- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 29, 2010


It isn’t as though Karachi hasn’t seen it all before.

In the convulsive migrations immediately after World War II, the Pakistani city played a largely unreported role. The few Western visitors to what had been only months before a sleepy little fishing port and railhead saw an awesome spectacle after 1947: a vast human migration and largely improvised shelters stretching as far as the eye could see. Writer Arthur Koestler noted at the time that exiting a plane from an international flight there was like getting hit in the face with a warm diaper.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims sought refuge when the last British viceroy, Louis Lord Mountbatten, precipitously cleaved Imperial India into two independent states. The grim vista in Karachi spread out from the temporary grave of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s first leader, a secularist who attempted to build a state on the basis of Muslim identity.

It wasn’t as if Pakistan’s Siamese twin, the new Republic of India, was not facing equally vast problems at the same time. When perhaps as many as 2 million died on both sides in the bloody partition, survivors fled in all directions. But India — five times larger than its new neighbor — had retained more of the colonial heritage, including British architect Edwin Lutyens’ grand New Delhi government buildings. Pakistan’s capital in Karachi — politicians later moved it as far north as possible — was as improvised as everything else in the new country. And unlike the Arabs fighting Zionists in Palestine who became a permanent international charge at just about the same time, Karachi’s “UPwallahs” (named after their former home in United Provinces, now India’s Uttar Pradesh) were largely forgotten. The world was too busy elsewhere.

Somehow Karachi and Pakistan survived, a testament to fatalistic suffering on the subcontinent. But now a new human wave is descending on the world’s largest — nearing 20 million — and most tempestuous megalopolis. The Indus Valley’s worst floods ever have displaced some 20 million people. Most are subsistence farmers with little to go back to after the water subsides and likely to swell Karachi’s already overwhelming burden. Local authorities have said they could absorb a million refugees. But that’s likely wild-eyed optimism — minimizing the numbers and overestimating the infrastructure.

This time, too, the rest of the world is caught up in a dozen other major and numberless minor crises — not least a worldwide economic recession. But the international community ignores what happens in Karachi at its peril.

It is the major commercial and manufacturing center and the only port of a poor, nuclear-armed country of more than 170 million, a country already beset by domestic terrorism linked to the war next door in Afghanistan from which it cannot disentangle itself. It’s from Karachi that supplies for American and NATO troops fighting terrorists in Afghanistan begin their hazardous thousand-mile overland trek.

Those terrorists have demonstrated agility in employing technology and adapting to counter Washington’s efforts, suggesting they could establish roots in urban environments just as they have successfully employed more and more native Western agents. Karachi’s Pashtun industrial work force — augmented by recent refugees from the Northwest Frontier where their kin shelter al Qaeda — is already an important base for the terrorists. Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of the Afghanistan Taliban and the movement’s operations chief, was reportedly captured there in February.

The terrorists seek to exploit Karachi’s seething ethnic frictions, as well as resentments over poverty and rising crime. The Aug. 19 assassination of Ubaidullah Yusufzai, a leader of the secularist Awami National Party, led to communal rioting. That followed a wave of political killings after the Aug. 2 murder of Syed Raza Haider. Haider was a leader of the Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), recruited from those Urdu-speaking post-independence refugees and their progeny now called muhajirs. The MQM has dominated Karachi politics. But it’s telling that the movement’s charismatic leader, Altaq Hussein, stays in London, apparently for his personal safety, leading the party via electronic media. Adding to this explosive potential is that the new wave of refugees is mostly Sindhi, Karachi’s third ethnic component, the indigenous regional people who are still the majority in the flooded hinterland.

The terrorists have already threatened foreign aid providers, while maximizing their own ability to woo villagers caught now by the flood as well as the military clashes. The recent murder of eight American and British volunteers in Afghanistan only makes the threat that much more credible.

British Muslims of South Asian ancestry and others have contributed generously to relief funds. The U.S. government has donated $200 million, some of it switched from $7.5 billion aid promised over the next five years, and contributed personnel and aircraft to rescue efforts. But the enormity of the tragedy and Pakistan’s ineffective bureaucracy limit effective relief. President Asif Ali Zardari, adding to his reputation for notorious corruption, continued a foreign trip as the floods struck. The military, Pakistan’s only effective national institution, has promised to shift resources from its campaign against insurgents and its permanent deployment against India. MQM leader Hussein has called for martial law in a country in which the military has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its history.

However horrendous the immediate impact, the longer-term effects on Karachi will be critical — not only for Pakistan, but also for American and world security.

Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He can be reached at solsanders@cox.net.

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