KARACHI, Feb 2014 — The Pakistani Taliban have tightened their grip over the country’s commercial hub, officials and residents said, despite a five-month government crackdown here.
On Thursday, tentative peace talks with the government were thrown into disarray when the militants claimed responsibility for a roadside bombing that killed at least 12 police officers when the bus taking them to duty was destroyed near the city’s southeastern Landhi neighborhood, an area the Taliban dominate.
Karachi is likely to pay a steeper price if efforts by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government to forge a peace deal with the al Qaeda affiliate’s leadership in tribal areas collapse and a military operation is launched there.
“If the peace talks fail, we fear that a big terrorism wave will hit Karachi,” said Raja Umar Khattab, a senior officer in the counterterrorism Crime Investigation Department of the Karachi police.
The Pakistani Taliban are a national threat, with Karachi providing the group a vital financial lifeline. Money raised in Karachi from extortion, land-grabbing, kidnapping and robberies is sent to the group’s leadership in the tribal areas along the Afghan border, security officials said.
The January assassination of Karachi’s most prominent counterterrorism police officer, Chaudhry Aslam, showcased the militants’ reach and had a chilling effect on the police force, officers said.
“Everyone now is at a loss about who will step into Chaudhry Aslam’s shoes,” said Omar Shahid Hamid, a senior counterterrorism officer now on leave. “He had become a symbol, someone who is standing up to [Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan]
In January, the militant group attacked police officers, shot and killed three journalists, repeatedly bombed paramilitary Rangers who are helping carry out the crackdown, gunned down three polio-vaccination workers, and slit the throats of six devotees visiting a shrine. Karachi police said 27 officers were killed in January, after 168 were killed last year.
Mr. Sharif, concerned that his economic-revival plans would be undermined by spreading mayhem, initiated the security operation in September. Karachi, a fast-growing city of at least 20 million, has a huge industrial base, the country’s only major port and is the nation’s center of banking and finance.
Some officers said they fear local political support is fading for the Karachi operation, which they view as a last chance to regain control of the city from TTP and other militias. The operation’s implementation depends largely on the Sindh provincial government, which is run by the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, and which controls Karachi’s police. There are signs of tension between the Rangers, who answer to Islamabad, and the provincial government, which is based in Karachi, security officials and politicians said.
“This is a difficult path,” said Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, visiting Karachi on Thursday. “But, God willing, we will bring peace back to Karachi.”
Ahmed Chinoy, head of the Citizens Police Liaison Committee, a statutory body that works with the police to reduce crime, said parts of Karachi were still too dangerous for regular patrols, while the crackdown targeted regular crime. “While the focus of the operation was on other crimes, the militants got breathing space and took advantage.”
Last year, five different police chiefs served Karachi, disrupting the battle against crime. The current chief, Shahid Hayat, said that at any given time, he had about 7,000 officers available to be deployed on the streets, out of a total force strength of 27,000—9,000 officers are kept on personal security duty for politicians and other officials.
It is only in recent weeks, he added, that the operation has shifted focus to jihadi groups such as TTP.
“I’m being asked to control Karachi with such small numbers of police,” said Mr. Hayat. “Policemen are being killed day in, day out. But we’re still fighting.”
More than 13,000 people have been arrested in the sweep since September, in more than 10,000 raids by police and the paramilitary Rangers force, the provincial Sindh government said. But officials and residents said it has left largely untouched the poor outlying neighborhoods that remain under TTP control, encircling the city, including one adjacent to the new U.S. Consulate compound.
TTP is the most aggressive armed group operating in multiethnic Karachi, alongside the ethnic Baluch gangs in Lyari, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a party that represents the descendants of Muslim migrants from current India, and that has traditionally dominated Karachi politics.
The Karachi security operation led to the arrest of just 63 TTP members through the end of January, police said. That compared with the arrest of 296 people affiliated with the MQM, 101 with links to the Awami National Party—a secular Pashtun political party—and 171 members of Lyari gangs.
Sharfuddin Memon, the adviser to the Sindh provincial chief minister on security issues, said the operation had led to a 50% drop in assassinations and kidnapping for ransom in the city. He said police “morale is high” but the conviction rate for serious crimes is just 5%.
“There has been an impact from the operation, but if we don’t sustain it, we are in trouble,” said Mr. Memon.
Research by The Wall Street Journal, based on conversations with security officials and urban planners, shows TTP still control or dominate about 470 square miles of Karachi, or nearly a third of its area, where at least 2.5 million people live.
TTP’s sway in Karachi extends right up to Saddar—the city center—and into areas such as Sultanabad, a ramshackle community next to the new U.S. Consulate compound.
These are districts with a majority population of Pashtuns, the same ethnic group as TTP’s leadership. These areas that encircle the city include Baldia and the Sindh Industrial Trading Estate to the west and Gadap in the north. Residents in these areas said TTP’s hold had gotten stronger over the past year.
“There’s been no action against the main body of the TTP, just against some smaller factions,” said Khawaja Izharul Hassan, a provincial MQM lawmaker.
In addition to the main TTP faction from the Mehsud tribe of South Waziristan in the tribal areas, long established in Karachi, the city is increasingly plagued by another TTP faction from the Mohmand tribal area, police officers said, along with TTP Swat.
Islamist militants also have influence over some non-Pashtun districts of the city, such as Lyari in the southwest where TTP ally Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has a base. TTP has an ability to stage attacks across Karachi.
TTP dominates 33 of Karachi’s 178 administrative units—known as union councils— security officials said. These tend to be the larger, peripheral, districts, with ever expanding shanty settlements that eat into the surrounding desert. The militants are also now getting more educated recruits, including non-Pashtuns, and spreading to neighboring areas outside Karachi, including Hub to the west and Jamshoro to the northeast.
In the areas it controls, TTP is levying a tax on residents and businesses, said a businessman in Sohrab Goth, a Taliban-run neighborhood just north of the city center.
The militant group has set up courts in neighborhoods to resolve disputes, which give written judgments, handling matters that include disagreements over land ownership and regulating levels of theft from power lines that they allow, residents said.
“The Taliban milk money from their own communities,” the businessman said. “They have calculated the worth of every person here.”
For instance, on a monthly income of 40,000 rupees ($380), TTP takes a levy of 1,000 rupees. Concentrate blocks made for use in construction—a major business in the Pashtun areas—are sold for 18 rupees each, of which three rupees goes to the Taliban. The businessman said TTP’s hold had hardened over the past year.
“The Taliban have complete control of Karachi,” said Bashir Jan, a senior member of the Awami National Party, the main secular Pashtun political party in the city. “They can go anywhere and do what they want.”