Will Karachi Become the Next Waziristan?
Below is the latest article in a monthly series that Michael Kugelman is writing for Foreign Policy's South Asia Channel on possible post-2014 scenarios for Afghanistan. This one focuses on the possibility of rising urban militancy in Pakistan.
On May 5, an American FBI agent named Joel Cox was arrested in the Pakistani megacity of Karachi. The charge? Attempting to board a flight to Islamabad with ammunition and knives in his carry-on baggage. The Pakistani media immediately drew comparisons between Cox's case and that of Raymond Davis -- the CIA spy jailed in 2011 after gunning down two Pakistanis in Lahore.
However, Cox's legal travails, unlike those of Davis, didn't last long. He was granted bail on May 8, and his case was dismissed on May 19. Cox's lawyer contended that his client was in Karachi on a "special mission" that allowed him to carry weapons -- and a judge concurred.
If this is true, then Cox was in Pakistan for a very good reason.
Pakistan's cities are suffering from relentless, and in some cases unprecedented, levels of violence. In 2013, Karachi's terrorist violence increased by 90 percent. The city's 2,700 casualties from violence that year represented a new record. Meanwhile, some of the deadliest sectarian attacks in the country over the last year have occurred in Peshawar and Quetta. Furthermore, many Pakistani cities are convulsed by bloodshed stemming from ethnic conflict and organized crime. These alone are daunting challenges for law enforcement.
And yet with most international troops withdrawing from neighboring Afghanistan, the difficult job of Pakistani city police officers is bound to become even tougher. The drawdown is likely to deepen instability not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal belt, but also -- thanks to the dynamics of Pakistan's rapid urbanization -- in Pakistan's teeming cities.
Consider that Pakistan is urbanizing at an annual rate of 3 percent -- the fastest pace in South Asia. Karachi's population grew 80 percent between 2000 and 2010 -- the biggest increase of any city in the world. According to U.N. estimates, roughly a third of Pakistan's population is currently urban-based, yet in about 10 years, that figure is expected to be nearly 50 percent (using strictly density-based definitions of urban space, Pakistan is already 60 to 65 percent urban today).
This urbanization can be attributed to various factors, from a natural increase in the overall population (which is rising at a nearly 2 percent annual clip) to rural residents seeking better economic opportunities and fleeing natural disasters. However, as I explain in Pakistan's Runaway Urbanization, a new Wilson Center report, there are two other chief -- yet less acknowledged -- drivers: war and conflict. Simply put, regional unrest tends to trigger mass migrations to Pakistani cities.
This is a long-standing dynamic. Six to eight million Indian Muslims entered Pakistan at partition, with many settling in the urban areas of Sindh and Punjab provinces. Similar influxes occurred during wars with India in 1965 and 1971. Then, in the 1980s, amid the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan, several million Afghans flowed into western Pakistan, with many ending up in Quetta and Peshawar. Finally, more recently, military offensives in Pakistan's tribal areas have triggered an exodus of people to Peshawar, Quetta, and Karachi.
What sets these latest rural-to-urban refugee flows apart from earlier ones is that militants are increasingly migrating along with civilians. Hundreds -- maybe thousands -- have been converging on Karachi alone over the last few years. According to some estimates, 8,000 Pakistani Taliban (TTP) fighters were there by 2012. They use the city as a fundraising and recruitment center, and, increasingly, as a base for attacks.
Pakistan's urban spaces offer incoming TTP forces a welcome and enabling environment. Urban society is rapidly radicalizing -- thanks in part to a young and growing, yet largely conservative middle class, and to the hardline messages of wildly popular, urban-based, private television channels. Not surprisingly, militant organizations are extending their reach across Pakistani cities. Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper, reported in March that the TTP wields some form of influence over most ethnic Pashtun-populated parts of Karachi (several million of Karachi's 18 million people are Pashtuns). And according to the Wall Street Journal, the TTP "controls or dominates" nearly a third of the city altogether. Predictably, numerous extremist organizations -- including al Qaeda -- are actively recruiting from within Pakistan's urban middle class. In sum, militancy has become entrenched in Pakistani cities, and is no longer a strictly tribal-belt affair.
And yet soon, this could all get much worse. Next year, Afghanistan's fate will be left in the hands of fragile Afghan security forces. They will face emboldened enemies in the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network, which continue to enjoy sanctuaries in North Waziristan. And if the statements of militant commanders and South Asian government officials are to be believed, these enemies will receive operational support from the Pakistani Taliban, Punjab-based sectarian militants, and even Indian jihadists.
We now know that if Washington concludes a bilateral security agreement with Kabul, President Obama will leave nearly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan next year, before withdrawing them in 2016. While certainly helpful, this residual presence would ultimately amount to a modest, non-combat, temporary force lacking the capacity and mandate to stabilize Afghanistan in a major way. For all these reasons, we can expect Afghanistan's security situation to worsen after this year.
Given the large, porous Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier, we can also expect that this increased unrest will spill into Pakistan and displace communities on both sides of the border. And based on past history, we can assume that many of these refugees will migrate to Pakistani cities.
Admittedly, Afghan refugees may have more trouble doing so this time around as the Pakistani government is implementing new measures to reduce Afghan migration into the country. New border screening rules are going into effect, and housing acquisition procedures are becoming stricter. Already, in Karachi, officials are tracking down illegal Afghan immigrants. And in Islamabad, bulldozers have dismantled Afghan settlements.
Whether these measures achieve their objective remains to be seen. Yet even if they do, we can still expect scores of tribal-area Pakistanis -- displaced by intensified cross-border attacks and other fighting that spills over the border -- to converge on cities. Many would be Pashtuns, and those ending up in Karachi could further aggravate the city's volatile ethnic mix, which has already spawned violent competition (much of it fought over precious land) between the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a political party that is dominated by Mohajirs, and the Awami National Party, which is mainly made up of Pashtuns.
Tribal area inhabitants could also pour into urban areas to escape from Pakistani military offensives, which are bound to pick up now that Islamabad's peace overtures to the TTP have ceased, and from vicious intra-TTP fighting -- which also stands to intensify given the organization's increasingly fractured state.
Meanwhile, militants, particularly those gunning for new targets as U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, could be preparing for future assaults on cities in Pakistan's populous eastern and southern regions. A recent Pakistani intelligence report claims that al Qaeda and the TTP are planning to use the Indus River to transfer arms and ammunition from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province to Sindh and Punjab. And the TTP is relocating large numbers of forces not only to Karachi, but also to southern Punjab -- a hotbed of sectarian and anti-India militancy.
As underscored in Pakistan's Runaway Urbanization, new arrivals in Pakistani cities will further tax the ability of municipal authorities to provide basic services and natural resources. Even now, some of Pakistan's urban poor can only access enough water to meet one-fifth of daily human drinking water requirements. City power shortages are incessant. Nearly 50 percent of city residents live in slums. Six percent of urban Pakistanis have no latrines, and 95 percent do not have their garbage collected. And masses of young urbanites -- in a country of 180 million, where two-thirds are under the age of 30 -- face a national labor market that creates less than 700,000 new jobs a year. The upshot? Pakistani cities could soon be awash with unemployed youth facing acute privation, a demographic primed for radicalization.
This all places a tremendous burden on Pakistani police forces, which have a checkered record. On the one hand, they boast efficient officers and fearless terrorist-hunting commanders such as the late Chaudhry Aslam, who was killed in a Karachi bomb attack in January. For this reason, Pakistani activists and international analysts alike have called for a more decentralized Pakistani policing model that gives officers more autonomy to do their jobs. Yet on the other hand, the police are undeniably corrupt and given to idly standing by while the vulnerable citizens they are meant to protect -- from women and schoolgirls to religious minorities -- are mercilessly attacked.
According to Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan's minister for planning, development, and reform, the government is addressing policing issues, including "smart policing," community policing, and citizen-police liaison committees. This is a start. Yet much more needs to done.
As for FBI agent Joel Cox and his "special mission" to train police? He was doing his small part to help Pakistani law enforcement prepare for a looming and formidable challenge -- one that promises to come into sharp focus next year.