The hitman did not bother to knock. He announced his arrival by firing a volley of shots through Salima Khan’s front door. Bullets ricocheted as she cowered in the kitchen. One of the rounds struck Zainab, her bright-eyed five-year-old, in the arm. A Molotov cocktail shattered and their tiny home began to burn. The family’s crime: belonging to the “wrong” ethnicity.
“They want to kill all the Pashtun,” says Mrs Khan, wiping away tears with her headscarf as she cradles her daughter. “I pray to God there will be peace in Karachi.” The charred body of a rickshaw driver from their Orangi Town neighbourhood was dumped in the street a day after the attack – a grisly portent that the gunmen will return.
A slow-burning war for control of one of the great economic engines of south Asia has burst back into life with a ferocity not seen since the mid-1980s, when Pakistan’s army acted to quell clashes on Karachi’s streets.
The killings are the bloody dividends of a long-running struggle between rival political parties with roots in the ethnic Pashtun and Mohajir communities. This summer, the violence has hit new heights. Shootings and grenade attacks in labyrinthine slums and hillside shanty towns claimed more than 300 lives in July, one of the worst monthly tolls on record. The deaths took the total killed in Karachi this year to more than 800, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a non-governmental organisation.
New murders occur daily. Asif Ali Zardari, the unpopular president, has proved powerless to pacify the country’s biggest city – the heart of its $160bn economy, the seat of its stock exchange and the home of an important Arabian Sea port.
Rehman Malik, the interior minister, earned widespread ridicule when he played down the significance of the mayhem by suggesting 70 per cent of the murders were committed by angry girlfriends or wives. In fact, the violence is a warning light for long-term prospects for stability in a country whose fate may have grave security implications for the west.
US and European concerns centre on Pakistan’s murky role in Afghanistan, its army’s ambiguous relationship with Islamist militants and the security of its nuclear arsenal. The risks posed by this volatile mix were highlighted in May when US Navy Seals assassinated Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda founder, who was hiding less than a mile from Pakistan’s military academy. Karachi’s politically instigated killings may seem parochial by comparison but they are a symptom of deeper conflicts that may ultimately play a greater role in shaping Pakistan’s destiny.
Like no other city, Karachi distils the mix of gun politics, ethnic tensions, sectarian strife, state weakness, militancy and organised crime that makes the whole country so fragile. It is these trends that will determine whether Pakistan’s hesitant journey from military rule to a semblance of democracy will deliver greater stability or deeper fragmentation. ….