Small Wars Journal

Blood on the street: violence, crime, and policing in Karachi

Tue, 09/19/2023 - 10:20pm

Blood on the street: violence, crime, and policing in Karachi

Vanda Felbab-Brown


With 56 percent of the world’s population today living in urban spaces and 70 percent projected to do so by 2050,[1] major cities of the world play an ever-larger role in the 21st century global system, power distribution, and public policies. Decisions of city governments significantly influence major transnational issues—from climate change, global financial and trade patterns, to poverty alleviation, disease mitigation and refugee flows. More than ever, a country’s governing capacity and the legitimacy of its government are shaped by how it suppresses crime and delivers order in urban areas, a major challenge for many countries.[2] Many cities in Africa and Latin America struggle to deliver effective public security, despite receiving significant international assistance. Much less policy and academic focus has been devoted to urban public order management in Asia, including specifically Karachi, even though the city is a major world megapolis, a significant global hub of legal and illegal trade, and source of transnational and local violence, including terrorism. 

Based on fieldwork I conducted in Karachi in 2016 and supplemented by subsequent remote interviews, this article analyzes the sources of insecurity and violence in Karachi since the 1990s, focusing especially on the period between 2008 and 2023. Through interviews with security and police officials, military and paramilitary forces officers, politicians, civil society and business community representatives, members of criminal gangs, and security experts, the article assesses the effectiveness of anti-crime measures adopted in the city. Examining what has worked well and what policies have been deficient is a valuable source of lessons for other countries. It is also important because crime and terrorism are again rising in Karachi, the city’s residents are demanding better public safety.

For decades, and intensely so over the past twenty years, Karachi has struggled with violence, insecurity, and criminality. The city governments as well as Pakistan’s national authorities have at times either yielded or purposefully outsourced the delivery of order, safety, and other public goods to nonstate armed actors. The provision of these essential services by Karachi’s criminal and militant groups has thus regularly outcompeted their provision by the state, with the city’s nonstate armed actors hence acquiring significant political capital with Karachi’s residents.

From 2008 to 2015, the megapolis of between 20 million and 25 million people and Pakistan’s most important economic engine, experienced a particularly intense wave of violence. Homicides surpassed 2,000 a year, with war-like firearm exchanges on the streets. Extortions and kidnappings skyrocketed. Both the poor and the affluent were significantly affected. Many businesses shut down, and wealthy elites moved away. The local and federal government scrambled for a response.

For decades, police forces in Karachi have been under-resourced, incompetent, corrupt, politicized, and infiltrated by criminal groups. The justice system in the city—as well as nationally—suffers many deficiencies. Thus, to bring violence down, the local, state, and federal governments have repeatedly deployed official paramilitary forces to address the violence.

And indeed, in important ways, government policies did manage to suppress crucial aspects of violence, most importantly homicides. But other types of crime, terrorism, and militancy continue to be a challenge, and policing remains problematic and inadequate.[3] Moreover, the costs of the adopted law enforcement patterns have been severe in terms of civil liberties and human rights. The paramilitary forces, the Sindh Rangers, like the police in the city, turned out to be highly violent and perpetrated extensive and serious human rights violations.

In response to the criminal, political, ethnic, and terrorist violence, Karachi’s business community and civil society also mobilized. Going far beyond the civil society assistance to police forces found, for example, in Colombia’s Medellín, Brazil’s Sao Paulo, or Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez, Karachi’s business community established an essentially private police force with an extraordinary scope of activities. In contrast, the civil society activism emerged primarily against and as a result of the state repression of the Pashtun minority that suffered from law enforcement’s dragnets.

Yet a decade later, the paramilitary forces remain the principal policing force in the city. And their activities have gone far beyond their official mandate to combat violence. Supported by other law enforcement actors in the city, the Rangers have completely redesigned the political landscape of Karachi, selectively dismantling some political parties through the arrests of their members, while extra-legally empowering and privileging other parties. They have also increased their involvement in the city’s public management as well as its illegal economies, such as land grabbing and the criminalized delivery of services, including water.

armed security Karachi

Armed Security Karachi, Credit: Benny LinCC BY-NC 2.0

The Context

Between 2010 and 2015, violence in Karachi reached dramatic levels. In 2012, 2,174 were reported killed;[4] escalating to a record 2,700 in 2013. These deaths included targeted killings by political parties; warfare by and among jihadists; and murders by organized crime groups, often linked to politicians and political parties. Compounding the sense of insecurity was a dramatic terrorist attack on Karachi’s airport in July 2014.[5] By 2017, homicides, targeted killings, terrorist attacks, kidnappings, and extortions perpetrated by non-state actors declined by as much as 90 percent in the various categories. What explains the decline?

For decades, Karachi has been experiencing a dramatic, uncontrolled population growth, expanding from a mere 435,0000 residents in the early 1940s to some 25 million today.[6] The city’s historic and changing ethnic composition and demographics have shaped its economic development, urban planning, and governance—as well as its instability, violence, and organized crime.

One facet of Karachi is its economic power. With its large financial, textile, and manufacturing sectors, Karachi generates approximately 50 percent of Pakistan’s economic revenue (about $290 billion annually) and 90 percent of the province of Sindh.[7] It also handles 95 percent of Pakistan’s foreign trade and 30 percent of its manufacturing. It is the seat of Pakistan’s economic elite, with 90 percent of the headquarters of Pakistani banks, financial institutions, and multinational corporations located in Karachi.[8]

Another facet of Karachi is its privation: Some 70 percent of Karachi residents are poor, with half of the population living in squatter settlements known as katchi abadis.[9] These informal settlements mostly lack pumped water, sewage, and formal legal electricity hookups.[10]

Karachi’s decades-long poor exclusionary governance has eviscerated the city’s planning, organizational capacities, and provision of public goods. Instead, the delivery of public goods has, to a large extent, become privatized. Both in the public and private domains, or when delivered by what Karachi residents call mafias—a combination of organized crime groups and politicians—the delivery of essential services is politicized. The deep ethnic rivalries generating community competition over legal and illegal rents and bureaucratic appointments have resulted in and often purposefully generated and utilized criminal and street violence.

Drivers of violence

Waves of violence in Karachi, including the 2010-2013 iteration, have been driven by multiple factors: inter-communal hostility provoked and exploited by the campaigns of ethnically-oriented politicians and political parties; violence by the state, exacerbated by the weakness of the city’s police; organized crime and political competition over illicit economies and the provision of public services in the city; and the belligerence of jihadi militants and terrorists.

Political Parties            

Much of Karachi’s violence results from the strategic use of violence by ethnically-based political parties to secure electoral votes, government appointments, and economic rents. Between 2007 and 2013, almost all of the city’s ethnic groups and their political parties engaged in violence against their political, ethnic, and business opponents, resulting in the deaths of over 7,000 people.[11]     

The political-ethnic violence has often taken place between the Mohajirs and the Sindhis and between the Mohajirs and the Pashtuns and Baloch. The Mohajirs (literally refugees) are the Urdu-speaking migrants from India and their descendants. The 1947 partition of India that gave birth to Pakistan resulted in millions of Mohajirs arriving in the city. Almost overnight their influx reversed the ethnic balance in the city, shrinking the percentage of the previously dominant Sindhis from 60 to 14 percent (and less than 10 percent today) and increasing the presence of the Mohajirs from a mere 6 percent to well over 54 percent.[12] The Mohajirs stacked the city’s government institutions and bureaucratic appointments with their ethnic brethren, creating deep-seated resentment of the Sindhis and setting up a perpetual battle between the city’s government and the Sindhi-dominated provincial government. The Sindhis are still dominant in the rural areas of the Sindh Province of which Karachi is the capital.

Federal politics have shaped Karachi’s endless ethnic rivalries. The 1970s government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, with his Pakistan People Party (PPP), favored the Sindhis, while the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988) sought to weaken the PPP by supporting the creation of a Mohajir political party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).[13] General Pervez Musharraf similarly sought to use the MQM to subjugate the PPP.[14] Indeed, Pakistan’s military has applied the same rule-and-divide strategy in Karachi that it uses throughout the country—at various times using the MQM to undermine the PPP’s  attempt to weaken the military’s dominance of Pakistan’s politics and governance and at other times, such as in the 2010s and 2020s, turning on the MQM.

The political competition unleashed repeated violence in Karachi during the 1980s and 1990s as the Mohajirs sought to control governing structures and appointments – including, the lucrative Karachi Port Trust, Karachi Municipal Corporation and Karachi Development Authority—and the resulting patronage and votes. To obtain these rents and political capital, they often used street violence by armed wings.[15]

Since the 1980s, many Pakistani Pashtun migrants and Afghan refugees further altered Karachi’s ethnic balance and its power conflicts. By 2025, Pashtuns are projected to outnumber the Mohajirs,[16] yet they are the most politically and economically marginalized ethnic group in Karachi. While the Mohajir-Sindhi violence declined in the 1990s, ethnic violence escalated between the Mohajirs and Pashtuns and Balochs, particularly after the 2008 elections.[17]

In addition to having their own armed wings, the political parties established clientelistic relationships and alliances with organized crime groups to secure votes and engage in extortion and racketeering in the city, known in Karachi as the bhatta economy.

Illicit Economies, Criminal Groups, and Politics

As a crucial global port and gateway to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a megacity of many unemployed, Karachi is also, not surprisingly, a significant hub of illicit economies and organized crime. The city’s crime economy overall is estimated at a $3 billion annually[18] and features drug trafficking,[19] arms smuggling, human smuggling, timber trafficking, extortion, gambling, and kidnapping as well as a variety of other predatory crimes.[20]  These illicit economies are to various degrees dominated by organized crime or militant groups.

The under-delivery and privatization of basic services have provided further opportunities for criminalization and violence as well as extensive connections to politics. Informal and outright illicit economies and extensive theft have emerged in land access, electricity and water delivery,[21] as well as transportation. These illicit economies are run by organized crime groups connected to politicians and political parties – networks to which Karachi residents refer to as “mafias.”

Access to land is a prime example of such politically-linked criminalization. Both public and private land is frequently stolen and usurped by criminals, politicians, and/or state agents such as the Sindh Rangers and the military, whether directly by them or through proxies for their benefit. It is also taken over the city’s many squatters.[22] Land has thus become the city’s most prized and contested commodity, with federal, provincial, and local land-owning agencies, military cantonments, corporate entities and formal and informal developers fighting for land rights.[23]

Public transportation is largely defunct. Medical services are equally underprovided, delivered to many by charities or Islamist parties and the political proxies of Jihadist groups, such as Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (after state pressure renamed Jammat-ud-Dawa). In the political contestation surrounding the 2008 elections, the PPP and MQM used their political heft to get access for their clients to the city’s hospitals and clinics.[24] Meanwhile, the rich receive their medical treatment in Dubai, London, or the United States.

Many criminal groups in Karachi are ethnically based and have close, if complex, relations with the political party of their ethnicity. The Peoples Aman Committee (PAC) gang operating in the Lyari subdivision of Karachi is a prime example of these dynamics. For years, in addition to running its own criminal rackets such as drug trafficking and extortion, the PAC would also do some of the dirty work of its political patron, the PPP.  At the same time, the PAC sought to cultivate the Karachi’s top police officials and corrupt Sindh Rangers as well as business and political elite even while extorting them.[25]

But like many other criminal gangs and militant groups,[26] the PAC sought to build its political capital with local populations by investing some of its proceeds from its criminal activities in public welfare schemes.[27] Following a major 2011 battle with the Karachi police during which not just the PAC, but the entire Lyari subdivision were de facto starved in a siege, the PAC also came to distribute water and food to Lyari’s residents. It also regulated street crime in the subdivision by advancing its own rackets. Under the PAC rule, carjacking, cellphone snatching, and robberies decreased compared to previous periods and other parts of the city.[28] The PAC supported and sponsored NGOs seeking to bring hospitals and schools to Lyari, one symbolically located in a gang’s former torture house.[29] In contrast, between 2001 and 2008 when MQM’s political power was high during the presidency of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, nothing had been built in Lyari. The discrimination was a blatant retaliation by the Mohajir MQM against the Sindhis.

But with its own political capital rising, the PAC started chaffing at the bid of its political patron, the PPP. It began cutting significantly into the PPP’s electoral base and challenging its orders.[30] While once essentially subservient to the politicians, the PAC crime gang began dictating the terms to the PPP, such as by selecting its own PPP candidates for the subdivision. [31]

Jihadist Militancy and Sectarian Conflict

Multiple highly dangerous jihadist terrorist groups operate in the city, compete over turf and illicit rackets, fundraise, organize violent operations, and take shelter from operations by the Pakistani military during occasional periods when the military decides to confront some of them as opposed to mostly coddling them.[32] The anti-India and Kashmir-focused Laskhar-e-Tayyaba (LeT)/ Jammat-ud-Dawa (that carried out the 2008 attack on Mumbai’s Taj Mahal hotel and other sites and killed over 160 people) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (that, along w LeT, carried out the 2001 attack on India’s parliament) and the anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have used the city as a crucial base for decades. They are extensively linked to the city’s many madrasas (Islamic schools). Sectarian violence between Pakistan’s predominant Sunni majority and Shia minority was unleashed in the 1980s by the Zia regime’s Islamization policies that patronized Deobandi extremist groups as a means of internal control and a counter to Shia mobilization after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. Stoked by the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran since, the sectarian contestation often explodes into violence in Karachi, where in 2012 and 2013, at least 100 sectarian killings took place each year.[33] After 9-11, Al Qaeda also used Karachi as a key operating area and killed the U.S. Wall Street Journal’s correspondent Daniel Pearl there.

Among the more recent arrivals, about a decade and half ago, has been the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a terrorist group displaced to Karachi as a result of Pakistan’s military operations in the province of Khyber Pakthunkhwa and previously autonomous tribal areas (now incorporated into KPK). As the presence of TTP in Karachi grew to some 8,000 members in 2013, so did violence.[34] Although also predominantly Pahstun, the TTP intensely focused violence on the anti-militant Pashtun party Awami National Party (ANP). By the end of 2013, the TTP’s violent actions had forced the ANP to close down 70 percent of its offices in the city.[35] In fact, in the runup to the 2013 elections, the TTP ratcheted up violence against all political parties that opposed it, attempting to prevent them from campaigning.[36]

In addition to targeting the ANP and other political parties, TTP also sought to take over various of the city’s illicit economies and rackets, such as land theft and control, and aggressively moved into extortion. Moving into extortion in revenue-rich Karachi allowed the TTP to move beyond inefficient bank robberies, one of its initial funding approaches. Neighborhoods, such as Lyari, became war zones and no-go zones for the state. Gang or jihadi takeovers of areas displaced male residents, leaving women without protection and economic livelihoods and subject to sexual violence.[37] In addition to fighting organized criminal groups for control over illicit rents, TTP hired local criminals for the same purpose and to finance jihad. In turn, criminals allied with TTP used the alliance to strengthen their hand against local police (mostly in on the illicit take) and criminal rivals.

Policy Responses   

Much of the state’s response to the post-2010 violence in Karachi, as has been the case historically as well, has centered on heavy-handed law enforcement and military crackdowns. Anti-crime socio-economic components or other structural and institutional reforms have been inadequate. Civil society mobilization has played a role in the policy responses, but at times, such mobilization has been heavily skewed toward the interests and safety of the elite.

Law Enforcement

In 2012 and 2013, the Karachi police force found itself unable to cope with the rising violence, extortion, jihadism, and sense of panic in the city. Out of a nominal police force of 29,000 officers, only some 8,000 worked at any one time.[38] Moreover, 162 police officers, including one of Karachi’s top counterterrorism officials, were killed in the city in the first part of 2013[39] severely undermining already poor morale. For decades, the police force in the city (as elsewhere in Pakistan) has also been subject to intense politicization, from the highest senior level appointments to beat cops. It tended to compensate for its lack of investigative and preventative capacities with brutality.

In September 2013, amidst the security crisis, Pakistan’s federal government authorized the deployment of 11,000 paramilitary Sindh Rangers to Karachi, replicating similar policy moves of the 1990s. Nominally under Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior, but following the military’s command, the Rangers were to focus on terrorism, political killings, extortion, and kidnapping for ransom.

Under the 2013 Protection of Pakistan Ordinance, made law in 2014 as the Protection of Pakistan Act,[40] the Rangers were given special powers and authorized to shoot-to-kill, shoot-on-sight, and to detain suspects for 90 days without charge. But they did not have any actual investigation and prosecution mandates, consigned to acting against in flagrante crimes and mounting deterrence patrolling. A subsequent anti-terrorism act, the December 2014 National Action Plan, also expanded the military’s role in internal policing. It shifted counterterrorism judicial processes to the opaque unaccountable military justice system and reversed the burden of proof for alleged terrorists: The accused now had to prove that they were not terrorists.[41] Although the operation was to be time-bound, the Rangers’ mandate was repeatedly extended.

Officially, the law enforcement efforts in Karachi were defined as a targeted operation focusing on a list of 450 designated killers (many hitmen for political parties), terrorists, kidnappers, and leaders of extortion rings. Quickly, however, the law enforcement actions became a much broader dragnet scheme. Between September 2013 and mid-2018, the Rangers claimed to have arrested and handed over to police or the courts almost 11,000 people in 14,327 raids.[42] Yet, many detainees were released without charge; others disappeared, perhaps still held in detention or killed.

The police supplemented those operations with its own repression. The police chief during the Rangers’ initial operations, Superintendent Anwar Ahmed known as Rao Anwar, for example, was notorious for his bloodlust for encounter killings.[43] Senior police officials were also allegedly offering cash rewards to subordinates for extrajudicial killings. In 2017 alone, Karachi police killed “184 criminals and 7,373 terrorists” in 480 police encounters.[44]

The law enforcement operations also sought to establish Ranger and law enforcement presence in areas that became no-go places for the police, such as Lyari. While putting heavy pressure on some criminal gangs, the operations tended to be repressive, abusive, and indiscriminate, often cordoning off large areas, mounting extensive and aggressive house searches, and detaining scores of people. Residents who dared protest against the heavy-handedness or other problematic policies, such as wholesale intimidation of fishermen by law enforcement actors or government seizures of coastal land, were labeled supporters of Lyari gangs or terrorist groups and arrested as well.[45]

MQM became a primary target of the Rangers’ operation. Often without diligent investigations and evidence, the law enforcement forces sought to destroy the armed wings of the party and the party itself through extrajudicial killings and disappearances.[46] Between 2013 and 2017, the bodies of at least 70 MQM male activists were found and more than 120 went missing.[47] The PPP was also targeted, with its members, including prominent officials, arrested on various charges, though to a lesser degree than those of the MQM.

The counterterrorism operations also showed selectivity, prioritizing anti-Pakistan, but not anti-India terrorist groups. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, al Qaeda, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi were principally targeted. After LeJ reduced its attacks against India and instead began killing Pakistani security officials, it also came into the Rangers’ crosshairs. Other groups, such as the bloody sectarian Sunni Ahle Sunant Wal Jammat (formerly Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan) and LeT/JD were let off the hook.

But even with its policy selectivity, the Rangers’ overall dragnet approach compounded Pakistan’s long-standing problem: the weakness of prosecution. With the police lacking investigative capacities and the Rangers legal authorization for investigations, torture became a frequent method to extract confessions.  In response to complaints by human rights groups, the Rangers and police claimed that they had no alternative but to kill the alleged terrorists and criminals because the courts would free them otherwise.[48]

Overwhelmed, under-resourced, politicized, and militarized, Pakistan’s justice system regularly features cases not adjudicated for years and sometimes even decades. A popular saying goes: “In Pakistan, you hire a lawyer and buy a judge.”  Only rarely do courts take up human rights protection issues or indict police or Ranger officials for even egregious human rights violations.

While the Rangers’ dragnet was under way, no adequate attempt to reform the police in Karachi or in Sindh was undertaken. Individual police commanders were merely reshuffled among posts, rarely altogether dismissed. In May 2016, the Sindh government authorized the recruitment of 8,000 additional police officers for Karachi to be trained by the army, but only a small portion ended up, in fact, recruited. Many top officers and beat cops continued to embrace highly repressive ways.


While state violence shot up, the violence perpetrated by nonstate actors declined dramatically and swiftly.Targeted killings diminished from 965 in 2013 to two in 2018; reported extortion cases from 1,524 in 2013 to 31 in 2018; and kidnapping for ransom from 174 in 2013 to five in 2018.[49] From January to April 2019, Karachi experienced 12 targeted killings.[50] Yet, the Rangers and police continued to mount raids, such as in Lyari in May 2019. Terrorist incidents also decreased—from a 2015 peak of 199 (when TTP responded to counterterrorism actions with intensified aggression of its own) to 16 in 2016 and zero in 2017.[51] Two significant terrorist incidents, nonetheless, took place in Karachi in 2018.

A problematic side-effect of the operations was the Rangers’ takeover of the city’s various illicit economic rackets. Widespread allegations emerged about the Rangers’ and police role in extortion and illegal appropriation of valuable resources, such as real estate, in their areas of operation.[52] Vendors who had previously paid extortion fees to the MQM now complained that they had to pay much higher rates to the Rangers and police.[53] The Rangers also expanded their already extensive involvement in Karachi’s lucrative water management and illicit water economy, at times alleged to usurp large quantities of water and charge predatory rates.[54] Yet despite the Rangers’ official role in the city’s water management, public access did not improve and by May 2019, Karachi was again in the midst of another water crisis.

The Rangers’ presence in Karachi also became an official drain on the city’s budgets as the Rangers also demanded larger government allocations for their salaries, equipment, schools, and health care.

Civil Society Mobilization

In response to the violence engulfing the city and debilitating business activities of Pakistan’s economic juggernaut, the civil society mobilization featured a mix of business community efforts to protect its economic interests and broader civil rights activism. But the business community’s response went far beyond assisting law enforcement forces in beefing up their capacity as has occurred in Mexico’s Cuidad Juárez, Tijuana, or Monterrey, or Colombia’s Medellín, for example.[55] The business community’s actions amounted essentially to the creation of a private police force for the elite, supplementing and supplanting Karachi’s police. While many elites around the world react to intense urban violence by hiring private security companies, the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), a de facto private elite police unit, stands in a class of its own.                  

The Business Community Response: Private Police and Applause for Repression

Since its establishment in 1989, the CPLC has focused on countering extortion and kidnapping of Karachi’s rich,[56] successfully tackling Karachi’s extortion rackets targeting the affluent during the 1990s and since. However, like other institutions in Karachi, the CPLC was not able to withstand the intensification of political and ethnic divisions in the city.[57] Its effectiveness made it a valuable asset for the city’s political class to seek to appropriate. Thus, in the second half of the 1990s, the CPLC became closely aligned with the MQM.[58]

Even so, the CPLC developed and maintained a highly organized and sophisticated system for tracking criminal activity.[59] Extraordinarily, police stations report their crime statistics to the CPLC on a daily basis. The CPLC has had those statistics computerized since the 1990s, unlike those police who still frequently handle pieces of paper. With a paid staff of 100 and an additional 80 volunteers, the CPLC also has access to cellphone company data, knowing which phone numbers are registered, and claiming to have the capacity to authorize cell phone tracking.[60]   

Not only does the CPLC support the police and cooperate closely with the Rangers, but it also conducts independent investigations and surveillance, such as during anti-kidnapping operations that target the affluent and their political clients, as well as in some homicide investigations. From 1989 to 2017, the CPLC claimed to have handled over 1,300 cases.[61]

The CPLC’s success has consistently won the accolades—and financial support—of the business community. Karachi’s business community has equally praised the military’s and Rangers’ operations in Karachi, despite their extensive human rights abuses.[62]

Pashtun Human Rights Movement

The post-2016 decline in terrorist violence and the weakening of TTP in Karachi did not end the dragnet repression of Pakistani law enforcement against the Pashtun community in the city. Throughout 2017, many Pashtun residents of the city continued to be treated heavy-handedly as terrorist suspects.  In January 2018, four young Pashtun men were killed by Karachi police in an encounter killing and subsequently accused of belonging to a militant group.[63] The operation might easily have turned out to be one of many such encounter killings, but this time, it set off a large-scale human rights mobilization by the Pashtun community—the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM).

The PTM sought to bring some accountability to the pervasive impunity of Pakistani law enforcement forces. For example, in the wake of widespread outrage at the killings, Police Superintendent Anwar Rao was finally indicted on murder charges for his decades-long role in extrajudicial killings and arrested. Yet in January 2023, he was acquitted.[64]

Manipulating Politics: The Elections of Imran Khan

During the post-2013 Karachi operations, Pakistan’s military and its subordinate agencies, such as the Sindh Rangers, took to heart the criticism of their 1990s operations—unless politics in Karachi were cleaned up and defanged of their violent proxies, violence would return. But instead of diligently prosecuting political connections to murders, Pakistan’s military and the Rangers set out to destroy the MQM.

At first, through 2017, the military and Rangers sought to split the MQM and create a new political power in the city around the former MQM mayor Mustafa Kamal. The Rangers and police allegedly pressured MQM members, operatives, and councilors to defect to Mustafa Kamal. Scores of MQM members released from the Rangers’ sometimes prolonged detention, in fact, joined Kamal’s new political party.[65]

But when Kamal failed to attract MQM’s political base and outmaneuver its machinery, the military threw its support behind a different politician in Karachi—Imran Khan. A former world-renowned cricket player and an Oxford playboy, Imran Khan entered Pakistani politics in the 1990s, refashioning himself as a born-again Muslim, religious conservative, and opponent of U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s cooperation with the United States in counterterrorism operations. For two decades, his political party, Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), won barely a seat in regional or national elections. But by 2013, Imran Khan’s Pakistan’s PTI gained sufficient support to become Karachi’s second largest party.

During the July 2018 national elections in Pakistan, the military did everything possible to support the PTI and Imran Khan and sabotage the chances of its political rivals.[66] Working also through the Rangers, it put pressure on various politicians and party operatives to defect to the PTI. The military warned journalists and media outlets to cover the PTI, not the MQM.[67] A 2017 gerrymandering census, in which soldiers went door-to-door with census workers, undercounted the city’s population by between five and seven million. Ultimately, the PTI won 116 of the 272 votes in the National Assembly and, as the largest party, formed the government, with Imran Khan becoming prime minister. In Karachi, the PTI, assisted by the Rangers’ muscle, won 14 out of the city’s 21 National Assembly seats—a bruising defeat for the MQM.

 Four years later in 2022, the Pakistani military became frustrated with Imran Khan and helped to orchestrate a no-confidence vote that removed him from power, with various serious legal proceedings against Khan ensuing.

Anti-Crime Socio-Economic Measures

Unlike in various Latin American cities that have grappled with intense criminal violence, no specific anti-crime socio-economic policies accompanied the law enforcement measures. After his election, Imran Khan did promise a series of socio-economic policies to develop Karachi, his critical electoral base. In March 2019, he designated $1.15 billion for the city’s development, specifically ten public transportation projects and seven water delivery projects.[68] Immediately, however, questions arose as to how equitably the projects would be distributed, and whether their implementation would follow Karachi’s typical pattern of rewarding one’s constituents at the expense of ethnic and political rivals.

Meanwhile, Karachi’s MQM mayor, Waseen Akhtar, set out to change Karachi’s Economist ranking as the fourth least livable city in the world[69] by bulldozing Karachi’s informal Empress Market—with the justification that its informal stores and hawkers encroached on public and private property. Across Karachi, some 20 informal markets with over 11,000 shops and stalls were destroyed, affecting the livelihoods of tens of thousands in just two months, between November 2018 and January 2019.[70] Those measures were emblematic of the troubled approaches to socio-economic development in the megapolis. As long as Karachi remains “the drain of Pakistan, where all the poor and displaced wash up,” as a Pakistani security analyst put it,[71] anti-crime socio-economic measures will be drowned by the larger forces of Karachi’s inequality and discriminatory politics.

Did the Outcomes of the Anti-Crime Policies Hold?

Four years later, in 2023, the Sindh Rangers are still deployed to Karachi as the principal anti-crime security agency. Murders have remained at a fraction of their peak a decade earlier—393 in 2021[72] and 387 in 2022.[73] In the first two months of 2023, 29 people were murdered.[74]

In 2022, the Rangers claimed to have conducted 269 operations against terrorism, target killings, kidnapping, and extortion, arresting 65 high-value targets.[75] Many of the key criminal and terrorist groups that had been the key focus for the Rangers in 2013 were still so in 2022: Lyari gangs, MQM, and TTP.

The Rangers also expanded their role in anti-drug operations. But the counternarcotics actions have centered on seizures, rather than a systematical dismantling of drug trafficking networks. Even though Karachi’s drug networks are far less violent than drug trafficking groups in Latin America, they remain a source of homicides and violence. Moreover, the changes to the city’s drug markets—namely, the rise of methamphetamine consumption and trafficking in Karachi, part and parcel of the synthetic drugs revolution sweeping drug markets around the world – pose further risks of homicides spiking as the city’s lucrative drug market is being reshuffled. Significantly, in 2022, the amount of seized crystal methamphetamine (134 kilograms) just slightly surpassed that of heroin (129 kilograms).[76]

Furthermore, in a post-COVID pattern seen around the world, street crime shot up significantly in Karachi after 2020, giving rise to popular dissatisfaction and demands for police action. In 2022, the CPLC, still going strong, reported over 78,000 street crime incidents, noting that the actual number was likely higher, as Karachi residents remained reluctant to approach police and register complaints.[77] In the first 80 days of 2023, the number was 14,000.[78]

Yet once again, Karachi and Sindh authorities, caught up in inter-party rivalries, did not mount intense efforts to reform and strengthen Karachi’s struggling and troubled police. Even though the Sindh Safety and Police Complaints Commission, established in 2019 to improve police accountability and required by law to meet once a month under the chairmanship of the Sindh home minister, remained moribund,[79] the PPP ruling Sindh did not find any major issues with the police.[80] Instead of pushing for meaningful police reform, the PTI wanted to further expand the Sindh Rangers’ extensive powers.[81] Although new legal authorities were not granted, the paramilitary Rangers did enlarge their focus on street crime, including drug retail, extortion, and robberies. In 2022, they reported to have mounted 2,292 such operations.[82]

Karachi’s law enforcement agencies primarily embraced technological fixes, defining an increased use of CCTV cameras as key to controlling crime in the city.[83] But in September 2022, the police launched a special motorcycle branch—the Shaheen Force—to counter the many robberies and killings conducted from motorcycles.

TTP’s attacks in Karachi and elsewhere in Pakistan also went up significantly after 2020. Some of the increased activity preceded the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in 2021.[84] But despite the Taliban’s repeated promises not to allow terrorist attacks out of Afghanistan’s territory,[85] TTP has been able to translate its safe havens in eastern Afghanistan into bases for mounting more attacks. Although Pakistan hoped the Taliban would simply shut down TTP, the Taliban, acting principally through the Haqqanis, have instead repeatedly chosen to attempt to broker ceasefires with TTP.[86] But they have not held, and because of its internal entanglements with and debts to the TTP and multiple high costs of fighting the TTP, the Afghan Taliban has not resorted to military action against the TTP despite pressure from Pakistan.[87] In Karachi, in addition to increasing terrorist attacks, including a daring hit against police headquarters in March 2023, the TTP also significantly increased its extortion rackets.[88]


After 2013, law enforcement forces in Karachi were able to significantly suppress a major flareup of homicides and criminal violence, compounded by political violence, ethnic rivalries, and terrorism. Yet the law enforcement response that centered on paramilitary forces also became the source of violence and human rights violations. Moreover, this pattern of policing also blatantly interfered with and reorganized the political organization of the city—dismantling the existing dominant party and engineering the rise of another political party. While the city’s civil society mobilized in response to the violence, a deeper renegotiation of the flawed social contract remains elusive.

The law enforcement response also succeeded in Karachi only in the narrow sense: suppressing certain types of violence, such as importantly homicides, and terrorist attacks. But it did not fully manage to dismantle criminal networks or illicit economies. The extensive and long-term presence of the Rangers in Karachi and the impunity with which they operated allowed them to muscle in on the city’s illegal economies.

Indeed, while reshuffling the crime and violence market, the anti-crime policies in Karachi failed to include an effective and necessary police reform and address the underlying causes of violence, such as deficiencies and inequity in access to water, infrastructure, and other services. The lack of such services not only alienates local populations from the state, but also continually provides fertile ground for criminal groups to remain intertwined with the city’s bureaucracies and politics.



[1] “Urban Development,” The World Bank,

[2] See, for example, Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Bringing the State to the Slum: Confronting Organized Crime and Urban Violence in Latin America,” Brookings Latin America Initiative Paper Series, December 2011,; and Antonio Sampaio, “Conflict Expansion to Cities.” Armed Conflict Survey. Vol. 5, no. 1, 2019: pp. 21–27.

[3] The first part of this article draws on Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Shoot First, Ask Later: Violence and Anti-crime Policies in Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez and Pakistan’s Karachi,” in Michael Glass, Taylor Seybolt, and Phil Williams, Eds., Urban Violence, Resilience and Security: Governance Responses in the Global South. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2022: pp. 138–159.

[4] Citizen-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), statistics on killings in Karachi, provided to author by the CPLC during her May 2016 fieldwork in Karachi and interviews with CPLC staff.

[5] See, for example, “Victor Mallet and Farhan Bokhari, “Karachi: Under Siege.” Financial Times. 26 June 2014,

[6] International Crisis Group (ICG), “Pakistan: Stoking the Fire in Karachi.” Asia Report No. 284. 15 February 2017, p. 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Asian Development Bank, “Karachi Mega Cities Preparation Project: Final Report Volume 1,” August 2005,

[9] Arif Hasan, “Land contestation in Karachi and the impact on housing and urban development.” International Institute for Environment and Development, April 2015,

[10] See, for example, Vanda Felbab-Brown, “President Obama to Visit a Favela Where Surfacing on Sewage Used to Be a Pass Time.” The Brookings Institution. 17 March 2011,; and Vanda Felbab-Brown, “No Stairway to Heaven: Rescuing Slums in Latin America,” The Brookings Institution. 2 February 2012,

[11] Mashail Malik and Niloufer Siddiqui, “Exposure to Violence and Voting in Karachi, Pakistan,” United States Institute of Peace (USIP). Special Report No. 450. June 2019,

[12] See, for example, Laurent Gayer, “A Divided City: ‘Ethnic’ and ‘Religious Conflicts in Karachi, Pakistan,” Paris: Centre de Recherches Internationales, Sciences Po. May 2003,

[13] Oskar Verkaaik, A People of Migrants: Ethnicity, State and Religion in Karachi. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1994.

[14] See, for example, Noman Ahmed, “Micromanaging Karachi,” Dawn. 8 November 2016,

[15] See, for example, Samina Ahmed, “Centralization, Authoritarianism, and the Mismanagement of Ethnic Relations in Pakistan,” in Michael E. Brown and Sumit Ganguly, Eds., Government Policies and Ethnic Relations in Asia and the Pacific. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997; and Oskar Verkaaik, Migrants and Militants: Fun and Urban Violence in Pakistan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

[16] ICG, “Policing Urban Violence in Pakistan.” Report 255. 23 January 2014, Overall, the Pashtun represent about 15 percent of Pakistan’s 200 million people.

[17] Nichola Khan, Mohajir Militancy in Pakistan: Violence and Transformation in the Karachi Conflict. New York: Routledge, 2010.

[18] Op. Cit., “Pakistan: Stoking the Fire in Karachi” at Note 6: p. 5.

[19] For details on Pakistan’s poppy cultivation and counternarcotics measures, see Vanda Felbab-Brown; “Pakistan’s Relations with Afghanistan and Implications for Regional Politics.” National Bureau of Asian Research. 14  May 2015,; and Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Pushing Up Poppies: Counternarcotics Measures in Afghanistan Affect Pakistan.” Newsweek Pakistan. 23 September 2010. For smuggling routes in Pakistan, see, Ikramul Haq, “Pak-Afghan Drug Trade in Historical Perspective.” Asian Survey. Vol. 36, no. 10: pp. 945–963,

[20] Nazia Hussain and Louise Shelley, “Karachi: Organized Crime in a Key Megacity.” Connections: The Quarterly Journal. Vol. 15, no. 3, 2016: pp. 5–15,

[21] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Water Theft and Water Smuggling: A Growing Problem or Tempest in a Teapot?” The Brookings Institution. March 2017,

[22] For which ethnic groups and political parties dominate particular subdivisions, see, for example, Imran Khan, “Karachi’s Crime Changing Face.” Dawn. 25 November 2018,

[23] Op. Cit., Hasan at Note 9.

[24] Op. Cit., Gayer at Note 12.

[25]  ibid.

[26] For how criminal groups acquire political capital, see Vanda Felbab-Brown, Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2010.

[27] Op. Cit., Gayer at Note 12.

[28] See Vanda Felbab-Brown, Harold Trinkunas, and Shadi Hamid, Militants, Criminals, and Warlords: The Challenge of Local Governance in an Age of Disorder. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2018.

[29] Matthieu Aikins, “Gangs of Karachi,” Harper’s Magazine, September 2015,

[30] Fahad Desmukh, “You Are in Islamabad Because of Our Votes’: Interviews with the Lyari PAC.” Third Worldism: Dispatches from the Global South. 3 May 2012,

[31] Author’s interviews with political party representatives and police officials, Karachi, May 2016. See also Dina Temple-Raston, “The Tony Soprano of Karachi: Gangster of Politician.” NPR. 2 January  2013,

[32] Vanda Felbab-Brown, "Why Pakistan Supports Terrorist Groups, and Why the US Finds it so Hard to Induce Change." The Brookings Institution. 5  January 2018, .

[33] ICG, “Pakistan: Karachi’s Madrasas and Violent Extremism.” Asia Report N°130.  29 March 2007,

[34] Zia-ur-Rehman, “The Pakistani Taliban’s Karachi Network.” CTC Sentinel. Vol. 6, no. 5, May 2013: pp. 1–5,

[35] Op. Cit., “Pakistan: Stoking the Fire in Karachi” at Note 6.

[36] Pak Institute of Peace Studies, “Elections 2013: Violence against Political Parties, Candidates, and Voters.” May 2013, cited at

[37] Author’s interviews with Karachi’s human rights activities, May 2016.

[38] Author’s interviews with former and current Pakistani police officials and security experts, Karachi and Islamabad, May 2016; and Nathan Hodge and Syed Shoaib Hasan, “Karachi Terror Crackdown Sparks Outcry.” Wall Street Journal. 9  March 2015,

[39] Op. Cit, ICG, “Policing” at Note 16, p. 41.

[40] The Protection of Pakistan Act expired in 2016 and was not renewed.

[41] Author’s interviews with Pakistani civilian justice representatives, human rights activists, and active and retired military officials, Islamabad, Karachi, and Lahore, May 2016.

[42] Zia Ur-Rehman, “Sindh Rangers Work to Clean Up Violent Karachi.” Pakistan Forward. 6 September 2018,

[43] Ibid.

[44] Karachi police data cited in Meher Ahmad, “The Slain ‘Militant’ Was a Model, and Karachi Police Commander Is Out.” New York Times. 23 January 2018,

[45] “Rangers detain ex-chief of fishermen cooperative for 90 days.” Dawn. 17 March 2016,

[46] Op. Cit., “Pakistan: Stoking the Fire in Karachi” at Note 6, p. 14.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Author’s interviews with human rights activists, Karachi, May 2016.

[49] Op. Cit., Zia Ur-Rehman at Note 42.

[50] “Karachi’s Ranking Improves Drastically on World Crime Index.” Geo Television News. 22 April 2019,

[51] “Karachi Operation Report: 2018 Records Higher Number of Rangers’ Operations.” The Express Tribune. 1 January 2019,

[52] Op. Cit., “Pakistan: Stoking the Fire in Karachi” at Note 6, p. 18.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Author’s interviews with Karachi’s water experts and human rights activities, Karachi, May 2016.

[55] See, for example, Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Calderon’s Caldron: Lessons from Mexico’s Battle Against Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking in Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, and Michoacán.” Latin America Initiative Paper Series, The Brookings Institution. September 2011, 09_calderon_felbab_brown.pdf (; and Vanda Felbab-Brown, “No Stairway to Heaven: Rescuing Slums in Latin America,” The Brookings Institution. 2 February 2, 2012,; and Eduardo Moncada, Cities, Business, and the Politics of Urban Violence in Latin America. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016.

[56] Author’s interviews with members of CPLC staff and advisory board and Karachi police officials, Karachi, May 2016.

[57] Author’s interviews with security analysts and political party representatives, Karachi, May 2016.

[58] Author’s interviews with business community representatives and current and former Karachi police officials, Karachi and Islamabad, May 2016.

[59] Author’s interviews with CPLC staff and advisory board members, Karachi, 2016.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Author’s interviews with members of Karachi’s business community, security analysts, and human rights activists, Karachi, and Islamabad, May 2016.

[63]  Op. Cit., Ahmad, at Note 44.

[64] “Rao Anwar Acquitted in Naqeebullah Murder Case.” The Express Tribune. 23 January 2023,

[65] “Missing MQM workers are being found at PSP offices.” The News.  5 August 2016,

[66] “Military Machinations, Violence and claims of election-rigging overshadow Pakistan’s election.” The Economist. 21 July 2018,

[67] See, for example, “Foul Play, Time for Pakistan’s generals to stop meddling in politics.” The Economist. 21 July 2018,

[68] Zia Ur-Rehman, “Karachi Shifts Focus to Development as Security Improves.” Pakistan Forward. 19 April 2019,

[69] “The Global Livability Index 2018: A Free Overview.” The Economist. 2018,

[70] Meher Ahmad, “Karachi Seeks to Remake Itself, with Bulldozers Leading the Way.” New York Times. 26 January 2019,

[71] Author’s interviews with a Pakistani security analyst, Washington, DC, May 2018.

[72] Imtiaz Ali, “Situationer: Behind the Numbers of Karachi’s Crime Conundrum.” Dawn. 22 September 2022,

[73] Salis Perwaiz, “Karachi Police Chief Admits Street Crime Increased by 7PC in 2022.” The News International.  1 January 2023,

[74] Faraz Khan, “No Let-Up in Street Crime in City as 29 Killed, 140 Injured in 80 Days.” The News International. 23 March 2023,

[75] “Rangers Nab Most Wanted Criminals,” The Express Tribune. 1 January 2023,

[76] Ibid.

[77] Zia Ur Rehman, “Empowering Rangers Alone Will Not Address Street Crime.” The News International. 8 February 2022,

[78] Op. Cit., Khan at Note 73.

[79] Razzak Abro, “Public Safety Commission Comatose for Two Years.” The Express Tribune. 16 May 2022,

[80] Op Cit., Rehman at Note 76.

[81] Ibid.

[82] Op. Cit., “Rangers Nab” at Note 74.

[83] Op. Cit., Ali at Note 71.

[84] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Why the Taliban Won, and What Washington Can Do About it Now.” Foreign Affairs. 17 August 2021,

[85] Ayaz Gul, “Pakistan: Terrorists Enjoy ‘Safe Havens’ in Afghanistan.” Voice of America. 14 July 2023¸

[86] Ayaz Gul, “Pakistan, Militants Pause Afghan-Hosted Peace Talks for Internal Discourse Amid Cautious Optimism.” Voice of America. 30 May 2022,

[87] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “What Ayman al-Zawahri’s Death Says about Terrorism in Taliban-Run Afghanistan.” The Brookings Institution. 2 August 2022,

[88] Naimat Khan, “Police Say Attack on Headquarters, Growing Extortion Meance Signal Return of Taliban to Karachi.” Arab News PK. 14 March 12023,

Categories: urban operations

About the Author(s)

Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown is Director of the Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors and a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy, Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology at the Brookings Institution. She is an expert on illicit economies and international and internal conflicts and their management, including counterinsurgency. She focuses particularly on South Asia, Burma, the Andean region, Mexico, and Somalia. Dr. Felbab-Brown is the author of Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs (Brookings Institution Press, 2009) which examines military conflict and illegal economies in Colombia, Peru, Afghanistan, Burma, Northern Ireland, India, and Turkey. She is also the author of numerous policy reports, academic articles, and opeds. A frequent commentator in US and international media, Dr. Felbab-Brown regularly testifies on these issues in the US Congress. She received her PhD in Political Science from MIT and her B.A. from Harvard University.