In a dimly lit room of a third-floor flat in central Karachi, a young police officer walks up to a teenage boy accused of being an Islamist militant. The boy is tied to a chair while the officer waves a stack of papers in his face, describing it as evidence that links him to two armed robberies in Pakistan’s largest city.
“You have lived in Karachi for the past three months,” barks the policeman. “We know everything you did from the day you arrived. Soon, we’ll arrest other members of your gang.”
This interrogation, witnessed last month, followed months of lawlessness in Karachi, the sprawling industrial and commercial port city on the Arabian Sea that is home to 20m. The city accounts for as much as one-third of Pakistan’s economic activity, 95 per cent of foreign trade and 70 per cent of tax receipts and its industries include steel production, food processing and pharmaceuticals. It is Pakistan’s main centre of banking as well as home to the stock market.
The reputation of what was once one of Asia’s most vibrant cities is now built on something else: violence.
Armed robberies, shoot-outs between rival gangs and kidnappings for ransom “have become so commonplace that they don’t make the headlines any more”, complains a prominent Karachi businessman who asks to remain anonymous. “We just live with this as a fact of life.”
Since the start of September the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has launched a crackdown aimed at restoring some semblance of order to the city. On the day the International Monetary Fund granted Pakistan a $6.6bn loan to avert a balance of payments crisis, paramilitary forces and police commandos fanned out across some of the most violent neighbourhoods, hunting for religious and political militants and other criminals.
“The operation will be conducted on a now-or-never basis,” says Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister.
A senior interior ministry official, who asked not to be named, puts it even more bluntly, warning that the worst hit neighbourhoods are already out of the government’s control.
“If we don’t move in decisively to take charge, parts of Karachi will further slip out of control,” he says. “They won’t feel being part of our country any longer.”
The high-profile security operation has been triggered by frustration within the business community, which is anxious that investors could delay, or pull out of, long-term projects.
The violence, blamed on reasons from the political such as the rise of the Pakistan Taliban to criminality, is happening against a backdrop of economic woe in a city that has seen its population double over the past two decades.
“Islamic militancy is one factor,” says one Islamabad-based western diplomat who travels to Karachi. “But this is also a city where the economy has broken down badly, opportunities for poor people have shrunk and there is no rule of law. The way conditions have evolved in Karachi has been a recipe for disaster.”
Karachi’s main political parties have long used strong arm tactics to reinforce control. Opponents of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) led by Altaf Hussain, who lives in exile in London, say the party deploys armed gangs to fight members of rival groups seeking to make inroads in MQM-dominated areas. MQM politicians in turn blame their opponents for the trouble, accusing Pashto-speakers loyal to the Awami National Party (ANP) of fomenting unrest in Karachi.
Ishratul Ibad, governor of Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, offered to resign on Saturday in protest against the targeting of young MQM activists in the campaign.
The violence has been fuelled by the availability of thousands of young unemployed men ready to be recruited by political or criminal gangs, say observers.
A Karachi government official tells the Financial Times that ironically the presence of more big businesses in the city generates more revenue for the criminal gangs.
“The sheer size of Karachi generates much more for the gangs in protection money from wealthy businessmen who are happy to pay the criminals as long as their interests are protected,” he says. “The problem increasingly is that there are so many gangs in Karachi that paying off one does not guarantee against pressure from another.”
Few doubt the need to control the violence to boost sagging international confidence in Pakistan’s economy and society.
As recently as the 1990s western businessmen routinely travelled to Karachi and airlines ferried business visitors and tourists to the city, but now western business representatives usually meet their Pakistani counterparts in the safer surroundings of Dubai.
More than 1,700 were killed violently in Karachi during the first half of 2013, from more than 1,200 in the same period last year, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the main independent watchdog.
But even that may be an underestimate. A senior police official tells the FT that the HRCP estimate excludes victims of violence whose cases are not reported to the police. “The actual number may be 2,500 killings this year [during the first half of 2013],” says the official.
Even if the crackdown reduces crime and political violence, it will take a long time to restore confidence in Pakistan’s biggest city, according to both Pakistani and foreign observers.
Nasir Ali Shah Bukhari, chairman of the Karachi-based Khadim Ali Shah Bukhari business group with interests in banking and the stock market, says a clean-up operation is essential to improve law and order, and economic prospects. “Businessmen need assurances of conditions improving in Karachi before investor confidence will be restored,” he says.
Additional reporting by Victor Mallet in New Delhi