The difference between Karachi and the Tribal Areas
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The difference between Karachi and the Tribal Areas

Without being too presumptuous, it’s fair to say that most readers of this blog share my belief that sending the Army into Karachi to quell the violence there would be absolutely disastrous. Furthermore, it’s also perhaps fair to say that most readers of this blog believe, as I do, that the military’s heavy-handedness in Balochistan is pernicious, counter-productive and dumb. And going back in history, it’s also perhaps fair to say that most readers of this blog look upon our military’s actions in Bengal in 1971 with a mixture of shame, disgust and embarrassment, as I do.

And yet, when it comes to the war in the tribal areas, I disagree strongly with the notion — forwarded by the likes of Imran Khan — that the military has no role to play. Why is that? What explains the difference?

At the outset, it’s important to say that one’s evaluations of the goals of non-state violence should not be allowed to enter the discussion. You can’t say “Well, the Bengalis’ demands were legitimate but the Taliban’s are not.” That’s cheating. What you and I may find legitimate may not be viewed as the same by others. The goals of the organization — whether it be the Mukti Bahini, MQM, the Mengals or the Mehsuds — deflect from what is truly at stake: that violence is being committed by non-state actors, and the state must choose how to respond. That’s the basic framework here.

So with that in mind, why the different prescriptions for the army to respond in one area but not another? This question is harder to answer than it appears on first glance, at least for me, because any purported explanation you give for military action against the Taliban can just as easily be applied to the other cases.

For instance, one could claim that the Taliban are barbaric and retrogade, and as such force needs to be a part of the equation. But it’s not as if Balochi tribal leaders are secular humanists par excellence. Or one could claim that all other options have been tried with the Taliban — including peace deals, non-aggression pacts and the like — to no avail, which necessitates military action. But then you could make the same case for Karachi, where negotiations, meetings, polite pleas for “miscreants to leave the city” (this actually happened), bargaining, and police action have done precisely nothing to stem the killings.

I think the strongest case one can mount for military action in the tribal areas while simultaneously calling for the military to stay out of Karachi and Balochistan goes something like this: the stuff the military is trained to do, i.e. fight a war, is most closely approximated by conditions in FATA, rather than Karachi and Balochistan. In FATA, there are/were actual towns and villages held in their entirety by elements seeking the overthrow of existing structures of authority. Under those circumstances, you need an army to — and I apologize for borrowing from US military language — “clear, hold and build”. This is what wars look like: the enemy takes over certain territory, and then you have to fight it take it back.

On the other hand, I am not convinced that the stuff we see in Balochistan or Karachi is a “war”. Certainly if Balochistan is a war, it’s the military itself that has made it one, with torture, disappearances, bodies dumped on roadsides and so on. But imagine, if you can, the military never seriously using force in the province, whether we’re talking about Bhutto’s brilliance in dismissing the provincial government in 1973 or Musharraf’s gung-ho-ism in the 2000s (“This is not the 1970s. We will hit them so hard that they will not even know what hit them”). In this alternate reality, I simply don’t believe that Balochistan would be the issue it is today. It certainly wouldn’t look like a “war”.

Karachi is an even clearer case. We’re not really seeing a war, in the traditional sense — even if there happens to be a a lot of violence. It’s more a series of mini gang-wars, who happen to be connected to political parties. Criminal networks and parties happen to use each other when convenient, but don’t always act in synergy. In this confusing environment, blunt force is likely to be highly, highly counter-productive.

The ironic thing about the conflict in Karachi is that both the actors involved, as well as the stakes of the dispute, would normally engender non-violent competition. Who are the main players involved? Political parties. Mainstream political parties. And what are they fighting over? Seats, turf, political power, control. In normal countries, when political parties fight over seats and power, they do it with these things called “elections” and “campaigns”. This is one of the central promises of democratic systems: that disputes, rather than causing mass violence, get resolved through negotiations by stakeholders who have been given mandates by the ballot-box. Democracy is supposed to take the steam out of conflicts, but not in Karachi I guess.


Karachi, not normal. Photo: AP

Anyway, to return to the main point, I think the military is simply out of its depth in areas like Balochistan and Karachi, where the violence cannot be tackled by the instruments and tactics that the military is known to employ. By contrast, fighting in FATA resembles in some sense the military’s mission. Obviously the military can’t be the only or even most important piece of the puzzle — a better and more efficient judicial system, a less corrupt police force, better governance, and the extension of real rights and responsibilities to the local citizenry would arguably go a lot further than military action. But in my humble opinion, to minimize the capabilities of militant organizations such as the Taliban, the military has to be part of the solution. Lord knows it’s been part of the problem.