On Wednesday April 15, PS21 held a discussion in Washington DC.
Drawing on his time as a police officer and counterterrorism official in Karachi, Omar Hamid discussed the nexus of crime, militancy and corruption in Pakistan’s most populous city.
Negar Razavi, PS21 Global Fellow, and anthropologist at University of Pennsylvania moderated the discussion.
Download a transcript of the event
Listen to a recording of the discussion
Here are the key takeaways:
“Being a police officer means you really get to see the whole gamut of issues in Karachi,” Hamid said. “There are issues of sectarian violence there are issues that any mega-city has… there are issues of political parties with the militias. There are issues of the growing presence of the Pakistani Taliban. And, of course, you have all of the regular crime.”
Corruption was a central part of life in Karachi, he said. With a population of some 20 million, the city is the commercial centre of Pakistan.
“In effect, the story of the past 25-30 years of the city is the struggle between various groups to squeeze that pie as much as possible,” he said.
“What you can learn from Karachi’s example is exactly what not to do in any mega-city,” he said. “With the expansion of megacities, have a situation where the central government — in many cases the local government — has very little control. As these cities grow organically, control over scarce resources often ends up in the hands of nonstate groups… political parties or organised crime syndicates. The challenge for urban governance will be how the state is able to impose itself or how it can prevent resources from being taken over. That will be the measure of success in urban governance this century.”
The city also had stark ethnic divisions, he said. It contained a population of some 4-5 million Pashtuns (the dominant population of Afghanistan), making it a larger Pashtun city than Kabul. It inevitably produced a complex sectarian politics “All of these various groups feel that they have an interest in the city,” he said. “All of them have competed for that.”
Those tensions helped to produce the nexus between crime, politics corruption and militancy, with most political groups also maintaining their own armed militia. “Those militia come to the forefront of organised crime… (and) corruption.”
Largely as a result, he says, the provision of basic services and infrastructure within the city had become hugely politicised. “Civil servants or police officers go to one party or another to vie for lucrative postings,” he said. “The objective… is to get in the good books of a certain local party, to get a good posting and… to be able to recoup your expenses… by making that poster revenue generating tool.”
“Everything is for sale in Karachi,” continued. Rival political groups including the Taliban were increasingly involved in illegal land grabs, he said, encouraging supporters to illegally squat on land. “They carve slices of land up to create new squatter colonies and then they subsequently sell it off. Because there is a shortage of water in the city, control of the city’s water hydrants is a very key tool in corruption.”
In 2013, he said, rival elements of the Pakistani Taliban force over control of water supplies in parts of the city. “It had nothing to do with religious ideology. It had to do with the cash that could be gained through the water.”
The United States, he said, had completely failed to understand the dynamics in its dealings with Pakistan. “The fact is that the presumption… ever since 911 has been that it was important to back groups that were opposed to religious extremists. On paper that makes a lot of sense but the problem in Karachi is the loss of those groups are also equally involved in criminal activities.”
“The MQM, the largest party in the city, is an extremely secular party, totally opposed to the spread of religious extremism… and yet the MQM operates the largest criminal-political Mafia nexus in the city. It runs part of the city as virtually a parallel state with an extensive armed wing that has regularly taken part in politically targeted killings murders of police officers and government officials.”
“For some time now there has been, it seems to people in Pakistan, a kind of understanding that the West… was all right with the excesses of political parties as long as they were secular and… talking the right talk.”
The western approach to secular Pakistani officials and individuals accused of corruption and criminality was, he said, very different to how would have approached similar allegations against someone suspected of jihadist sympathies.
The Pakistani military had also taken a greater role in the city, he said, launching crackdowns on some militant groups. But there were limits to what it could achieve.
“A military operation in the city will have a short-term benefit, certainly, but fundamentally you need the restoration of the rule of law and to do that you need civic bodies, whether it’s the municipality or the police, to play their role again and provide impartial services to citizens. This is really where the challenge lies.”
The one sign of significant change, he said, was the rise of civil society.
“This has really turned around over the last five or six years,” he said. “When you’re sitting in Pakistan… it feels like civil society does not necessarily have a direction. It’s pretty neat everywhere. But the fact it has found its voice is very important. The other thing that’s aided the growth is the expansion of the media in Pakistan. The media too, at times, seems like it’s a lot of heads shouting at each other nonsensically but it has meant that, unlike in the past, the media is no longer a creature that can be controlled by any particular political party or the country’s political or military establishment.”
“Pakistan remains a very violent place for journalists and in Karachi there have been a number of cases of journalists being murdered by all parties. But overall, if there is hope, it is in this. These things are no longer controllable. The crimes or misdeeds of various groups become very public and the growth of civil society, the growth of social media, means that the contrarian view gets out more often.”