TEN YEARS OF THE ‘KARACHI OPERATION’
Zia Ur Rehman
“The streets of Karachi were a battleground,” narrates Farooq Baloch, an ambulance driver working for the charity Edhi Foundation, recalling the worst days of the city, more than a decade ago. As he retraces the timeline before and after the 2013 launch of the Karachi operation, the memories come flooding back.
Every day as an ambulance driver, Baloch navigated through the aftermath of violent clashes between armed factions representing opposing political parties. Lyari, a neighbourhood he knows all too well, was turned into a warzone, with rival gangs clashing over territorial control.
“Within this chaos,” Baloch continues, “often the killing of religious scholars on sectarian grounds completely disrupted any sense of order.” He explains that even in the markets in the Old City, there were attacks with grenades on traders’ shops to force them to pay money they didn’t want to. “And things got even worse when the Taliban started causing trouble in the city,” Baloch adds, remembering the 2014 attack on the Karachi airport.
In the midst of the chaos, Baloch and many others like him stood resilient, navigating their way through a city that seemed like it was about to fall apart. Their stories from a decade ago are a stark reminder of those tumultuous times in the metropolis.
However, the winds of change began to stir with the initiation of the Karachi operation on September 5, 2013. The newly elected Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government, in alliance with the country’s powerful military, had embarked on a mission to quell violent groups and reinstate peace in the city.
The years preceding, and following the Karachi operation, were plagued by violence — a grim reflection of the city’s challenges. Notably, 2012, 2013, and 2014 emerged as the most devastating years, registering 3,100, 3,251, and 2,914 fatalities respectively, mainly linked to ethno-political or terrorist violence, according to statistics from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). However, the rights body observed that fatalities linked to violence began reducing from 2015.
Today, fast-forwarding through time, the operation’s achievement in restoring peace to Karachi is undeniable. This piece delves into the operation’s key motives, the targeted violent groups, its reverberations throughout the city’s security and political dynamics, and the potential trajectory that lies ahead.
DAWN OF THE OPERATION
Just four months after prime minister Nawaz Sharif took office in 2013, his government, in collaboration with the military, declared a “targeted operation” in September to counter all violent groups in the city.
However, analysts suggest that then Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who took suo moto action on Karachi’s deteriorating law and order in August 2011, had laid the groundwork for the Karachi operation, by giving voice to the public concerns because of the increasing violence in the metropolis.
“The judiciary also put pressure on law enforcement agencies by questioning their authority, probity, and professionalism,” says Laurent Gayer, a French scholar and author of Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City. “Corporate interests also played a role: industrialists and traders successfully voiced their concerns at seeing Pakistan’s economic and financial capital slip into chaos.”
Chaudhry’s October 2011 verdict highlighted political exploitation, target killings and the involvement of various political parties in extortion, including the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Awami National Party (ANP), the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Sunni Tehreek, as well as various banned groups. He emphasised the need for a comprehensive law against land grabbers and encroachers.
Before the 2013 operation, the provincial and federal governments, led by the PPP in coalition with the MQM and the ANP, who were also involved in the city’s violence, downplayed the turmoil’s scale. Effective measures to curb the growth of violent groups and their activities were minimal.
However, under pressure from the PML-N government and the military, the MQM and the PPP consented to the operation, initially expecting it to mainly target criminal gangs and Taliban militants.
Spearheaded by the Sindh Rangers, aided by Karachi police and intelligence agencies, the operation’s mastermind was Maj Gen Rizwan Akhtar. He later assumed leadership of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and Maj Gen Bilal Akbar took over as Rangers director-general afterwards.
Experts point out that the paramilitary Rangers were entrusted with a commanding position in the operation as a response to the fear of political influence on the police in Sindh and Karachi. Zoha Waseem, a security analyst and author of the book Insecure Guardians: Enforcement, Encounters and Everyday Policing in Postcolonial Karachi, says, “The police had also encountered violence from political factions (such as MQM), gangs (as seen in Lyari), and terrorist groups (TTP). The police were also lacking in resources, capacity, and public legitimacy, given their own institutional constraints and history of corruption and abuse.”
Although a level of distrust exists between these different civilian and military institutions, cooperation between these entities, particularly with Sindh Police’s Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD), was observed during various operation phases, experts say.
“For example,” Waseem continues, “Sindh’s CTD is known to operate with a level of independence and autonomy, overseen by personalities that have worked well with military and intelligence agencies, which makes it a case of a civilian entity that [has] worked decently well with its military counterparts as needed, although often this came at the cost of upholding human rights and civil liberties.”
Senior Rangers officials acknowledged that CTD officials, leveraging their informer network and knowledge of the city’s militant landscape, played a pivotal role in the success of the Karachi operation.
After the Peshawar Army Public School attack in December 2014, which resulted in the deaths of over 100 school children, Pakistan initiated the Zarb-i-Azb operation in the country’s tribal areas and introduced the 20-point National Action Plan (NAP), a counterterrorism policy. This indirectly boosted the Karachi operation, aiming to restore law and order in the city to a “logical end.”
CONFRONTING CRIMINAL GANGS
Since its onset, the operation initially focused on shattering the criminal networks operating in Lyari and the city’s other pockets.
Lyari, a hotbed of criminal activity, hosts violent gang rivalries over illegal markets — extortion, theft, smuggling, drugs and more. Gangs engage in kidnapping and contract killings, sometimes fuelled by external support, resembling proxy wars between the MQM and the PPP.
They aid political parties with votes and muscle, receiving protection in return. State institutions are thought to have employed gangs to limit the presence of Baloch ethnic parties and separatist elements in Lyari, a significant Baloch population hub outside Balochistan.
This alignment served PPP’s interests, which historically secures a majority of the electoral seats in Lyari. However, tensions with Uzair Baloch’s Peoples Aman Committee (PAC) grew in late 2011, when PPP distanced itself from the gangs’ alliance.
Following this, a police operation was initiated to control Lyari’s gangs and bring them under provincial government authority. The PAC launched a heavy retaliation that led to a government defeat, causing 38 deaths, mainly civilians, and ending the operation and week-long siege.
In the 2013 general elections, the PPP nominated candidates chosen by Uzair Baloch for a national seat and two Sindh Assembly positions, fearing PAC might shift Lyari’s seats to a rival party.
However, the shocking March 12, 2014 shootout between PAC and its splinter gang headed by Baba Ladla, at Jhatpat Market — a beloved spot for Lyari residents, especially women — marked a pivotal moment against the gangs. It spurred law enforcers to escalate their crackdown on criminal syndicates. Abubakar Baloch, a journalist who lives in Lyari says, “Despite the area’s violent history, the ruthless attack, which claimed innocent lives, unveiled a shameful facet of terror, eroding local support for the gangs.”
Most top gang commanders, including Ladla, Arshad Pappu, Ghaffar Zikri and Zafar Baloch, have been killed in subsequent encounters with law enforcement agencies or in clashes with rivals. Some commanders, including Uzair Baloch, have been apprehended, while a handful remain in hiding.
Lyari’s youth suffered the most from the neighbourhood’s unrest. They were casualties, victims and political pawns. Police records reveal that, between 2011 and 2017, 1076 individuals, mainly young people, died in Lyari due to targeted killings and police encounters.
Along with targeting criminal syndicates, the operation in Karachi also targeted the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). In retaliation, the group began targeting law enforcement and security officials, as well as political activists who were part of the coalition government. For this, it joined forces with other jihadi groups operating in the metropolis.
While the TTP’s relocations to Karachi began around 2009, in an attempt to elude Pakistani military operations and American drone strikes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and the erstwhile ‘tribal areas’, the group’s violent activities escalated in June 2012 in the midst of politico-ethnic conflict in the metropolis. In June 2012, the TTP openly threatened ANP activists to quit the party, remove their party’s flags and graffiti, and close their offices.
Within a year, the militant outfit controlled many Pakhtun-populated areas, collaborating with banned groups for extortion, robbery and kidnapping for ransom. Its strength grew as its members repeatedly attacked police stations in the areas under their influence, such as Mangophir, Pirabad and Mominabad, killing law enforcers and informers as well as ANP workers and anti-polio medics.
At the operation’s start, the TTP reacted aggressively, with brutal assaults on law enforcers. In 2014, the TTP killed Chaudhry Aslam — a top counterterrorism police official — in a suicide bombing, attacked the Rangers’ Nazimabad headquarters, and frequently targeted police personnel. Between September 2013 and November 2015, 265 policemen were killed in the metropolis, as per police statistics.
Considering this, Maj Gen Akbar, the then DG Rangers Sindh, drew on his Swat Valley operation experience to devise a new approach. Engaging the city’s Pakhtun elders to share information, he led an intelligence-focused crackdown on the TTP, yielding success with key leader eliminations.
Mufi Noor Wali, the TTP’s present chief who also headed its Karachi chapter from June 2013 to May 2015, admitted in his book Inqilab-e-Mehsud that law enforcement and security agencies had killed most TTP leaders “extrajudicially” during the operation, confirming its impact.
The June 2014 Karachi airport assault was TTP’s last major attack in Karachi, until this year’s February strike on the police headquarters. The Zarb-e-Azb operation in the northwest of the country also succeeded in pushing TTP militants from Pakistan’s tribal areas into Afghanistan.
THE FALL OF MQM
March 11, 2015 will go down in history as the day MQM’s invincibility in Karachi crumbled. On that day, Rangers personnel carried out a pre-dawn raid, swarming the surroundings of Nine Zero, the party’s headquarters, arrested numerous party members, including key leaders, and combed through drawers brimming with official documents.
The raid showed that, after weakening the criminal syndicates and the TTP, the operation’s scope had widened to encompass the MQM, a political entity that had wielded control over the city for decades, leveraging a potent combination of extensive ethnic support, political acumen and armed factions.
The crackdown against the MQM might have been anticipated for some time. However, when it finally occurred, its reverberations shook the entire nation, even reaching those situated thousands of miles away in London, asserted security officials.
In multiple interviews conducted during the operations, the officials emphasised that going after the MQM was necessary to make the operation successful. “Taking action against the MQM or its militant wing was indispensable to reinstating peace in Karachi,” Maj Gen Akbar told me in an interview in June 2015. “The MQM had been implicated in most of the city’s disturbances in recent years and, without addressing it, peace would remain elusive.”
Amid the MQM’s ongoing struggles, August 22, 2016 emerged as another significant turning point: the party split into the ‘good MQM’ and the ‘bad MQM’. On this day, party leader Altaf Hussain’s fervent phone address from London incited hunger-striking members outside the Karachi Press Club to attack media outlets, the Rangers’ headquarters, and the Sindh government’s secretariat.
This incident inadvertently gave authorities a reason to escalate their crackdown. Shortly afterwards, the Rangers detained the party’s leadership, including Farooq Sattar, and sealed the MQM’s headquarters.
Farhan Hanif Siddiqi, an academic at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, who has studied ethnic politics closely, tells Eos, “Hussain’s August 2016 speech was not only a reaction to the security operation but also a means to consolidate his Mohajir constituency, by appealing to the community’s victimisation at the hands of the Pakistani state. I do not believe it was receiving much traction at the time, mainly because many Karachiites were upset and frustrated with the MQM’s politics of violence.”
POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS AND NEW DYNAMICS
Political analysts stress that the Karachi operation needs to be understood in the context of shifting political dynamics within the city. Siddiqi says that the jadedness of the younger generation from the persistent violence and insecurity, and the involvement of parties such as the MQM, PPP and ANP in it is a key factor.
“In fact, by September 2013, when the security operation was initiated, the middle class had turned out in significant numbers to support the PTI in the preceding general elections,” Siddiqui says. “In the preceding three decades, no other party had ever presented a significant electoral challenge to the MQM’s dominance.”
He notes that MQM’s politics persisted with a “self-defeating slogan” that no longer resonated with Karachi’s populace. Siddiqui explains, “The PTI and Imran Khan, on the other hand, presented a vision of change, urban middle class politics centred around growth, development and service delivery, which proved more appealing.”
Gayer believes that the Karachi operation was not MQM-specific, since every political force in the city was demilitarised to a large extent. “However, it is the political party that suffered the most, because it fell from higher.”
By 2018, although the results were considered controversial, the MQM’s decline allowed PTI to win 14 out of 21 of Karachi’s National Assembly seats in the general elections, a significant shift from its single-seat win in 2013. Yet, tensions persist between the PPP, MQM and PTI in Sindh and its capital, Karachi.
Hussain’s words on August 2016 also impacted Karachi’s politics and worsened MQM’s internal strife. Following his speech, Pakistan-based leaders, embarrassed by his provocative remarks, broke away from the London leadership, forming MQM-Pakistan (MQM-P). This empowered state institutions’ bid to dismantle the party. MQM-P now dominates for Mohajirs but faces challenges in regaining the original MQM’s autonomy.
An MQM-P leader reveals, “Persuading MQM workers and supporters was tough because the party’s politics centred on Hussain’s persona until August 22, 2016. Abandoning slogans like ‘Humein manzil nahi rahnuma chahiye’ [We need a guide, not a destination] and ‘Jo Quaid ka ghaddar hai, wo maut ka haqdaar hai’ [He who betrays the leader deserves death] wasn’t simple.”
However, because of the state repression during the Karachi operation, a significant number of disillusioned Mohajir youths from lower-income neighbourhoods turned to the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a hardline Islamist party that uses the pretext of blasphemy to incite violence. According to the MQM-P leader, “It was the TLP which split the MQM-P’s lower-income Mohajir votes and helped the PTI win most of the seats from Karachi.”
Although the PPP has recently managed to secure the city’s mayoral position for the first time, experts say that, so far, no political force has been able to fill the void left by the MQM and the political scene seems more fragmented than ever.
Sartaj Khan, a political analyst specialising in electoral politics and movements, emphasises the 2018 election and local government outcomes as evidence of the Karachi operation’s influence on power dynamics, which created opportunities for enhanced political representation and participation among the middle class of the Pakthuns, the city’s second-largest ethnic population. The impact was evident in the election of seven ethnic Pakhtun members out of the 21 National Assembly seats, representing PTI and PPP.
“Previously, MQM-led violence restricted their assertiveness,” Khan explains. “With MQM’s power waning, the Pakhtun middle class can now confidently voice their [demand for] rights and aspirations in a secure and stable setting.”
During the height of the Karachi operation, human rights groups, particularly HRCP, consistently voiced alarm over the rising cases of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. The terms “half fry” and “full fry” gained prominence during the operation.
“Half fry” referred to law enforcers injuring suspects to disable them permanently, while “full fry” indicated extrajudicially killing them in staged shootouts. In discussions, police officials acknowledged that these extrajudicial killings were being employed as a policing strategy to alleviate the burden on the courts.
Qazi Khizer, HRCP’s vice-chair, highlights that, alongside extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances during the peak of the Karachi operation, certain detainees are still suffering in prisons with untreated injuries, potentially indicating punitive actions by jail officials.
Back in 1992, during Nawaz Sharif’s first term, an ‘Operation Clean-up’ was also initiated, later renamed ‘Operation Blue Fox’ under the PPP administration from 1993. That operation was predominantly aimed at the MQM and was marked by significant human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings.
Yet, the MQM-P leader notes that the current operation’s intensity was lesser in comparison to the 1992 operation, saying, “This time, the operation was not solely against the MQM, and law enforcement agencies even utilised informants within our party to make arrests.” He also notes, “Unlike 1992, MQM couldn’t respond with violence this time.”
FUTURE SCENARIOS, NEW THREATS
While Karachi has been less affected compared to KP and Balochistan due to the resurgence of TTP attacks post the fall of Kabul in August 2021, ethno-separatist groups, particularly the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), have demonstrated a willingness to target law enforcement officials and Chinese nationals, posing a fresh set of security concerns in the city.
An officer of the CTD states, “In recent years, the violence perpetrated by proscribed ethno-separatist groups, particularly the BLA and the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army, has surpassed the violence previously carried out by the TTP and the Islamic State.”
In April 2022, a BLA suicide bomber killed three Chinese teachers near Karachi University’s Confucius Centre. The BLA also claimed responsibility for the 2020 Pakistan Stock Exchange assault and the 2018 Chinese consulate attack. This month, the Baloch Liberation Front, another proscribed group, has claimed responsibility for killing a Rangers personnel in Lyari.
“TTP and IS-linked cells are active but not disrupting the city’s law and order,” notes the CTD officer. “They might be using the city for fundraising, hiding and regrouping.” This observation gains significance in light of the TTP’s recent attack on the Karachi police headquarters in February earlier this year.
Saqib Sagheer, a journalist at Daily Jang who focuses on security and crime in the city, notes that, after implementing the operation in various phases, the law enforcement agencies, particularly the Rangers, have stopped using the term ‘Karachi operation’ in their activities, likely from around 2018.
A FRAGMENTED CITY
The Karachi operation has undeniably transformed the city’s security landscape. From quelling criminal syndicates to confronting violent extremist groups and militant wings of political parties, the operation has taken significant steps toward restoring peace and stability.
Clear improvements are observable across commercial, industrial and residential zones, with the exception of the persisting challenges of street crime. Yet, some experts caution against prematurely assuming that Karachi has been wholly pacified.
“Has the security operation translated into the safety and security of the people of Karachi?” questions Siddiqi. He highlights that, despite the operation, rising crime rates — such as of theft, muggings and killings of those resisting — and the presence of various mafias in sectors such as water, garbage collection, transportation and real estate, suggests that not much has changed for the average citizen. “In fact, it has gotten worse,” he concludes.
Gayer, whose upcoming book Gunpoint Capitalism: Enforcing Corporate Order in Karachi sheds light on this issue, argues, “The guns are still around and many gunmen are still in business. Quite literally: many of them are now renting out their services to the security departments of industrial firms, where they terrorise workers and prevent them from organising for better working conditions.
“In the city’s working class neighbourhoods, from Lyari to Landhi and Orangi, many killers of yesterday are also making their presence felt and continue to intimidate people,” he points out.
The operation has also resulted in a political fragmentation of Karachi, a condition that seems poised to persist as the city grapples with divisions and enduring political conflicts. This fragmented state is likely to keep the city entrenched in a sense of insecurity, making it an attractive environment for criminal enterprises and militant activities.
Within this complex context, the military, political parties and religious groups are expected to project varying levels of influence, attempting to create as much elbow space as they can for themselves. This will only amplify the prevailing sense of uncertainty that hangs over the city’s future.
Source: Dawn, EOS, August 27th, 2023