An engagement between the leaders of the Unites States and Pakistan in Washington DC this week at a global stage was, in a sense, replicated in Karachi in the national perspective. In both cases, there is an element of cloak-and-dagger. A trust deficit has encroached upon an alliance that is professed to be secure and thriving. In both cases, we seem to be "on a darkling plain" where "ignorant armies clash by night".
Some statements made by a few leading players, in both cases, project the prospect of a deepening crisis and confrontation. At the same time, the compulsion to work together is manifest in collaborative measures that have been initiated. To a considerable extent, we are still playing the waiting game – including in the context of the Supreme Court's interim order on the issue of the appointment of the judges of the superior courts. In times of uncertainty, there is always a sense of relief when the status quo is somehow preserved.
But Karachi has its peculiar predicaments. This week's spell of killings has again underlined the antagonistic character of its many conflicts. Apparently, these are conflicts that may not be resolved through negotiations, whether of a strategic stature or not. In such situations, the desire to maintain the status quo can only produce a temporary and fragile peace. Still, who has the will and the authority to attend to Karachi's forever mutating maladies?
Those of us who have chronicled the sorrows of this city – and of Sindh, in its ethnic and socio-political dimensions – are aware of difficulties in understanding the entire situation. Again and again, we talk about the urgency of seeking a new strategy to deal with the city's endemic disorder. But the same leading players re-enact the familiar scene when some of its congested neighbourhoods are bloodied by a new wave of killings.
Consider the role that is played by Interior Minister Rehman Malik, who has to rush to Karachi after every surge in targeted killings. He comes and reassures us that the writ of the government will be restored at any cost. He makes his obligatory visit to nine zero, the MQM headquarters. It was a minor change in the script when, on Tuesday, he was not warmly received by the MQM leaders and was interrupted by Farooq Sattar when he was speaking to the media.
However, a more lively and impressive portrayal belongs to Dr Zulfiqar Mirza, Sindh's Home Minister. He has made some very provocative speeches on the floor of the provincial assembly, his arrows apparently pointed towards the MQM, a party that dominates the city and has the veto power in the formation of a government in Sindh.
Zulfiqar Mirza certified his party's bigamous inclinations when he, after meeting the ANP leadership in the city, said, "I have been able to take the nod of one bride and now I am going to take the nod of another." Well, it is Rehman Malik who deals with the other party and he was in Karachi on Friday to sort things out one more time. After reviewing the overall law and order situation at the CCPP office, he said that differences between the PPP and the MQM had been resolved. And this is how it has been after every spell of killings in Karachi.
Meanwhile, MQM's discomfiture over the week's developments has been transparent. One of its leaders, Babar Ghauri, Federal Minister for Ports and Shipping, said on Friday that the MQM had attended the negotiations held at the Governor's House on Thursday on the request and intervention of President Asif Ali Zardari. He stressed that the PPP leadership had to fulfill the promise of arresting the Shershah killers.
Twelve people were shot dead by unidentified assailants in Shershah scrap market on Tuesday, leading to more killings in other parts of the city. The Shershah attack seems to have introduced a new element in the saga of what is known as targeted killings. In this deadly wrangle, ANP and MQM have pointed fingers at each other. Both these parties are allies of the PPP in the ruling coalition.
This tussle, often erupting into open threats and vilification, is becoming a major source of discord and it could be related to the changing demographic trends in Karachi, the largest Pakhtun city in the world. Add to this the increasingly strident aspiration of the Sindhi population of the province to reclaim its ownership of the city. And these tensions are camouflaged by the rise of the criminal mafias, with their ethnic links and patronage.
Against the backdrop of the floods calamity and the challenge of relief and reconstruction, America has repeatedly objected to the rich not paying their taxes. In the meeting of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan in Brussels, Hillary Clinton said: "It is absolutely unacceptable with those with means in Pakistan not to be doing their fair share to help their own people, while the taxpayers of Europe, the United States and other contributing countries are all chipping in."
If Hillary had any idea how much "bhatta" is collected in Karachi by all shades of operators, obviously not without the authorities' knowledge or connivance, she may have said just that amount would compensate for the taxes that the rich do not pay to the exchequer. Karachi, after all, is a city of wealth and enterprise and the money that is made here through extra-legal operations is bound to be huge.
We recognise Karachi as a mini-Pakistan. To that extent, the basic issue is that of governance and of social justice. It seems rather simplistic to suggest that better policing, with a more efficient and more numerous force, is the main issue. Establishing peace and improving the quality of the life of its perennially harassed citizens would call for a national resolve and some innovative strategies. A hasty damage-control by, say, Rehman Malik, (with Zulfikar Mirza insisting on his own authority) will not do.
Indeed, a resolution of the crisis in Karachi can lead us to the resolution of the crisis in Pakistan. Foreign observers keep on wondering if Pakistan is a failed state. We do have serious problems of religious militancy and economic degradation. But Karachi alone, if left unattended in its present state, can take the country down.
There was this heading in the Financial Times this week: "Pakistan, the state that refuses to fail". One can say the same about Karachi. But it still poses an "existential threat" to the well-being, even survival, of the country. It is in this city that we can celebrate diversity and establish a polity in which people of different ethnic, linguistic and ideological identities can live together.