. The police and officials with the Rangers have denied those accusations.
In one case, a 40-year-old M.Q.M. activist and city employee named Sanaullah was arrested by law enforcement agencies on March 31 last year. His body was found the next day in a nearby town, and his widow, Nida Fatima, is convinced that he was summarily killed by the authorities. “If my husband was involved in any crime, he should’ve been presented in front of the court,” she said in an interview.
Although overall killings have gone down significantly in Karachi, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent rights monitoring group, says there has been a large increase in the number of killings by the police and paramilitary force — and that not all can be explained away as shootouts with determined militants. The group says that at least 430 people were killed in shootouts with the law enforcement agencies in the first nine months of 2015.
Asad Iqbal Butt, an official with the human rights group, said that given the vast increase in detention and investigation powers given to the security agencies by recent legal changes, the killings are even more inexplicable. “After being empowered to keep a suspect in custody for 90 days for interrogation, there is no excuse for such killings,” Mr. Butt said.
Several law enforcement officials, however, insist that the majority of such so-called encounter killings have been with the Taliban and other militant or criminal syndicates that have no compunction against shooting at the police or the Rangers.
“We are fighting with well-organized militant groups that have killed more than 65 law enforcers only this year in ongoing operations,” one senior police official said.
Even as the party has come under immense pressure, political analysts say any talk of the M.Q.M.’s total disintegration is premature. That is in part because the party still maintains a vast support base among Karachi’s large ethnic Mohajir minority, which has not shown any signs of mass defection to any other party despite the recent upheaval.
Some analysts believe the politician Imran Khan and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, have the most potential of any group to cut into the M.Q.M.’s influence in Karachi, especially given the widespread image of the party as being acceptable to the military.
But Talat Aslam, a senior editor at The News International in Karachi, said that Mr. Khan’s party, known as P.T.I., had not yet had much electoral success in the city and that at times it had misplayed its hand here.
“Very often, the P.T.I. gives the impression of being a force of outsiders that could arrive out of the blue to ‘liberate’ the captive and enslaved Mohajirs from the M.Q.M., which rules over them by force alone — a description that does not always go down well with the electorate,” Mr. Aslam said.
Political observers say the most likely consequence of the continuing paramilitary crackdown will be that no single political party will now be able to control the city. But for some here, particularly within the business sector, the improvement in overall violence has been worth the political upheaval.
“We do not care about the politicians,” said Atiq Mir, a leader of the local merchants’ community. “Peace is returning to Karachi because of the steps taken by the Rangers.”