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A paramilitary soldier walks past the site of a suicide bomb attack in Karachi on Sept. 19, 2011. (Athar Hussain / Reuters/Athar Hussain / Reuters)
A paramilitary soldier walks past the site of a suicide bomb attack in Karachi on Sept. 19, 2011. (Athar Hussain / Reuters/Athar Hussain / Reuters)

Karachi: bellwether for Pakistan, a country on the brink Add to ...

Karachi is one of the largest cities in the world, home to 17-million people, give or take a million. It is the economic engine of Pakistan, responsible for three-quarters of its economy. It is the bellwether for a precarious nation – as Karachi goes, so goes Pakistan, they like to say here.

It’s also, according to a recent report from global human resources consulting firm Mercer, South Asia’s lowest-ranking city for personal safety and the sixth most dangerous city in the world. It has had no elected government for more than 18 months, after the last one dissolved in bickering over electoral reform.

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What it does have is at least a half-dozen powerful political forces vying to control it, each with an armed wing. And each, for reasons of their own, will on occasion turn those forces loose: More than 1,000 people have died in 2011 of gunshots, explosions or torture. Some of that killing is criminal, some is ethnic, some is political.

In Karachi, the three are all but inseparable.

In the eyes of the pessimists, Karachi is a harbinger of the hell that will be the third-world megalopolis, a city irreparably fractured on ethnic lines, where the urban promise of social mobility can’t be met, and the “melting pot” weakening of ethnic loyalties never happens, because kinship networks have to provide services like security and education that the state can’t.

But some of its denizens will tell you that there’s hope for Karachi.

“The parties here are the ones that can negotiate an end to the violence – it sounds strange, but it’s where you should be in a transition to democracy,” says Haris Gazdar, an economist and one of the city’s brightest young thinkers. “Is the glass half-full or half-empty? You can worry about people turning the violence on whenever they want to but I look at it the opposite way – it means they can turn it off whenever they want to.”

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‘THIS ENTIRE CITY SUFFERS FROM SUBCLINICAL DEPRESSION AND POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS’

Dr. Haroon Ahmed is president of the Pakistan Association of Mental Health and one of the country’s 425 psychiatrists. He treats wealthy patients in the city’s leafy seaside south, and also runs a free clinic in a poor section of the city.

He says he has seen a steady deterioration in the mental health of Karachiites through his career. “The society is brutalized. Kids either do drugs or become religious extremists – fight or flight.”

Most of the city’s population exhibits the forgetfulness and irritability that characterizes chronic low-grade depression, he said; in communities without the language to talk about mental health, they describe perpetual “fever in the bones.”

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FOUR POWERS: A LOOK AT FOUR OF THE LEADING FACTIONS THAT DRIVE POLITICS -- AND VIOLENCE -- IN KARACHI

Pakistan People’s Party

The PPP clearly hopes that if democracy takes root, electoral politics will help to make up for its comparative lack of military muscle and smaller share of the criminal pie.

“There is a climate of fear all around and there are prejudices – they eat up the capacity to think rationally. So if a Pashtun dies, that is okay for a Muhajir and if a Muhajir dies that is okay for a Pashtun,” says Taj Haider, a former senator with the party and its secretary-general in the province of Sindh. He works all day with a giant portrait of slain president Benazir Bhutto propped on his desk, but he’s oddly optimistic anyway.

“In a democratic setup the [gangs]have no option but to participate. Electronic voting is coming – you can’t occupy polling stations, you need to go to the public and win hearts: they will have to transform themselves.”

Muttahida Qaumi Movement

The MQM considers itself the natural ruling party of Karachi – and many observers believe the outbreaks of violence in the city over the last six months stem from the party’s sense that it is losing its demographic edge, that it unleashed its foot soldiers in a bid to remind the city of what it is capable.

The MQM represents the “Muhajirs”, the Urdu-speaking group who migrated from India at partition and are perhaps half the population of the city – but new Pashtun, Baloch and Sindhi migrants pour in all the time, the impoverished and landless dispossessed drawn by the possibilities of the city.

The MQM political wing is run by its authoritarian founder, Altaf Hussain, who lives in exile in the UK; the party is secular and bills itself as the agent of the middle class, working against feudalism. The armed wing is estimated by security agencies to be 10,000 full-time fighters, and another 25,000 in reserve.

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