Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and financial capital, has long suffered the aftershocks of civil-military conflict and violent politics. In 2013, criminal, religious, and political violence prompted the “Karachi Operation,” a campaign against crime and terrorism authorized by the civilian government and led by the Pakistan Army and intelligence agencies. The operation was primarily carried out by the Sindh Rangers, a paramilitary force granted special policing powers to arrest and investigate criminals, particularly those involved in targeted killings, kidnappings, extortion, and terrorism. Following the terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar a year later, this security operation escalated, becoming part of countrywide counterterrorism efforts. These events also put Karachi’s security at the center of Pakistan’s first counterterrorism policy, the National Action Plan. One of the key tenets of the plan was to take the Karachi Operation to vaguely defined “logical conclusions.”

It is safe to say that in the future, Karachi is likely to remain a fragmented, continually contested political power center, in which the military, political parties, and religious militants are likely to have substantial presence, keeping economic and political stability in a state of flux.

Zoha Waseem
Zoha Waseem researches policing, security, and violence in urban Pakistan. She is an assistant professor at the University of Warwick. Her book, Insecure Guardians: Enforcement, Encounters, and Everyday Policing in Postcolonial Karachi is forthcoming with Hurst & Co. Her Twitter handle is @ZohaWaseem.

This article explores politics in Karachi since the 2013 operation and what these developments might mean for key stakeholders going forward. It suggests that economic competition and political claims over a multiethnic and divided polity are likely to generate further contestation between various civilian political stakeholders and Pakistan’s military establishment. This competition will keep the city in a state of insecurity, making it attractive to criminal and militant enterprises.

A Pluralized Landscape of Stakeholders

The Karachi Operation has left behind a fragmented local political party (the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or MQM), a cautious provincial party with important political and financial stakes in Karachi (the Pakistan Peoples Party, or PPP), and a populist national party with limited roots in the city (the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI). These effects were produced partly by state-directed crackdowns on the MQM and PPP’s interests in Karachi and the military’s patronage of the PTI. These parties are accompanied by religious political parties and groups, such as Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). A secular party representing the Pashtun, the Awami National Party (ANP), also operates in the city, but has been severely weakened in the aftermath of armed violence with the MQM and the assault of the terrorist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the lead-up to the operation.

Furthermore, Karachi’s political economy has been shaped by the political role of Pakistan’s military establishment (comprising intelligence and military law enforcement agencies). The Sindh Rangers, specifically, have partnered with the local business community to provide them with private security, collaborated with property developers to host sporting events, and managed the city’s water supply. Their stake in the city’s political economy has increased steadily since their deployment in the late 1980s.

Several other sectarian organizations and splinter groups of political and militant organizations dot the landscape. Such pluralization has created a fractured and loosely assembled political structure in Karachi, reflecting polarized constituencies and competing interests. This complicated arrangement of power seekers upholds the popular description of the city as a microcosm of Pakistan.

The Moving Goalposts of the Karachi Operation

Prior to the operation, Karachi experienced decades of ethnic grievances and criminal and ethno-political violence born of unfulfilled political and economic promises, creating a unique “ordered disorder.” These complaints accompanied active student and campus politics, sparking the rise of political parties like the MQM, a secular party representing the Urdu-speaking Muhajir ethnic group, and the JI, a religious Islamist party. Both the MQM and the JI would compete with Sindh’s largest party, the PPP, which represents ethnic Sindhis. Decades of violence and resentment between Sindhis, Muhajirs, and Pashtuns over political representation, property rights, employment, and broken accords have prompted direct military oversight in Karachi since the late 1980s.

Under the military regime of Pervez Musharraf in the 2000s, the security establishment supported the MQM, empowering its position against that of the PPP and other ethno-political groups. The MQM’s armed militants subsequently battled with the ANP and PPP’s criminal gangs (the gangs of Lyari), plunging the city into violence. Deteriorating law and order brought the city into the purview of an activist judiciary that exerted pressure on political parties, the paramilitary, and the police to eliminate crime and “no-go” areas and curb political influence on law enforcement agencies, through the proceedings and hearings of the 2011 suo moto case on Karachi’s “law and order situation.”

In this context, the military liaised with army, intelligence, and police leadership to orchestrate the 2013 Karachi Operation against criminal and militant actors participating in armed violence. Facing pressure from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) government and the military establishment, the MQM and PPP consented to the operation. They believed it would primarily target religious militancy, including the threat from the TTP.

The aims of this operation were, at least initially, to uproot terrorist groups, criminal gangs, and militant wings of political parties. This effort endeavored to stabilize the city’s economy and increase foreign investment. Pakistan’s civil-military leadership, including the provincial apex committees and the apex court, oversaw the operation. Within a couple of years, the operation had crippled local gangs, weakened militant networks, and, perhaps most importantly, fragmented the MQM.

In 2015, the operation’s architects shifted gears dramatically toward political actors, leading to a violent crackdown on the MQM. The Sindh Rangers raided and sealed party offices and arrested several hundred workers; an unknown number of these were illegally detained and killed. The “security operation” became glaringly political, with the Rangers prioritizing the army’s interests, which were increasingly opposed to those of MQM founder and chief Altaf Hussain.

In 2016, Hussain’s call for violence in a fiery speech against state institutions forced the MQM further out of favor and emboldened the army’s efforts to dismantle the party. Pakistan initiated cases against Hussain on grounds of hate speech and inciting terrorism. Simultaneously, the state alleged that Hussain was sponsored by India’s foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing. The allegation legitimized state violence against party workers and undermined the MQM, but no evidence supporting the claim could be produced.

With the state’s growing intolerance for Hussain and political pressure to “minus Altaf” or face political uncertainty, many MQM party workers and senior members parted ways with Hussain. The exodus fractionalized the MQM and created the MQM-Pakistan (MQM-P). The MQM-P emerged as the dominant group seeking to represent Muhajirs but was unable to win back the relative autonomy the MQM had once possessed.

By 2018, the vacuum created by the MQM’s retreat and fragmentation allowed the PTI the space it needed to win big. Of twenty-one National Assembly (NA) seats for Karachi in 2018, the PTI secured fourteen, taking observers by surprise and leaving the MQM-P and the PPP to split the remaining seats (four and three respectively). The achievement is particularly notable given that in the 2013 general elections, the PTI managed to secure only one NA seat from Karachi. Relations between the PPP, MQM, and PTI in Sindh and Karachi, however, have remained frosty at best.

Aftermath and Impact

The military establishment’s assault on the party left the MQM and its various factions demoralized; senior leaders became distrustful of each other. Attempts were made to merge the factions, but to no avail. The Karachi Operation fizzled in 2018 after reductions in criminal violence and the dismantling of terrorist networks such as the TTP, but it rendered insecure the political standing of parties like the MQM. At the same time, the operation created room for new stakeholders then friendly to the military (such as the PTI) and solidified the influence of the military establishment.

Though the MQM-P and PTI had formed an alliance in 2018, by 2022 the parties severed their partnership. The coalition had strained under the PTI’s lack of focus on urban Sindh and its inability to deliver on development and reform promises. This tension was exploited by the PPP after the formation of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a coalition of opposition parties, chiefly the PPP, PMLN, and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) (JUI-F), that sought to oust Imran Khan’s government.

For its part, the PPP too had been politically targeted by the military during the operation, with key figures accused of “financing terrorism,” money laundering, and corruption, leading the PPP—and thereafter the provincial government in Sindh—to periodically threaten the withdrawal of the policing powers granted to the Rangers. The PPP’s political stake in select constituencies, such as Lyari, was further damaged following crackdowns against the PPP’s patronized gangs in the area; though it had previously been a stronghold of the PPP, Lyari voted in favor of the PTI in 2018.

The operation also impacted the strength of key institutions and their working relationships, including the paramilitary, the police, and intelligence agencies. First, the paramilitary’s operations allowed the Sindh Rangers to gain legitimacy by nurturing intimate working relations with Karachi’s business, industrial, and financial elite. This elite has often relied on the military’s presence and partnership. Over time, the relationship furthered the Rangers’ participation and power in Karachi’s political economy, a trend unlikely to be reversed in the foreseeable future.

Additionally, the operation forced the police to coordinate with the paramilitary, resulting in blurred lines between the organizations. The army and intelligence agencies began to have greater influence on the police, including on recruitment and postings. The interference intended to curb political influence on police leadership and governance, thereby reducing the level of control that the PPP and MQM held over the police.

However, such actions served specific political interests, such as favoring the PTI and hurting the opposition. The interference culminated in a theatrical late-night kidnapping of the provincial police chief by paramilitary and intelligence officers in October 2020. The police had not obeyed the wishes of the military establishment and the PTI: that they should arrest selected leaders of the PDM coalition in a bid to derail the countrywide protests. The kidnapping prompted police officers to submit leave applications en masse, while the PPP called upon the army for an explanation. While the army admitted to the incident and expressed regret, the links between army and police organizations were exposed.

By early 2022, the military’s romance with Khan was evidently fading, affecting the PTI’s alliances in Karachi. In late March, the MQM-P—desperate after its fragmentation, frustrated by the PTI’s lack of interest in Karachi, and observing the potential shifts in the power centers—joined ranks with the PDM to support the no-confidence motion against Khan, resulting in his eventual ouster. Nevertheless, the PTI continues to hold some sway in the city, with large portions of the middle class rallying behind Khan immediately after the successful vote of no confidence in his leadership.

The Future of Karachi’s Opposition Politics

Over the past three decades, the military and paramilitary forces have become key national political players and investors in Karachi. These organizations, granted power by the Karachi Operation, disrupted the hegemony of MQM politicians and the influence of the PPP. The military’s interjections in local politics are likely to continue in the future. Its influence may even be welcomed by Karachi’s corporate elite and key investors, as the city remains vulnerable to threats from terrorist organizations (such as the surge in the TTP’s activity in Pakistan), insurgent and separatist groups, and rising street crime.

While the PTI government has benefited from anti-American, conservative rhetoric and widespread social media marketing, Imran Khan’s ousting from government displays the complex, factionalized nature of politics that endures in Karachi. The PTI is limited by a weak organizational structure and capacity and by internal dissatisfaction, which could compromise its long-term political sustainability. In comparison, the MQM and PPP, while still unlikely to overpower the PTI in the next elections, will enjoy a sustainable presence in Karachi because of their organizational capacity, political training, and experience; the extent of this will depend upon their ability to avoid upsetting the army’s interests.

The PMLN has paid scant attention to Karachi’s economic and political issues, but it has, along with the JUI-F, become a guarantor for the PPP and MQM-P accord and an oversight body for their relations in Karachi going forward. Shahbaz Sharif’s first visit to Karachi, just days after taking oath as the country’s new prime minister, was perhaps an important signal that the PMLN might pay more attention to the city’s infrastructure, transportation, water, and public sector development than it previously has. The PMLN may also pull votes from Karachi’s Punjabi-dominated areas. It will therefore work with both the PPP and the MQM-P, developing relations with both parties depending upon their collective and individual political trajectories.

Provincially, the PPP will benefit from a slowly urbanizing Sindhi population that can boost its vote bank, and the delimitation of local government constituencies it has sought to implement to improve its political standing in cities such as Karachi, a move that is being challenged by the MQM-P and PTI in the courts. Following its new agreement with the MQM-P and the Supreme Court’s direction to form a new local government law in consultation with local political stakeholders, the PPP may need to reconsider some aspects of its demarcations if it is to maintain a partnership with MQM-P, although this relationship has historically been turbulent.

Ethnic politics and financial considerations will thus continue to drive the primary interests of both the MQM-P and the PPP, leading analysts to question how long the “marriage of convenience” between the PPP and the MQM-P will last. For now, there is cautious optimism surrounding the accord, given that the MQM-P does not have a strong bargaining position and the PPP seems to have an improved attitude toward its opposition in Karachi (barring the PTI) and thus may be willing to negotiate with and consult the MQM-P on policy, local governance, and jobs.

Locally, the MQM-P will prioritize securing political gains through the local government elections and provincial assembly seats. On this front, it will be challenged not just by the PTI but also by the TLP, which will continue pulling predominantly Barelvi (a subsect of Sunni Islam) middle-class voters from both the MQM and the PTI. In order for the MQM-P to make substantial gains, however, it will need to continue bargaining with the PPP for the support of both provincial and federal stakeholders to help it compete with the PTI and the TLP’s attraction for middle-class voters (including in some Muhajir pockets). It may also consider merging with other MQM factions, although previous attempts have failed and distrust between faction leaders persists.

Political parties for Muhajir and Sindhi representation will be sought after by Karachi voters, but the extent of their domination will depend largely upon party leaders’ ability to work with one another, as well as their military counterparts, their penetration of the state machinery and bureaucratic institutions, the continuation of patron-client relations, and the ability of opposition forces (especially the TLP and PTI) to capitalize on the future fissures in these civil-military relations and operationalize their forces beyond social media campaigns. Meanwhile, the JI, once a formidable right-wing force, will continue to see its supporters drawn toward the PTI and the TLP, as it did in 2018.

For its part, the MQM-London (the Altaf Hussain faction) is struggling to find space and fit back in. Although Hussain’s cases in London have been dismissed, the group has struggled to regenerate a coordinated presence in Karachi. Previous efforts to consolidate and organize led to the arrests of two key party workers on grounds of “maintaining public order.” Furthermore, the ban on Hussain’s speeches remains in place, a form of censorship that will continue blocking Hussain’s attempts to mobilize and entice voters. For now, the minus-Altaf terms appear non-negotiable, but as experts caution, in Karachi’s pluralized political environment, nobody can be ruled out.


In the coming years, Karachi’s politics and the political security of the stakeholders discussed here will depend upon several developments. First, the city has long planned for local government elections, which will serve as a litmus test for the MQM-P, PPP, and PTI. The elections are scheduled for the summer of 2022, and the agreement between the PPP and MQM-P incorporates the latter’s demands regarding the local government system in Karachi. Whether these demands will be met remains to be seen. Relatedly, the PTI’s ability to sustain itself in Karachi will also be indicated by its performance in these local elections, which were previously (in 2015) dominated by the MQM.

Second, Pakistan is planning for general elections in 2023, and it is unclear how interparty relations will look at that time, and whether these accords will remain intact. In the lead-up to these elections, the MQM-P and PPP may well be at odds again. The PPP is also likely to seek back the control over some bureaucratic institutions and the city’s administration, especially the police, that it lost in the Karachi Operation. If the accord falls through, chances are the MQM-P will look to a federal ally, the PMLN, for political protection. It also remains to be seen whether otherwise relatively secular parties will seek to make electoral alliances with religious parties (such as the JI and TLP) for greater gains, and to offset voters’ attraction to the PTI.

There are two other significant indicators worth following: demographic changes and violent crime. In August 2022, Pakistan intends to carry out its seventh national census. In the 2017 census, the MQM complained that Karachi’s population was underrepresented; it was also angered that the size of the Urdu-speaking (Muhajir) community was less than previously estimated because of how the city has diversified over the years. If the census results again show demographic changes that are unfavorable to the MQM, the party may threaten to renege on its agreements with the PMLN and PPP and return to street-level agitation. The city will also remain prone to violence from Sindhi and Baloch insurgent groups, as recent attacks have demonstrated. And if the TTP, in the context of failed negotiations with the Pakistani state and the support it gets from the Afghan Taliban, continues to escalate its violent attacks, the group is likely to look toward Karachi again to further its operational, networking, and financial capacities.

It is safe to say that in the future, Karachi is likely to remain a fragmented, continually contested political power center, in which the military, political parties, and religious militants are likely to have substantial presence, keeping economic and political stability in a state of flux.


The author thanks Mazhar Abbas, Zia ur Rehman, and Imran Ayub for their crucial insights and feedback.

This article is part of the Politics of Opposition in South Asia initiative run by Carnegie’s South Asia Program.