Pakistani City Becomes Suspected Taliban Hot Spot

Pakistani paramilitary troops patrol a tense area of Karachi in April 2009, after armed ethnic clash i i

Pakistani paramilitary troops patrol a tense area of Karachi in April 2009, after armed ethnic clashes between Pashtun and Urdu-speaking groups left at least 34 people dead in Pakistan's financial capital, Karachi. Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistani paramilitary troops patrol a tense area of Karachi in April 2009, after armed ethnic clash

Pakistani paramilitary troops patrol a tense area of Karachi in April 2009, after armed ethnic clashes between Pashtun and Urdu-speaking groups left at least 34 people dead in Pakistan's financial capital, Karachi.

Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

The more nostalgic residents of Karachi call it the "City of Lights" — a balmy port on the Arabian Sea. It's also Pakistan's largest city and the country's main economic engine.

Now, it's also become a suspected Taliban hot spot, where its large migrant population has come under suspicion.

Karachi has long attracted outsiders, among them tens of thousands of ethnic Pashtuns fleeing war in both Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan. The authorities in Karachi say the latest wave of migrants contains more than refugees.

In the city's latticework of no-go zones, the area known as Sohrab Goth holds its own peculiar terror.

In a crackdown on pro-Taliban militants in the neighborhood last year, the suspects took policemen hostage, killing two of them and seriously wounding the chief of the city's anti-violent-crime unit, says Hassan Abdullah, crime reporter for Pakistan's Dawn Television News.

Caldron Of Crime

He says the notorious shantytown's caldron of crime — with its dueling mafia groups, political parties and the police — provides cover for the militants.

Roughly 200,000 Pashtuns live in Sohrab Goth. Yet many of these migrants are not registered and so don't officially exist. Hassan says jihadis who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s are here along with the members of the Pakistani Taliban who are battling Pakistan's army in the Pashtun-speaking North-West Frontier province.

"Day by day, new groups seem to be emerging," Hassan says. "And now they seem to have a single point agenda of first ... expelling what they call the invaders — or the allies of the invaders — and then imposing a system of their choice."

In this southern port city, the militants can stay well out of the reach of the Americans, their drones and the Pakistan army.

Pakistan's largest spare parts market for heavy machinery has sprouted up in the middle of the forsaken neighborhood. Sewage runs in the streets. Electricity is siphoned from an ingeniously jury-rigged pole. Lifeless drapes hang half in, half out of the bent and broken windows of apartment blocks.

Yet the streets are alive on a recent Sunday morning. Alleyways spring to life with ear-popping earthmovers, while mangy dogs dodge traffic and donkey carts buzz with fly-encrusted sweets.

Judging from the chaos, it wouldn't seem difficult for a militant to melt into the maw of this refugee community where there is not a policeman in sight.

The Invisible Taliban

Hassan says the Taliban might as well be invisible.

"If a dozen people are standing right now, how do you tell who's a militant and who's not? None of them may be militants. All of them may be militant, or a few of them may be militants. You can't tell," he says.

Pashtun passersby — their woolen shawls tightly wrapped against the morning chill — pay no heed to outsiders slowly cruising the warren of potholed lanes.

"And if you were to be surrounded in this area, there's absolutely no way for you to escape from here," Hassan says. "And it doesn't take much for ... you to be accused of being a spy. There's lot of skepticism in this area. You know, skepticism [and] poverty can be a very deadly combination."

Hassan says the Pashtuns who have been in Karachi since the Soviet-Afghan war feel a keen alienation.

"They still feel they are not being provided with education, health facilities, social support, and there's sometimes a feeling that there is a deliberate attempt [at] social stratification ... to keep them out of the society. That doesn't help them. That doesn't help in fighting crime. That doesn't help in fighting militancy," Hassan says.

Karachi Mayor Mustafa Kamal says more than two dozen cells of Taliban militants have been broken up in what he insists is a creeping Talibanization of his city. He says the latest arrivals have sneaked in disguised as refugees displaced by the fighting in South Waziristan along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

Pakistan's Fate Tied To Karachi's?

"We cannot hide and close our eyes to ... the dangers here in Karachi. No, if Karachi destabilizes, the whole country destabilizes because we generate 70 percent of the whole country's revenue," Kamal says.

The mayor and his supporters say the estimated 150,000 Afghan Pashtuns who are not properly registered should be removed.

But veteran diplomat Zafar Hilaly rejects the insinuation that the Pashtun population at large is in league with the Taliban.

"They do not support the extremism of the Taliban, and I think it's a slur on the name of the Pashtun to bracket them as Taliban," Hilaly says.

But he does acknowledge that there are elements within the Pashtuns who do sympathize, support and help the militants.

Zabit Khan, 30, says he exemplifies what most Pashtuns think of the Taliban and that painting his community with the broad brush of the militancy is deeply offensive. Khan says his family sought refuge in Karachi from the Pakistani tribal agency of Orakzai when it was overrun by the Taliban, whom Khan says were systematically killing the educated class.

"My brother was a doctor trying to help people understand that the militants were only fooling them," Khan says. "They kidnapped him and when we could not deliver the ransom in 24 hours, they killed him. They are slaughtering good men and are not sincere."

Karachi has been largely spared attacks by the Taliban that have afflicted others parts of Pakistan. Analysts suspect the Taliban is using Karachi to rest and regroup. Hilaly, the former ambassador, says the militants have made a conscious decision to leave Karachi alone.

"Karachi is the place where they receive a lot of money from. So why should they come and disturb the scene in Karachi?" he says.

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