IT has been widely reported that President Asif Zardari is actively mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran because he wants to promote peace in the region. It’s a pity his concern for peace hasn’t manifested itself in his own backyard.

For him to flit between Tehran, Riyadh and Islamabad while Karachi is convulsed with violence evokes the image of Nero fiddling while Rome burnt. And while his colleagues wring their hands and make futile promises, the slaughter continues unchecked.

Prime Minister Gilani paid a flying visit to Karachi, and announced that the government would soon undertake “a surgical strike” at the killers. And this would involve what exactly? The same outgunned cops, the same political interference and the same callous indifference from Islamabad?

According to press reports, in a meeting chaired by the prime minister, provincial minister Zulfikar Mirza demanded of federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik why he kept coming to Karachi. Actually, this is a fair question, given Malik’s repeated failure to restore law and order anywhere in the country. But this exchange also reveals the cracks and contradictions in the government’s position on Karachi.

Despite the confusion prevailing in official circles, everybody in Karachi knows the problem and the solution. Basically, ethnic gangs supported by political parties are tearing the city apart. Law-enforcement agencies know exactly who’s doing the killing, but their hands are tied because these criminals are protected by the very political parties that dominate the ruling coalition.

While they cooperate at the centre, they are at each other’s throats in Karachi, the source of their booty. True, the MQM is currently on a holiday, but is seen as having its foot firmly in the door. It realises that while the Mohajir population cannot increase through internal migration, the numbers of other ethnic groups in Karachi are swelling. Its power base is thus at risk.

As politicians bicker and manoeuvre for advantage, Karachi goes further into meltdown. Business, badly hit by the constant power shortages this government has been woefully unable to reduce, is flat on its back. Education, never a high priority with our politicians, is suffering from the constant closure of schools and colleges.

During a crisis of this magnitude, one would have expected the prime minister to move to Karachi and stay until the mess is sorted out. Considering how ineffective he is in Islamabad, I fail to see why he has to be in the capital anyway. And Zardari is much too busy trying to patch up the decades-long rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia to pay much heed to the city he grew up in.

With over 1,000 people killed in Karachi this year alone, you’d think those in power — although clearly not in charge — would have emerged from their torpor. But no, the carnage continues without any serious attempt by either the provincial or the federal government to halt the bloodletting.

Small wonder, then, that voices are being raised urging the army to intervene in Karachi. As the prime minister said, if the government can’t solve the problem, ‘others’ will. I say sooner rather than later. I have always opposed inducting the military in solving political and administrative problems. Experience shows that once it has been invited to sort out a problem, it stays on like a bad guest who doesn’t know when to leave. Human rights activists have voiced their concern over this possibility.

However, we have reached a point where clearly, politicians are both unwilling and unable to resolve the crisis. And God knows they have had enough time to do something about it. Laughably, the Sindh chief minister has called for the killers “to leave immediately or face strict action”. It would be too much to ask him why he did not initiate this “strict action” months ago if he had the means and the gumption to do so.

The reality is that while we may blame the MQM and the ANP for contributing their share to the violence in Karachi, ultimately it is the PPP that is running both the federal and the provincial governments. Thus, the buck stops with Zardari. But he and his party are focused solely on completing their tenure, and don’t want a permanent rift with their coalition partners that might trigger early elections. Thus, Karachi — and the whole country — is hostage to the ruling party’s political calculations and considerations.

While we have a body count for the casualties, and a rough estimate of business losses, the Karachi killings have also caused incalculable damage to ethnic harmony. By torturing and targeting innocent people just on the basis of their ethnic origins, criminal gangs and their political patrons are destroying inter-community relations in the city. I have had the unpleasant experience of listening to perfectly decent people from one group wishing death and destruction on another.

I have no doubt that if it had not been for constant meddling from provincial politicians and their hangers-on, the police would never have allowed things to come to this sorry pass. Even now, if political parties genuinely stopped supporting the killers, the situation could be controlled, and there would be no need to even think of using the army.

Sadly, most of our politicians in Sindh are too greedy and ambitious to put the interests of Karachi and the country above their own petty goals. For them, a few hundred lives mean nothing. While shedding crocodile tears, they continue playing their murderous games.

In this context of rising violence and political and administrative apathy, we must seriously consider the military option.

Unwillingly, I have to admit that the army is the one institution in Pakistan to have escaped the corrosive effects of politicisation, and so can be expected to refuse to take sides in any possible crackdown.

However, this nuclear option is a quick fix at best, not a permanent panacea for Karachi’s political and ethnic problems.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

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