This Commentary first appeared as an op-ed on Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, August 18, 2010.
The desperate plight of over 20 million Pakistani citizens displaced and dispossessed by the most ferocious flooding in the history of the young state is heartbreaking. Nature is extracting a cruel price on a population already racked by debilitating poverty and a brutal insurgency.
But at the same time, too little attention is being paid to the violent drama being played out in Pakistan's largest city, Karachi. The crippling violence of political party gangsterism between Karachi's two dominant parties - the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) - is alarming, especially as the parties align with organized criminal groups and become increasingly indistinguishable from them. Unlike the flooding, this crisis was avoidable and man-made.
One of the three largest cities in the world, Karachi has a multi-ethnic population of 17 million people. From an American perspective, it also happens to be the hub for importing life-saving relief supplies as well as material for the U.S. and NATO war effort in Afghanistan.
So it is mind boggling that at this juncture of extreme humanitarian tragedy throughout Pakistan and grave strategic consequence in Afghanistan, rival political parties in Pakistan are engaged in blood-curdling street warfare that has virtually shut down a city. Targeted political and sectarian assassinations in Karachi have already taken the lives of over 100 citizens in recent weeks, and the terror continues.
Strong democratic institutions that include representative political parties accountable to their constituents are essential for Pakistan's development as a stable, prosperous democracy. Instead of working in the interests of its people, political parties are acting more like criminal gangs that engage in violent power-grabbing tactics and ethnocentric violence reminiscent of our own 1863 draft riots in New York City.
Similar to New York City in the 1800s, Karachi is an overcrowded magnet for impoverished immigrants who reside in make-shift slums controlled by organized "land mafias." The "land mafias" of Karachi are notorious for seizing large parcels of abandoned land and renting it out to the city's poor for both profit and power. Many believe the widespread rioting and violence that is currently paralyzing Karachi is a product of a turf war between warring politically affiliated factions. To the victor goes the right to exploit the poor.
Karachi is dominated by two ethnically based political parties who are also currently part of Pakistan's governing coalition -- the Awami National Party (ANP), a secular Pashtun based party; and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), consisting of Urdu-speaking descendents of the émigrés from India at the time of partition in 1947. Intensified Taliban violence in Pashtun areas of the north has accelerated the movement of Pashtuns into Karachi, placing Karachi's longer-term resident MQM Urdu speakers in pitched competition with the wave of Pashtun newcomers.
The relationship between these two dominant groups is bound to turn even more toxic with the next round of local elections, postponed by Pakistan's flood crisis. Political party rivalry defined by ethnically based gang warfare is no basis for a stable cohesive national identity.
We applaud Prime Minister Gilani's (Pakistan People's Party) efforts to engage the ANP and the MQM in talks, and the stakes are high; ethnic violence in Karachi could spread and weaken the state; paralysis of the Karachi transportation hub could cost lives as humanitarian goods and U.S.-NATO materials get hung up in the port; and political criminality undercuts the rule of law, national unity, and the development of a truly representational democracy.
The security requirements in Pakistan are like those in Afghanistan: success in both nations will be achieved when people feel secure at home and in their villages, have access to jobs and education, and can avail themselves of a fair and timely justice system. U.S. and NATO forces are battling a brutal insurgency that terrorizes the population in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, one would hope that democratic parties focus on meeting the needs of the people rather than violent rivalry.
Assertions and opinions in this editorial are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.