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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Fitful Peace

After months of mayhem, calm has settled over Karachi. Here is how Pakistani security forces broke the back of a rebel group

By Anthony Davis

A FLOOD OF TRUCKS, buses and motor-rickshaws surges, horns blaring, along a main Karachi thoroughfare. Naim Ahmed slows and swings the police armored personnel carrier off the highway. Passing sidewalks choked with stalls, the vehicle enters a rabbit-warren of residential back-streets. This is Liaquatabad district, a chaotic sprawl of low-rise concrete and cinder-block housing at the geographic and political heart of Pakistan's commercial capital.

At first glance, there is nothing to suggest that a few months ago this suburb of 1 million slipped off Karachi's administrative map. Women stand gossiping in doorways; down the street youths are engrossed in a game of cricket, batsman defending tin-can wickets. "It wasn't so long ago that when [youths] saw us coming they'd run immediately," says Naim. The 29-year-old head of the local police station, he has not forgotten the days when his men risked meeting automatic rifle fire when they entered the area. He carries a bullet wound in one leg to remind him.

This is the heartland of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement. Loyalties lie with the MQM's Altaf Hussein, who champions the interests of the Urdu-speaking community that migrated from India to Pakistan after Partition in 1947. Over 60% of Karachi's 12 million residents, Mohajirs dominate District Central of which Liaquatabad is a part. Last year, when over 2,000 died in Karachi street wars, Liaquatabad ranked as the city's most explosive suburb.

A lot has changed. If the police showed up here at all last year it was in groups of 20. Today they are five. But normality in the Karachi context is still a relative term. Spread out, rifles at the ready, the police move warily down a narrow alley into Taaleb Colony, a former black spot. They've come to check a building once used by the MQM as a safe house and, adds Naim darkly, a torture chamber.

Dim after the harsh sunlight outside, police find the rooms are bare; silent and unremarkable. The MQM gunmen have fled abroad or languish in jail. If they're not dead. That absence reflects the larger picture. After teetering on the edge of civil war, Karachi has lurched back to a guarded, uncertain peace.

Many terms have been used to describe the government drive to restore normality to Karachi: impressive, efficient, ruthless, murderous. But no one doubts any longer that it has worked. By the end of 1994, unrest in Karachi appeared to threaten the very foundations of civil society. Brought finally face-to-face with decades of political opportunism and civic mismanagement, the city was wracked by a numbing wave of killings -- political, criminal and sectarian. But as 1995 began, Karachi's battle line formed along its most explosive divide: the one between the government of Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and the MQM.

The party of the Mohajirs was powerful, aggrieved and frustrated. Despite its political sway over Karachi its supremo, Altaf Hussein, remained exiled in London facing terrorism charges at home. The MQM's elected members continued to boycott the Sind Provincial Assembly while the party's control of the Karachi Municipal Corporation had been terminated by government fiat in 1994. Politics had been suspended and talks with the government in late 1994 had achieved nothing.

It was the events of May 18, 1995 that pushed Karachi over the edge. Shortly after dawn in District Central's Nazimabad quarter, a group of MQM gunmen ambushed a patrol of paramilitary Rangers, killing two and wounding six. The well-planned attack triggered an hour-long fire-fight before the attackers escaped. Sweeping house-to-house searches followed with hundreds of youths rounded up. That marked the beginning of an MQM "offensive" that was to last nearly three months and bring Karachi to its knees.

Repeated strikes -- and the violence that inevitably attended them -- were to become the MQM's weapon of choice. Unrest escalated into June, the bloodiest month of the year in which 300 died, including 40 police and Rangers. In the vast squatter quarter of Orangi, MQM units gathered from across the city. They began digging trenches and preparing sandbags and barricades in an attempt to seal off the area. Police stations and the Pakistan TV center were rocketed. And for those still in doubt, drive-by rocket and machine-gun attacks in the up-market suburbs of Clifton and Defence punched a gaping hole in Prime Minister Bhutto's bland assurances that the disturbances were confined to a few trouble-spots.

The police were now a target of choice. Some of the luckier ones were simply shot on the street. More often, they -- or their families -- were kidnapped, subjected to gruesome tortures and found the next day chopped up in sacks. Morale plummeted. Many police were reluctant to report for duty in uniform. Officers ceased attending the funerals of their own men for fear of being identified and later kidnapped; casualties were no longer reported over the radio network lest morale sink further. "The city was a ghost town," recalls one officer. "Some police stations were simply closed to the public."

Never an overtly secessionist party, the MQM had neither the intention nor the clout to "liberate" its strongholds in any real military sense. Its offensive appears to have been aimed at pushing Islamabad to the negotiating table. But in aggressively targeting the security forces, Altaf's triggermen overstepped an invisible line. In retrospect, it may well be seen as marking a decisive -- possibly disastrous -- watershed for the party.

In July, talks did open in Islamabad and sputtered on inconclusively until October. But government strategy had already been decided at a high-level meeting in late June. Bringing together the prime minister, president and police, intelligence and army chiefs, the meeting was in effect a council-of-war. Negotiations were window dressing; the real agenda was to wipe out the MQM as a militant force and reassert control over Karachi.

Direct responsibility for the city was assumed by Home Minister Naseerullah Babar. A crusty retired general from the Northwest Frontier Province, Babar's biography reads like a summary of the Pakistan Army's history. Before becoming a confidante of former president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and governor of the Frontier in the mid-1970s, he served in all of Pakistan's wars with India, including Kashmir in 1948 and East Pakistan in 1971. Today, the blunt Bhutto aide is no one's idea of a dove.

Babar took charge of Karachi at the same time that a new police chief was appointed. Abruptly transferred from his post as deputy inspector-general of police for Rawalpindi, Mohammad Shoaib Suddle brought with him a rare reputation for probity. A tall Punjabi with a PhD in criminology from Britain, he had earlier served as head of the National Police Academy and specialized in white-collar crime. Wading into the morass of Karachi was not a prospect he relished. But Shoaib had a strong ally in Babar. "Babar did a marvelous job," Shoaib recalls. "If I was short of equipment I had only to pick up the phone. He had direct lines to the prime minister and president."

Despite briefings, Shoaib was scarcely prepared for what he found in Karachi -- a city paralyzed by fear and a police force whose morale and self-respect had collapsed. He began touring the city, visiting no-go areas and holding open meetings with his rank-and-file. His message was direct: "I said 'Look, if you keep running, you're going to get killed anyway. Either you accept the challenge or you and your families continue to suffer.' "

He also listened to an outpouring of grievances over conditions, promotions and leadership in the police force. In the three months that followed, over 80% of his 96 police-station chiefs were transferred. Their replacements were given one month to lead or quit. And in a campaign to restore public confidence in a force seen as riddled with graft, over 800 policemen were dismissed, more than 100 to face criminal charges.

Tackling terrorism demanded a complete overhaul of the intelligence network as well. Police were given huge sums of money to buy new informants, including criminals. On July 1, a citywide ban on the use of mobile phones and pagers was imposed. That disrupted MQM communications and facilitated federal phone-tapping operations. As information began to flow, lists of known or suspected terrorists were updated. Drawing up hit lists was a game two could play. "To fight a terrorist," one police officer said, "you have to think like a terrorist." And, perhaps, act like one too.

Police rounded up hundreds of suspects in a wave of "siege-and-search" operations. Involving both police and the Rangers, the pre-dawn sweeps included mass detentions, house-to-house searches and identification parades to weed out militant suspects -- a page which might have been extracted from India's counter-insurgency manual for separatist Kashmir. Between July and March, diplomatic sources estimate over 75,000 Mohajirs were arrested.

Siege-and-search operations provided both police and Rangers with ample opportunity for large-scale extortion, a cause for bitter resentment. Police allegedly gave families the chance to buy the freedom of many youths who could not be proved to have terrorist links. As many Karachiites saw it, both the sweeps and the squeeze on the wider Mohajir community amounted to a calculated policy of collective punishment. "Government policy was to terrorize the population and let the security forces loot and plunder," says one veteran Karachi analyst, a bitter critic of the MQM who enthusiastically applauds the methods used. "Policy [for the security forces] was quite clear: you're going to destroy the terrorists and loot the Mohajirs -- show them that allegiance to the MQM is going to cost them."

After months of humiliation and fear, the police were hitting back with full force. "By the end of June the men were full of feelings of revenge," concedes one officer of his colleagues. "The type of handling they had taken from the terrorists was too much for them, honestly." In Liaquatabad, Naim Ahmed's men moved methodically. "We covered the area block by block," he explains. "Every night there were raids and the message was clear: we're coming after you."

As Karachi's dirty war dragged on, it increasingly began to resemble the Indian counter-insurgency campaign in Punjab and Sri Lanka's extermination campaign against the Sinhalese extremist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna group of the late 1980s: a shadow war of terror and counter-terror in which the ends justified the means. The MQM death toll rose steadily. Some died in clashes with security forces. Others were almost certainly killed after capture and torture -- youthful victims of sudden "heart attacks" -- or during "escape attempts" from upper stories of buildings.

Senior officers like Shoaib angrily dismiss the charges of an "anything-goes" campaign. He blames the MQM's propaganda machine for spreading disinformation. Few, however, give the government the benefit of the doubt. In exhaustive reports on human rights in Karachi, both Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department have condemned abuses and killings perpetrated by many factions in the city -- the security forces included. "There is a government policy of systematically killing MQM activists," asserts one foreign analyst closely monitoring events. "They keep up the pretense of wanting to talk to the MQM but really that's rather an aside. They are beating them into submission and the signs are they may be succeeding."

For a while the terrorists fought back. In October, militants struck at the symbolic heart of government, the Sind Secretariat Building. In broad daylight, gunmen fired five rocket-propelled grenades and sped away. But increasingly accurate state intelligence and sheer attrition wore down the gunmen. By March, the MQM as a militant force had been effectively broken. Of 3,000 identified by authorities as "terrorists," some 1,000 had been "eliminated" -- 800 or so in jail, at least 150 dead.

As life limps back to a semblance of normality, the relief is almost palpable. In the five-star hotels the foreign businessmen are back; the city's shaken economy is picking up; and the fairy lights of rent-a-dream wedding halls wink out along busy boulevards. But beneath the relief lies exhaustion and apprehension. "How long can we keep up the pressure?" reflects one senior police officer. "Everything the police can do, we've done. Now what's needed is a political solution."

Just what shape such a solution might take is less easy to say. Most analysts concur that the MQM still retains broad electoral support in urban Sind. Government heavy-handedness targeted at the Mohajirs has arguably reinforced that base. And while many Mohajirs may be sick of MQM strike calls and disruptive politics, electorally they have nowhere else to go. Neither the opposition Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif nor the religious Jamaat-i-Islami have gained their trust.

Politically the MQM is in a state of shock. Many of its elected representatives are underground or in prison; its leader Altaf is running up a massive fax bill in London firing off claims of "genocide" to the global media. As Shoaib Bukhari, a leading MQM politician and deputy head of the opposition in the Sind Assembly, puts it bleakly: "We're on the receiving end: the government is doing the giving."

Men like Bukhari represent the educated, articulate wing of the MQM that Pakistani liberals insist the government could and should do business with. The problem is that ultimately the MQM remains the party of Altaf, the demagogue, not of Bukhari, the lawyer. Since its founding in 1984, the MQM has developed undeniably fascist leanings and a proclivity for violent intimidation. A personality cult around an intolerant "Leader" has been paralleled by dependence on thugs and armed enforcers to squeeze protection money from Mohajir businesses. "The MQM has relied heavily on criminals," says Zahid Hussein, a Karachi journalist who has chronicled the party's fortunes. "Instead of trying to mobilize the people, they've relied on the gun."

The real danger, as some argue, is that the Bhutto administration will be succeeded by a government willing to talk with Altaf. For the moment, though, they have little to worry about. Bhutto shows no sign of relenting over her refusal to negotiate. And Altaf is unlikely to risk his neck facing terrorist charges in a legal system notoriously liable to political pressures.

But the policy of crushing the MQM militarily and then marginalizing it politically is a high-risk endeavor. The party has been badly bloodied, but not decisively so. Much of its political organization, overseas support network and leadership survives. Karachi too remains awash with weaponry and its administrative and infrastructural problems have yet to be addressed as a matter of national priority. How long the youths of Liaquatabad are prepared to content themselves with tin-can cricket is a very open question.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



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Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

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PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

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COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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