The CSS Blog Network

Urban Battlegrounds: Dystopian Futures or Complex Realities?

A man in a dark Karachi alley. Image: Ebtesam Ahmed/Flickr

From Kobane and Raqqa to the streets of Mexico City and beyond, cities are increasingly being perceived as urban battlegrounds – places where the world’s next wars will be fought between traditional armies and non-state actors. In this respect, there’s nothing coincidental about the fact that these ‘battlegrounds’ are primarily located in the ‘developing’ world. It’s here where most of the world’s urbanization is taking place. For many, rapid urbanization means living in informal settlements. It also means increased exposure to high rates of crime, violence and limited opportunities for human advancement.

Taken together, these cities paint a dystopian future, where wars will be fought between actors who pose an asymmetric threat to local and regional power matrices and formal state structures. However,  the equation of actors finding urban centers as warm ecosystems to thrive in and carve out niches of power is deceptively simple. It is also dangerous. Instead of painting these grim realities as struggles between non-state actors and the authorities, we need to study them in light of their evolving nature and relationship with pre-existing social and political conditions. That inevitably means linking them to other problems such as climate change and the crime-terror nexus. Only then will we be able to tackle the challenges posed by urban battlegrounds.

Welcome to Karachi

Take the example of Karachi, Pakistan, a city of almost twenty million people that has undoubtedly witnessed rapid urbanization and all of the problems associated with the phenomenon. The influx of people has been disruptive on at least two counts. Not only has the rapid increase in population exacerbated already flawed systems of basic service delivery, it has also challenged the power dynamics of a political system that is balkanized along ethnic lines. In the absence of strong state mechanisms, non-state actors such as political parties and crime groups have stepped in to provide the whole gamut of public services. Consequently, their respective bids to control the city’s lucrative resources are driven as much by economic as political reasons. In this respect, serving their particular ethnic groups to ensure support makes perfect sense.

Yet, that’s not to say that opportunities for collusion between state and non-state actors are non-existent. When the Hub River dried up in the mid-1990s, city officials responded by sending water tankers into the worst affected parts of Karachi. What was supposed to be a temporary and cost-effective solution eventually became part and parcel of everyday life in Karachi. It also became a lucrative source of income for non-state actors, especially after they established their own parallel water supplies. Unauthorized water-hydrants sprang up pumping water from underground and illegally selling it at high profits. At present, six out of ten people in Karachi receive their water-supply through informal means. While it’s a reliable source, it’s also on the expensive side. Such a large operation cannot function without the tacit support of local government officials at one level or the other. At the same time, it cannot be discounted as a corrupt and criminal activity alone. The needs of a growing city with unreliable water resources have found a creative way to service the population on a daily basis.

A Dangerous (New) Actor

The host of non-state actors that control neighborhoods, dispense justice and engage in illicit activities around Karachi now includes the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Its growing influence within the city can be traced back to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. After being pushed out of their strongholds, many TTP and Al Qaeda operatives found refuge in Karachi. Not only was the city used for rest and recreation, it also became a source of income, particularly through land grabs, bank heists and kidnappings.

In short, the TTP has followed in the footsteps of the other crime groups that are vying for economic and political control of Karachi. From bank heists to kidnappings for ransom, the extremist group’s illicit activities now also include widespread extortion. It’s also making life incredibly difficult for the city’s legitimate political actors. These include the Awami National Party (ANP), which has been pushed out of Karachi as a result of the TTP’s intimidation and violence. In doing so, the jihadist group has attempted to replace the ANP as representative of Karachi’s Pashtun population.

This does not bode well for a place that’s already been dubbed the ‘world’s most dangerous megacity’. The possibility of an armed showdown between the TTP and other political contenders, such as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), should not be underestimated. It’s highly likely that the resulting turf war will be bloody and usher in new and unprecedented levels of violence. Not only could the TTP make extensive use of its parts of the city to hide fighters and weapons, it might also resort to a familiar set of ‘shock tactics’. These include using citizens as human shields and planning as equally audacious attacks as the one on Karachi international airport in June 2014.

Testing Times Ahead

By following pre-existing informal rules of the game in Karachi, the TTP has proved itself to be an evolving phenomenon, one that cannot be characterized only as a jihadi terror group. Indeed, framing its existence mainly along the lines of Salafi ideology fails to capture the extent of its presence in Pakistan’s largest city. Its political ambitions, indicative of which is its claim to represent the Pashtun population of Karachi, ought to impress upon policy analysts that military operations alone will fail to stamp out the threat posed by the TTP. How Pakistan responds to the threat posed by Islamist extremism in its largest city will also have ramifications for the rest of the country and, indeed, the wider neighborhood.

In sum, Karachi – like countless other megacities – should be viewed in all its complexity as a city facing problems of efficient service delivery, resource depletion, a rapid increase in population, and the growing challenges posed to the state’s monopoly on violence by different actors. In the midst of these problems, the TTP represents another political contender, albeit one with transnational aims and a ruthless jihadi ideology in its armor. It is the job of academics and policy makers to find method in the madness of such places and understand the complexity of the problems at hand. At stake is not only the future of millions of people who come to the city in search of better lives but also regional and global stability which cannot endure muddled policy experiments. At least not for long.


Nazia Hussain is a a doctoral candidate at the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University. She is also a research scholar at George Mason University’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit ISN Security Watch or browse our resources.