Are Pakistani Taliban finding new foothold in south?
Analysts say political leaders could strengthen militants' appeal if they do not manage deep ethnic tensions – which resulted in clashes that killed 30 people last week.
Rows of jingle trucks and shanties line either side of the Super Highway as it pushes north from sea-swept Karachi into Pakistan's dusty interior. These are the homes and work vehicles of the city's growing ethnic Pashtun population – and, according to Haider Abbas Rizvi, they form a Taliban haven.Skip to next paragraph
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"I cannot dare enter this place. Nobody can, not even the police and the Rangers," says Mr. Rizvi, a member of Parliament with the secular MQM party. "This summer is going to be very hot – I don't know if [the fight] is going to be happening in the North [of Pakistan] or down here."
Though the Taliban operate mainly in Pakistan's northwestern tribal agencies and are battling the military near there, MQM leaders in this southern city are sounding the alarm that Pakistan's financial capital and main port will be the militants' next battleground.
They point to internal police memos and journalist reports that the Taliban are finding new sanctuary for their leadership, raising funds through criminal activities, and – with the influx of Pashtun refugees from Pakistan's war zones – deepening their pool of recruits by tapping into religious seminaries.
Some analysts caution that the MQM is overlaying anti-Taliban rhetoric on a long-running ethnic struggle within the city. Yet the ethnic divides here are cause for concern because they create rallying cries for organized violence, conditions the Taliban could exploit to disrupt this port on the Arabian Sea – and the nation's trade.
"If the Taliban wanted to destabilize Karachi, ethnic riots would be one of the first things they would do," says Ahmed Rashid, author of "Descent into Chaos." "By taking charge of the political leadership of that political movement, they could start taking over large chunks of Karachi."
Potential recruiting ground
For years, Karachi has been rocked by ethnic violence between Pashtuns and the dominant Mohajir community. Just last week, street fighting killed at least 30 people. Mr. Rashid echoes other analysts who see little new in this violence – but he would worry if the young men in religious seminaries, or madrasas, get involved.
"The madrasas are full of Taliban. The madrasas were not given a call to come out in the streets and take control of the streets, which they could do very easily," he says.
Karachi has an estimated 3,500 madrasas containing tens of thousands of students.
Mitigating the fears of Talibanization, though, is that madrasa students here come from other ethnic backgrounds, and that many Pashtuns have no use for the Taliban, notes Rashid.
"The majority of Pashtuns are moderates," he says. "They don't support the extremist Taliban."
Many of the 3.5 million Pashtuns in this city of 18 million have been in Karachi since the 1980s. They are primarily manual laborers and truckers running goods from the port to the rest of the country, including NATO supplies into Afghanistan.
Now, more Pashtuns are coming to Karachi due to the fighting in the Swat Valley and neighboring Bajaur. An additional half million civilians are expected to flee Swat following Tuesday's government-ordered evacuation. On Wednesday helicopter gunships and mortars pounded Taliban positions, with the military saying it killed about 35 militants in Swat and 27 in neighboring Buner. Four soldiers also died in the fighting.
Incoming Pashtuns have not been integrated smoothly into this deeply segregated city. Instead, ethnic-based land mafias battle in the streets over new areas to settle. In this struggle, the Pashtuns view the MQM-led government as stacked against them.
'Talibanization' as pretext?
Known as the Muttahida Quami Movement, the MQM rose to dominance over the city and wider region by representing the interests of the majority Mohajir community. The Mohajirs are Urdu-speakers who fled India when the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947.