Karachi is the saddest of cities. It is a South Asian Beirut: a city on the sea, rich and almost glamorous in parts; but also a monument to hatred among different sectarian and ethnic groups, and to the failure of a civic society. It is a city at war as much with itself as with the outside world. The most populous metropolis in Pakistan, Karachi is a profoundly troubled place, intermittently engulfed in terrible bouts of killing and kidnapping. It is a city where the police sit huddled in sandbag emplacements for their own safety, and where the foreign consulates now resemble great fortified Crusader castles—which is how the people of Karachi look on them: the unwelcome, embattled bridgeheads of alien powers.
In the American consulate, surrounded by razor wire and a spiral of shrapnel-marked barriers—it is only sixteen months since the last suicide attack on the complex—one can see a map that shows Greater Karachi in all its sprawling complexity. At first sight, with its different zones colored different primary colors, it resembles the subway maps of many major capitals. Only on closer inspection is it apparent that the colors signify the different types of industry that are the particular specialty of each quarter of the city.
The pink zone in the east is dominated by the Karachi drug mafia; the red zone to the west indicates the area noted for the sophistication of its kidnapping and extortion rackets; the green zone to the south is the preserve of those specializing in sectarian violence. Jihadi-minded Afghan refugees rot in camps to the north, a zone colored bright purple. A slim yellow streak in the center of town—the diplomatic enclave—denotes the zone of relative security, where only the occasional plot to fly explosive-packed aircraft into consulates, or the occasional bombing, breaks the consular calm. Of all the postings offered by the American Foreign Service, Karachi has the highest rating for personal danger except for Kabul and Baghdad, both of which have just experienced a US invasion and occupation. Karachi has not, at least not yet, but there are few places in the world where Americans are more unpopular.
Ten years ago, in the early 1990s, the city put aside any lingering notions of unity and coherence, and embarked on a bout of internal bloodletting that at times came close to matching the civil violence of Beirut twenty years earlier. The Muhajirs, who came from India following Partition, attacked their neighbors, the local Sindhis and Punjabis. Sunnis gunned down Shias; the poor kidnapped the rich. Only the US bombing and invasion of Afghanistan succeeded in diverting attention toward what was then perceived as the common enemy: the US. This was finally something practically everyone in Karachi could agree on. Beginning in the autumn of 2001, the city was engulfed in a paroxysm of Death to America demonstrations, in which hundreds of US flags and presidential effigies were burned.
It was at this moment that an …