Washington, DC - While Pakistan grapples with the worst recorded flooding of the Indus River Delta, the country's financial capital, Karachi, is on the brink of what is being described as a civil war. A sprawling metropolis of 18 million people, Karachi has long been plagued by political violence. But the sharp escalation this year in politically, ethnically and religiously motivated killings - known as target killings - threatens to paralyse the city and, with it, what remains of Pakistan's failing economy.
In the context of the ongoing war in the region, Pakistan's economic and developmental problems are too often distilled through the prism of extremism and terrorism. However, the country's most pressing problems frequently stem from issues in resource allocation and local politics. As such, Karachi offers a microcosm of Pakistan's developmental and political concerns - the ones that preoccupy ordinary Pakistanis - and therefore deserves the attention of the international community.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, there were over 260 target killings in Karachi in the first six months of 2010. In mid-October, local elections led to clashes between rival political parties in which over 40 people were killed and more than 50 wounded. On 19 October, 29 people were killed in shooting sprees by unidentified assailants in just one day in Karachi. The most high profile murder around that time was that of Dr. Imran Farooq, a founding member of the Karachi-based ethno-political party, the United National Movement (MQM), in London in September. His death signalled that Karachi's turf wars had taken on international dimensions.
The economic fallout of this political instability can be felt nationwide as 70 per cent of the income tax and 62 per cent of the sales tax collected by the Pakistani government comes from the Sindh province, 94 per cent of which is generated in Karachi, its capital. No wonder that Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said more than once that destabilising Karachi is akin to destabilising Pakistan.
The reasons for violence in Karachi are multifaceted, and can be traced to critical challenges facing its growing urban population. Since the 1950s, Karachi's quickly growing population has lacked resources and vital urban infrastructure.
As a result, illegal land mafias have mushroomed to cater to Karachi's development needs. These mafias have close ties with political parties since the ballots of low-income housing residents are most easily secured with the promise of providing water, electricity or sewage lines in their areas. The link between poor urban planning and the need for territorial control in politics partially explains the recent escalation in violence: since local elections are underway, political parties are vying for the support of influential mafias.
Given that Karachi is a city of migrants, the political violence also has an ethnic dimension. The allied ruling MQM party represents Urdu-speaking residents of the city who trace their lineage to northern India. Its rival, the People's National Party (ANP), on the other hand, claims the support of the city's burgeoning Pashtun population, comprising labourers who migrate to the port city in search of jobs. Interestingly both parties are part of the ruling alliance at the federal as well as at the provincial levels.
Intermittently since the 1990s, Karachi, which is home to over 3,000 religious seminaries or madrasahs (Islamic religious schools), has also been gripped by sectarian violence. Army attacks against militant hideouts in the tribal areas have forced members of banned sectarian groups to return to Karachi and resume their activities there.
What the Pakistani government urgently needs is to heed calls by civil society and the media for a judicial probe into Karachi's target killings. Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah has been promising judicial investigations into the violence since July, but to no avail.
Western governments that have traditionally adopted a one-dimensional approach to Pakistan should also take an increased interest in Karachi's stability. International human rights groups can draw attention to the victims of Karachi's violent politics in the same way that they highlight civilian casualties of drone attacks. The international community can also share information with the Pakistan government on how to successfully convene truth and reconciliation committees to help Karachi's warring ethnic factions negotiate peace.
In the wake of this summer's devastating floods, ensuring that Pakistan's commercial hub remains peaceful for the sake of nationwide economic prosperity is more important than ever before. And it is only by acknowledging that the Pakistani public has to contend with issues more basic and urgent than extremism that the international community can help begin to address local needs in a meaningful way.