May 10, 2012: A major source of terrorism in the world is the widespread custom of political parties maintaining armed auxiliaries to intimidate their opponents and anyone who might vote for them. Often these armed supporters are a local criminal gang, which is more interested in cash than politics. Governments sometimes come to their senses and try to shut down some of these gangs. This is difficult to do.
A recent example can be found in Pakistan. On April 27th, the Pakistani Army sent over a thousand troops and police, including several hundred commandos, into a Karachi neighborhood to destroy a major gang, which had long controlled the area. The gang, calling itself the "People's Peace Committee" (or PAC), had long worked for the PPP, the current national ruling party. But there had been a series of disputes between PAC and PPP, so PPP arranged with the army, police, and the rival Pappu gang to eliminate PAC. The operation was supposed to take three days. After five days the government called a time out and, in practice, admitted that they had been unable to drive the PAC out of the Lyari neighborhood. Over fifty people died in the effort, with several hundred wounded. Most of the casualties were civilian bystanders. The PAC is basically a Baloch operation, with most members from the tribes of Baluchistan (southwest Pakistan). Gangs based on ethnic affinity are common in Pakistan and around the world.
Politics is often a contact sport in Pakistan and it's become common for political parties to ally themselves with criminal gangs to win elections. The gangster chiefs sometimes seek to enter politics themselves or demand more favors from their patrons than the parties can justify. The gangsters are also, well, gangsters and have unsavory reputations, despite the occasional Robin Hood type gesture. Political parties and their gang associates often part company for political, financial, or personal reasons.
There is a lot of political violence in Pakistan, especially in the cities. Karachi is Pakistan's largest city, with 14 million people (eight percent of the nation's population) and producer of a quarter of the GDP. Since Pakistan was founded in 1947, there has been violence between the natives (Sindis, from the surrounding Sind province) and new groups from India (Mohajirs, Indian Moslems forced to flee the religious violence that accompanied the division of British India into Pakistan and India) and Pushtuns, Baluchis and other minorities from the Pakistani tribal territories.
The Pushtuns are the most numerous tribal minority in Karachi but are divided by religious and tribal differences. There had long been smaller versions of these two communities in Karachi but in 1947, hundreds of thousands of Mohajirs showed up. The Pushtun community grew more slowly, as enterprising young Pushtuns fled the poor, and violent, tribal lands for a better life in Sind. The Pushtuns found themselves shunned and feared in Karachi. The Mohajirs were wealthier and better educated and were soon competing with the Sindis for control of the great city. The Pushtuns and other tribesmen produced a lot of criminal gangs and a poor underclass. On top of this there was also religious violence between various Moslem groups (especially Sunni and Shia) as well as between Moslems and non-Moslems (usually Christians and Hindus).
What makes this such an incomprehensible mess is that each group has a different idea of what winning is. Most of these groups see political power as useful and attach themselves to one political party or another. But political power is a means to an end. The old Sind clans in Karachi want to maintain the power they have held for centuries and have nowhere to go but down. The Mohajirs have hurt the Sind clans economically and politically. But for sheer body count the Pushtun groups (both political, criminal, and religious) have been the most dangerous. The Pushtuns are pushing for respect and more economic and political power. The Sindis and Mohajirs are reluctant to give it up. The religious radical groups (including the Taliban and al Qaeda) want a regional religious dictatorship. This puts them at odds with the Sindi and Mohajirs political parties.
This year the violence has gotten much worse. Starting in January, when there were nearly 200 deaths from political and religious violence the fighting has continued. Massive police efforts reduced the violence for a while but the political and terrorist gangs kept at it. Police were ordered to "shoot on sight" any of the armed men responsible for turning many Karachi neighborhoods into combat zones.
While the violence is mainly driven by political parties seeking to establish control over parts of the city, Islamic radicals are heavily involved. The Taliban has established a presence among the two million Pushtuns in the city. Many of those killed have been Pushtuns, partly because the locals are hostile to Pushtun groups gaining more power and partly because many Pushtun groups are fighting each other. But a lot of the violence is the result of the Taliban trying to prevent the police from stopping the Pushtun radicals establishing safe havens in Karachi. The wealthier Sindis and Mohajirs just want law and order so that commerce can continue uninterrupted. Some of that commerce is illegal, like gun running and drug smuggling. The Pushtun gangs control a lot of this but getting stuff in and out of the country often requires cooperation from Sindi and Mohajirs officials and gangsters.
Karachi is one the wealthiest parts of Pakistan, but the city itself is an explosive mélange of hostile groups. Add to that party politics and a disdain for rules and laws and you get a very ugly situation.