In-Depth Arena

Troubled north-west comes to town

Published Mar 27, 2015 01:43pm


Kunwari Colony in Karachi has become a hotbed of Taliban militants. Photo courtesy Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Kunwari Colony in Karachi has become a hotbed of Taliban militants. Photo courtesy Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

On a mid-November day, factory worker Ghulam Shabbir was shot dead on the road adjacent to Manghopir Hills in north-western Karachi. The motorcycle he was riding had POLICE written on its registration plate. A day earlier, a Mohammad Ejaz was murdered in Kunwari Colony in the same part of the city. He was sporting a military haircut in anticipation of his departure for joining the military, related one of his relatives.

These could be seen, and ignored, as routine stories from Karachi — a city where targeted killings and deadly violence have become a way of life in many localities. Yet something is starkly different about the two murders: They were carried out by militants whom local residents, police officials and political activists recognise as the Taliban. The second difference is that both were targeted for the same reason — for being seen as belonging to the law enforcement and security agencies.

In a large part of Karachi – spread between Orangi in the west and the northern edge of North Nazimabad – such targeting of real or imagined security personnel at the hands of the Taliban has become quite common. The militants have also turned localities such as Manghopir, Sultanabad, Pakhtunabad, Kunwari Colony and Pirabad, into no-go areas for the police and outsiders. It is almost impossible to travel to these places unless someone living there is able to get clearance from both the law-enforcement agencies, mainly operating on the outer parts of these neighbourhoods, and the Taliban militants holding sway in the inner parts.

“The militants have either scared police personnel, informers and intelligence moles out of these localities or killed those who refused to leave,” says Nasir Mahmood, the station house officer at Manghopir police station. “The police and other law-enforcement agency personnel find it next to impossible to enter the inner streets of Kunwari Colony, Pakhtunabad and Sultanabad, especially when they need to go there to perform medico-legal duties or to remove a corpse from there,” he says. “The law enforcers, therefore, are clueless about what is actually happening there,” he adds.

Mahmood says the bodies of most people killed by the Taliban are dumped along the Manghopir Road — a risky area for the police to operate in as its patrol vans have often come under fire there, he says. The Herald could note the anxiety among policemen as they were retrieving Shabbir’s body. “The police and other law enforcers are routinely fired upon from the hills [overlooking where they were working],” an alert police constable explained.

Inside Kunwari Colony, the Taliban’s writ is so severe that people do not even venture out of their houses if the militants do not approve of it. When Bakht Khan, a resident of the colony, was killed by militants while they were exchanging fire with the police and Rangers on October 12, no one came out of his house to collect his body even 24 hours after his killing. Nearly 50 men were present in the house at the time to see off a member of his family for Hajj but none of them dared to step out, fearing this may upset the militants.

The Taliban are so dominant in the area that they are no longer operating secretly. “Just walk across the street and you will meet the people you are looking for.” This is how a constable posted at the entrance to Manghopir police station responds when the Herald asks him about the Taliban’s presence. Pasted inside a mosque in Sultanabad, a flier advises local shopkeepers and businessmen to contact Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Karachi Chapter, should the workers of any political group demand protection money from them. The flier carries a satellite phone number for traders to get in touch with the Taliban.

Elsewhere, the militants are themselves demanding and collecting protection money through what they call the Pakhtun Aman Jirga. An office of the jirga can be seen behind Malik Agha Hotel near al-Asif Square in Sohrab Goth. Altaf Khan, who rents out heavy machinery from a shop in Sohrab Goth, says the business community in his area is receiving, and complying with demands for money by the Taliban. “The militants are minting money from us under the garb of providing protection,” he says.

The Awami National Party (ANP), which until recently was the dominant political party in these neighbourhoods, seems to have accepted that it cannot compete with the Taliban. Its flags and other symbols have disappeared from the Pakhtun areas lying between Orangi and the Matric Board Office in Nazimabad.

Umer Farooq, a resident of Mohammad Khan Goth locality near Sohrab Goth, tells the Herald that TTP operatives sent a message to the ANP’s local leaders a few months ago. The message instructed them to remove their party’s flags and its graffiti, he says. The missive also told them to hand over their arms to the TTP representatives in their respective neighbourhoods, Farooq adds.

Initially, the ANP did try to resist these orders. But it gave up after the TTP started killing its main activists, forcing many of its leaders to leave those areas. Bashir Jan, ANP Sindh’s general secretary, says the Taliban have killed nearly 70 activists belonging to his party during the past few months. But he then adds that some of them were killed by “elements posing as Taliban”. Jan believes the killings are part of a conspiracy being hatched against the ANP in order to uproot it from Karachi.

A map of Karachi’s localities. Copyright DAWN GIS
A map of Karachi’s localities. Copyright DAWN GIS

His party’s workers on the ground, however, are certain about where the threat is coming from. Rehmat Khan Achakzai, president of ANP in Janjar Goth, located near Afghan Camp at the Super Highway, tells the Herald that the Taliban can target the party’s workers anywhere and at any time. He says the ANP’s members and activists do not have enough support in Pakhtun areas to withstand the Taliban.

Senior police officials, as well as government representatives, were equally dismissive when the Herald pointed out that four years ago Taliban sympathisers and militants fleeing military operation in the tribal agencies and in Swat were thronging Karachi’s Pakhtun localities, such as Sultanabad and Pakhtunabad. Since then, the militants have spread to several adjoining localities. The situation is so grave in most of these areas that people have completely given in to the Taliban’s writ. Four years ago, the residents of Sultanabad successfully defied the newcomers when they tried to impose their control in the area. But intelligence agency officials tell the Herald that no one dares defy the Taliban’s orders any more in Sultanabad and in other areas beyond it.

One reason why the Taliban have been able to instill such fear in the hearts of locals is because they carry and wield sophisticated arms and ammunition that no one can match — not even the law enforcers, according to local police and intelligence sources. Evidence collected from the site where sub-inspector Mohammad Ilyas was shot dead on September 21 this year, while he was manning a traffic police kiosk in the Manghopir area, suggests that he was attacked with a sniper’s rifle, fired from a hilltop. Intelligence officials say Ilyas was hit late in the evening when visibility was extremely low — this suggests that the militants who targeted him were probably using night-vision goggles, the officials add.

he other reason for the Taliban’s dominance going unchallenged is their ruthlessness. “The militants do not tolerate the slightest disobedience even from their staunch supporters,” says Farooq. He tells the Herald how a local prayer leader, who was also a supporter of the Taliban, was killed only because he talked to a stranger about their presence. Farooq says the Taliban later declared the prayer leader a martyr whose sacrifice, they said, was necessary to further their cause.

Javed Odho, Deputy Inspector General of Police in Karachi’s West Zone where the Taliban-infested localities lie, says police officials posted before him in the area did not take the threat seriously and did not strictly monitor the massive influx of displaced people from Khyper Pakhtunkhwa, tribal agencies and Swat. “Dozens of informal housing settlements and shanty towns have sprung up in Gadap Town along the Super Highway and on the outskirts of Manghopir and Landhi [where these displaced people now live],” he says and adds that the Taliban militants have been present in these settlements and slums from the beginning but they were not connected to each other until recently. Now there exists a proper TTP network in the city, Odho says.

The police’s failure to take them head-on before they could organise is a major reason why they have gained strength in the areas under their control. “The TTP militants became strong because nobody confronted them earlier,” Odho acknowledges. “Now when action against them is being taken, they are resisting,” he tells the Herald.

Odho, however, does not see the Taliban’s presence posing as big a problem as is seen by his subordinates or by local residents. He acknowledges that taking police action in some areas is challenging but hastens to add that attacks on police patrol vans have indeed decreased in many areas and that the collapsed intelligence network is being revived. “The Taliban are on the run now,” Odho adds.

Professor Fateh Mohammad Barfat, former head of the criminology department at Karachi University links Talbanisation of Karachi to unregulated residential settlements and slums. “60 per cent of Karachi’s population is living in slums, dividing it along ethnic and sectarian lines,” he says. The government, he explains, should make a policy for repatriating those who come to Karachi after being displaced by natural disasters and conflicts. “There is no other way of saving Karachi from a looming civil war,” adds Barfat.