Karachi is Pakistan’s financial and commercial capital; a vast, sprawling metropolis of more than 20 million people, which generates almost a quarter of the country’s wealth.
Yet in recent years it has also been riven by bitter political and sectarian tensions, it has been undermined by organised crime, and has become a prime target for Taliban insurgents. Things have become so bad that some residents fear that it is now only a few steps away from falling into complete anarchy.
The city’s police are fighting desperately to prevent that from happening and, in combination with the army and the country’s intelligence agencies, are taking the fight to their enemies with an aggressive strategy of armed raids and arrests.
But as these tactics draw bloody reprisals and the death toll on both sides rises, the success or failure of Operation Karachi, as it is known, now hangs in the balance.
People & Power sent filmmakers Karim Shah and Shad Khan to find out why and to follow Karachi’s increasingly embattled police chief as he tries to restore law and order to the city’s streets.
By Karim Shah
Crime in Karachi is huge. Even for a city of an estimated 20 million people, the rate of violent crime is excessive. Over 40,848 serious offenses were reported in 2013 and over 2,700 murders. It was the city’s deadliest year on record.
We wanted to make a film to explore this rise in criminality and find out what is being done to combat it. So last year we got in touch with Pakistan’s most famous policeman, Superintendent Chaudry Aslam Khan. He was head of the Karachi police’s anti-extremist cell and his fight against the Taliban especially had made him a household name in Pakistan.
He agreed to let us film with him and document his work. But on January 9 this year, just as our project was about to get underway, an insurgent suicide bomber drove a car packed with explosives straight into the vehicle in which Aslam was travelling. He and two other police officers died instantly. He had survived nine previous attacks but this time the Taliban got their man.
When we eventually got to the city, a couple of weeks after the lethal blast, we discovered that Aslam’s death was not an isolated incident; 171 policemen had been killed the previous year - 79 since last September. During our two weeks of filming in Karachi that toll was to rise by another dozen more.
Such attacks often come in direct response to an episode of the police's new and very aggressive law enforcement programme known as Operation Karachi. In September 2013, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered a clean-up of the city and a joint operation was launched between the Karachi Police, the Army Rangers and the country’s intelligence agencies. The police side is run by Karachi’s charismatic police chief, Additional Inspector General Shahid Hayat. Following Aslam’s death, he also now became the central character in our film. A remarkable man with an almost impossible task, when we met Hayat he was very frank about why the operation was necessary.
"We have to be very clear about it, it's now or never. Things have got so bad that if we don’t arrest this trend it will really hit us hard. If we don’t tackle the Taliban and other criminals head on they are going to ruin this city forever," he said.
Raids are a key feature of the operation. They range from targeted busts of wanted criminals to aggressive sweeping manoeuvres into no-go areas - neighbourhoods previously seen as too dangerous for the police to enter. The raids have been widely criticised as a blunt instrument; often in certain areas, hundreds of people have been arrested only to be released the very next day. But the police do claim that since September they have seen a decrease in crime, especially kidnap for ransom and extortion, the two big earners for the local mafias.
It is hard to accurately judge the merits of that claim as crime in the city is vastly underreported. A doctor at one of Karachi’s main hospitals did tell us that since police actions intensified he had seen a marginal decrease in gunshot injuries coming through the door, but this was just a day after eight people were killed in a sectarian attack and four days prior to a bomb blast that killed 13 policemen. The frequency of such events is hardly testament to any level of success.
It is also not always clear who is behind these attacks. The city is awash with weapons. Criminal gangs fuelled by cash from extortion and narcotics have become powerful entities and are often to blame, but to complicate matters, many of them are alleged to also have political affiliations.
In 2011 Pakistan’s Supreme Court produced a 157 page report declaring that Karachi organised crime was receiving covert financial support from political parties, which in turn were using the muscle the gangs could provide to advance their own agendas. Although the findings were rejected by the city’s politicians, no-one was that surprised by the court’s conclusions; politics here is often driven by ethnic or religious allegiances as well as greed and self-interest and everyone understands that it is a toxic cocktail of many different influences that contribute to the city’s strife.
Take a short drive around Karachi and you can see the signs of those divisions. On every street corner there are emblems of the entities that control particular pieces of turf: a flag here, a poster there, sometimes just a splash of paint in a party’s colours smeared onto a lamppost (the national Pakistani flag, on the other hand, is a relatively rare sight). In Karachi, local concerns and rivalries are paramount; and with so many guns so easily available it isn’t difficult to see how disputes between rival groups can end in violence.
Not surprisingly, all this has a chilling effect on everyday life; as we heard time and time again many ordinary citizens live in fear, often journalists can only safely report from areas where they have ethnic affinity and increasingly even ambulance drivers will only pick-up from neighbourhoods of their own ethnicity. The position of the police in this nexus of crime can be murky too and difficult to pin down; some policemen have been accused of turning a blind eye to or even aiding the crimes of their ethnic or political kinsmen. Fear of reprisal, blood ties, corruption, sectarian divisions, extortion and blackmail - all these things can provoke or play a part or contribute to the savagery and make it difficult to know who is responsible or why.
But there is one thing all here are agreed on - the growing part played by the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) in the city’s instability. The group has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks on law enforcement including the murder of Superintendent Chaudry Aslam and the death of 13 officers in a bombing outside a police academy last month. Karachi provides the insurgents with a vital financial lifeline. Money raised from extortion, land-grabbing, kidnapping and robberies is sent to the group's leadership to help fund their operations in the tribal areas along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. When the police launched Operation Karachi, this key source of income came under attack. The Taliban have been doing their best to protect it ever since.
During our time filming in Karachi the government in Islamabad were said to be considering peace talks with the Taliban. As we returned to Hayat’s office after the bomb attack that killed 13 of his men, his television screened a report about talks that might soon take place. The police chief watched it, expressionless. No matter what the politicians in Islamabad decide, Hayat was clear about where his duty lay. "I'm only concerned about what goes on here on the ground in Karachi and if they're violating the law of the land - I'm going after them."
To do this, theoretically at least, he has a force of 27,000 men at his disposal. But those numbers are stretched dreadfully thin. Once you take account for the force’s regular static duties, the officers on VIP protection detail or in training, and the necessary shift patterns of working around the clock at any point in time, Hayat is left with just 6,000 men to police a city of 20 million. And though there is no apparent shortage of recruits and the force’s morale is higher than it might be given that the average officer only earns around $250 a month, most of them are working with barely adequate equipment - between them, for example, they have only 1,500 bullet proof vests and 30 armoured cars, the majority of which are old and frail and unable to withstand a bullet from an AK47.
To get a better understanding of the scale of the problems he faces we joined Hayat in a helicopter trip over the Karachi’s far-flung suburbs. Below us we could see mile after mile of densely packed housing, a warren of ill-lit streets into which the armed gangs and the Taliban insurgents can easily slip away and hide from his men. The police chief gazed down and mused about the deep-rooted causes of the crisis that had cost the lives of so many of his officers. "It’s our society at stake," he said. " It's not only the Taliban, it's the religious militancy as a whole which is ruining our society and then there is political militancy … We can’t rid Karachi of crime until we get rid of political militancy as well because political militancy, religious militancy and the gangs they are all interlinked. If we don’t get rid of all of them it will be very difficult for us to clean this city."
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