Karachi: Organized Crime in a Key Megacity – II

Crime and terror groups are key non-state actors in Karachi and employ crime and violence to achieve political and economic gains.

The analysis differs from others who suggest that crime and terror groups have stepped into a power void. It suggests that the political parties rather than the crime and terror groups are at the forefront of violent and criminalized politics.

Nazia Hussain and Louise Shelley

Organized Crime and Politics in Karachi

Crime groups play an integral role in the political economy of the city, along with their role in land and water issues as mentioned above. In the violent politics of Karachi, their implicit and explicit support to political players gives the party structural “enforcers” who may carry out violence against opponents. This recalls the role of the yakuza in pre-world War II Japan who were used by forces loyal to the emperor to silence opponents. As in the case of Japan in the 1930s, this support provided to the existing power structure reflects the fact that leaders of crime groups believe in the idea of the state and thus are interested in remaining within the political system. This is in contrast to terrorist groups like the TTP, founded in 2008, that seeks to establish a Sharia state in Pakistan. In line with its stated objective, it has a more destructive approach to the existing political order.

This approach to the state differentiates criminals from terrorists. Because criminal groups provide services that have been ceded by the state, they are dependent on the state’s implicit support of their activities. This separates them from the terrorist groups prominent in the city, but not from crime-terror groups such as D-company that need state support to continue their criminal activities.

In Karachi’s politics, violence has become an enforcement mechanism among political players and is perpetrated by political party affiliates as well as crime groups. A striking example of this phenomenon is the People’s Aman Committee (PAC), founded in 2008 and comprised of the Baluch drug dons of Lyari. The PAC served as an enforcer for the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) during the latter’s stint in government (2008-2013). Initially, it had a clientelist relationship with the PPP as the PAC received implicit political support from the ruling party in exchange for access to votes in the neighborhood of Lyari, a pattern reminiscent of Sicily discussed earlier. It also provided personnel who could challenge the de-facto hegemony of the political party, MQM, by practicing extortion in Karachi.

Over time, however, the PAC presented itself as a political player and not just as a band of drug dons doing the bidding of one of the largest political parties in the country. It demanded that its nominated candidates run for seats in the legislature instead of PPP’s politicians who were not cognizant of the problems faced by the people of Lyari. Under the PAC’s control, crime rates plummeted while money acquired through the drug trade and extortion was invested in public welfare schemes in Lyari. The PAC’s increasingly political role threatened to change the clientelist dynamic of the relationship between the PPP and the PAC. As a result, rifts grew between the PAC leadership and the PPP, resulting in the political party distancing itself from the drug dons it had formerly supported.

By September 2013, a military operation to cleanse the city of criminal and terrorist elements was underway in Karachi. The objective of this operation was to target actors in the city responsible for violence, extortion, and other criminal activities. The PPP had withdrawn its support of the PAC and the leaders of the PAC were on the run, highlighting the vulnerability of crime groups dependent on state support. Yet, despite its exit from the stage, the rise of the PAC highlights the changing dynamic between a political party and a crime group. It shifted from a clientelistic role to a political one. In making this transition, it represents a new actor on Karachi’s political stage.


Over seventy years, Karachi has become one of the world’s largest cities. Successive governments have ceded authority to non-state actors for the provision of housing and water. This devolution of power can be explained by limited resources, poor policy planning, and a rapidly increasing population resulting from rural to urban migration and displacement caused by conflict. Some have suggested that this hands-off approach to governance is a post-colonial legacy of indirect rule and (or) a continuity of the criminal-cum-political strongmen of British India who worked as intermediaries between the rulers and the ruled. As in many regions of the world, historical legacies shape both political developments and the nature of crime.

Yet there was an ever-present reality determining its development. Karachi’s constantly increasing population created demands for public amenities in a newly-independent state struggling to remain unified despite great financial challenges and the pressures of a diverse multi-ethnic population. Karachi, with its strategic location as a seaport, also suffered from the curse of geography as it developed as a trafficking route for drugs and weapons during the Afghan jihad days and continued in this role well after September 11. It was in this context that non-state actors stepped in to contribute to service provision incrementally.

Efforts made to reassert state authority have had limited success despite successive military operations in Karachi since the 1990s, and one operation that has been on-going since 2013. While the operations in the 1990s primarily targeted the political party the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the operation launched in 2013 focused on crime groups in Lyari, and the terrorist group, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as well as the MQM. For the TTP, the ongoing simultaneous military operations in 2013 both in its stronghold in the tribal areas of Pakistan adjacent to Afghanistan, and against its forces in Karachi weakened its organizational and operational strength. These operations also resulted in losses being incurred by Karachi-based crime groups.

The result of these operations in different parts of Pakistan was the recruitment of criminals into terrorist groups to carry out revenge attacks jointly, in the process confusing law enforcement officials in terms of the source and planning behind these violent and destructive activities. The state’s lack of success in scaling back non-state actors reveals that, in the past two decades, Karachi’s political landscape has grown to include new types of political players on a permanent basis.

The state manages this violent political order by withdrawing or extending support from or to different political players: the MQM, a criminalized political party drawing from diverse migrant constituencies, various organized crime groups that have profited from the lucrative drug trade and the crime-terror and crime groups that have established themselves in the city, as previously mentioned. Within this competition for power, the state remains the final arbiter. This conclusion contradicts the policy analysis of some observers who suggest that crime and terror groups have stepped into a power void. Rather, this analysis suggests that it is the political parties themselves, rather than the criminals and terrorists, who are at the forefront of violent and criminalized politics. Therefore, violent non-state actors are not the ultimate arbiters of the political order. Criminals and terrorists remain vulnerable as they may lose the state’s support and without this they face difficulty surviving in this highly competitive environment. (Concludes) 


Courtesy: Connections – A Quarterly Magazine of Consortium of Defense Academies and Security Studies Institute. The Consortium brings together faculty members and researchers from 29 NATO and 21 partner countries in North America, Europe and Asia.


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