Karachi is doomed. Karachi is indestructible.
Drink tea with Hussein Hazari at his tiny shop in the city's old quarter, and both statements feel true. Hazari is a neat, guarded man who wears a spotless white robe and a gold-laced skullcap. He sits with his constantly beeping BlackBerry amid shelves stacked with spray paint, car polish and adhesives. Recently Hazari began selling another product: gun lubricant. "I thought it was worth a try, because weapons are so readily available here," he says.
That's an understatement. More than a thousand people died last year in ethnic turf wars fueled by heavily armed supporters of Karachi's main political parties, perishing in street battles fought with assault rifles, machine guns and grenades. Some victims were decapitated. An official likened a Cabinet briefing on the violence to "watching the trailer of a horror movie."
There could be a sequel. Despite the heavy presence of Rangers the government's internal security force there are fears the city is entering an even more dangerous era. This is worrying because what happens in Karachi has global implications. With a population of 18 million, it is Pakistan's largest city and commercial capital, providing at least half its tax revenues. "You cannot destroy Pakistan by destroying cities like Islamabad, Lahore and Peshawar," says Mustafa Syed Kamal, the city's fast-talking former mayor. "You have to destabilize Karachi first, because it is Pakistan's economic backbone, its oxygen provider."
Karachi is a fractured city in a nuclear-armed and perhaps failing state, and its problems are Pakistan's. And Pakistan's belong to us all. The city's port has been part of a vital supply line to U.S. and coalition troops in landlocked Afghanistan. That route was closed in late November after NATO air strikes killed 25 Pakistani soldiers and pushed U.S. relations with the country already in free fall since the Navy SEAL operation that killed Osama bin Laden in May to an all-time low.
Internally, Pakistan is dangerously divided. The ongoing "memogate" scandal has exposed tensions between the country's powerful military and the weak civilian administration of President Asif Ali Zardari. The leak of the unsigned memo, in which Islamabad apparently asks for the Pentagon's help to divert a feared military coup, forced the resignation of Pakistan's ambassador to Washington and could ultimately topple Zardari himself.
Unsurprisingly, British author, academic and terrorism analyst Anatol Lieven calls Pakistan "perhaps the biggest and wobbliest domino on the world stage." And the most dramatic symbol of that instability is Karachi. A recent surge in violence has sealed its reputation as life-threatening and unlivable. In November, global consulting firm Mercer ranked it 216th out of 221 cities in a personal-safety survey that took into account not just sectarian and ethnic unrest, but also terrorist attacks.
Of those, there have been plenty. On May 22, militants from the Pakistani Taliban seized the Mehran naval air base in Karachi to avenge bin Laden's death. The base was retaken only after a 12-hour battle involving hundreds of Pakistani troops. Four months later, a Taliban suicide bomber killed eight people outside the home of Chaudhry Mohammad Aslam, Karachi's senior superintendent of police. In 2010 the Taliban's military chief, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was captured not in some stifling mountain hideout but in Karachi.
Take away political violence, and Karachi is still plagued by the common variety armed robbery, kidnappings for ransom, murder with only 30,000 underpaid police to tackle it all. And the city is still afflicted by the problems of a fast-growing metropolis: pollution, bad sanitation, slums and a transport system so overburdened that thousands of Karachiites commute to work on bus roofs. Chronic power shortages routinely plunge the City of Lights (as it was known in a bygone era) into darkness. In September, monsoon rains caused floods that brought the city to a halt. "It is perhaps Asia's worst-governed megacity," says Arif Hasan, an eminent Karachi architect and town planner.
When it comes to buying weapons, however, Karachi is king. That Karachi traders must sell gun lubricant to make ends meet shows just how far the city has sunk. Or it could be interpreted another way: as an example of the indomitable entrepreneurial spirit that makes this filthy, frenetic place a magnet for so many Pakistanis. For as well as representing Pakistan's dysfunction, Karachi embodies its resilience. Wander Hazari's bustling neighborhood and you realize that what energizes Karachi is not religion or ethnicity or politics, but commerce and its universal corollary: the dream of a better life.
A Plague on All Their Houses
War, trade and migration shaped modern Karachi and shape it still. Its natural harbor and accessibility to the interior of Sindh province (of which Karachi is the capital) and Central Asia ensured its rapid expansion during British colonial times. By the early 1940s, it was a predominantly Sindhi-speaking city of fewer than 500,000 people, half of them Hindus. Then came the bloody partition of India in 1947. Most of Karachi's Hindus fled to India, while huge numbers of India's Urdu-speaking Muslims sought refuge in Karachi. By the 1950s this influx had tripled the city's population, which continues to multiply. According to a projection by the Asian Development Bank, Karachi could be home to at least 26 million by 2020.