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Karachi sits on the Arabian Sea, on Pakistan's southern coast. The humidity is dense, the heat is suffocating. Men sleep on the grass near the airport under the neon glow of a nearby McDonald's, good lodging; tens of thousands more, many of them heroin addicts, sleep lined up on concrete sidewalks and underpasses.
The mood here is relaxed; Peshawar, Islamabad, and the anticipated war are 700 miles to the north. Western dress is still rare, but far fewer women are in burkas. Liquor, it is said, is readily available with the right connection.
The city is filled with gloriously dilapidated British Victorian-era architecture and shantytowns that extend almost to the backdoors of glass and steel office towers. Sheep and camels pulling carts range the billboard-lined city streets. A huge ox lies in the middle of a traffic island, oblivious to the rushing, beeping, smoke-belching vehicles: families of four on mopeds (the woman again riding sidesaddle), a Lexus driven by a businessman in a suit, hundreds of packed buses with people hanging from the sides and sitting on the roofs.
Members of the upper classes are fewmaybe a few thousand people out of 14 millionand usually it takes them just a moment to calculate the few degrees of separation: the parents who worked together, or the brothers and sisters they know from Wharton or L.S.E. They live in nice houses, have servants, drive late-model cars, reminisce about their years in London or New York.
These people, the women in particular, loathe both the Taliban and Pakistanis like Mullah Syed Ubad Ulah Shah. "I hate the fundamentalists and what they've done to this countryhow they've held us hostage with their demonstrations," says Sairah Irshad Khan, a tall, imposing woman who is senior editor at Newsline, Pakistan's leading investigative magazine.
Yet Sairah, like most others from the upper classes, has harsh words for the U.S. as well. "People here say, 'When is America going to get up and ask, Why is this [the WTC bombing] happening?' They need to look at the mindless bombing of Iraq. Saddam is still thereyou're bombing women and children. To what end, I want to know?"
Of the American media, she asks, "Why are the IRA not referred to as Catholic terrorists; why is Timothy McVeigh not a Christian terrorist? Israelis are not referred to as Jewish terrorists. But if Arabs are involved, suddenly they're Islamic terrorists. There are all kinds of Muslim countries with distinct identities. We're not all the same. Islam does not condone terrorism."
Sairah understands the anger about the U.S. abandonment of the region in 1990, after the Soviet withdrawal. U.S. aid to Pakistan went from hundreds of millions of dollars in the late 1980s to $6 million in 2000. Of the coming attack, she says, "I'm afraid Pakistan is going to have to pick up the pieces again. What will happen after the war, when millions of refugees funnel in and donor fatigue sets in? We're left holding the baby and the bathwater. The drugs and the guns come flooding in again. After the last war, America pulled out. Who's going to feed these refugees? We can barely feed ourselves."
In the 1980s, the CIA-backed mujahideen, in an effort to raise funds, turned their country into one of the largest producers of heroin in the world. Karachi became a transshipment point, and today there are an estimated 600,000 addicts on the city streets. Raiz Mohammed Khan, Karachi's director of customs intelligence, says, "Before the Afghan war, we didn't know what heroin was. We'd only seen marijuana and soft drugs."
Of much greater concern is the fallout from what is termed "Kalashnikov culture," the thousands of automatic weapons left over from the conflict, and the hardened men who returned from Afghanistan, ready to use them. The residue was on display last week in a Karachi neighborhood called Azam Town. The mosque there stands on a windswept, dirt backstreet. A group of boys stands at the door looking in at large puddles of congealed blood turned a dusky brown. Two days earlier a pair of men arrived on a motorbike. They stepped into the doorway in the midst of maghrib (evening prayer) and opened up with a Kalashnikov and an automatic pistol. Sixty-five rounds, six deadtwo men and four boys.
A man leads a reporter to the corner and shows him what looks like a black fringe tassel hanging from the 10-foot ceiling. One of the boys was hit in the head, he explains. The black fringe is his hair and a bit of his skull that stuck to the ceiling. "How old were the boys?" he is asked. Six, seven, eight, he says. The attack was probably religious in nature; Karachi's Sunnis and Shiites, two Muslim sects, have been warring for months, settling their disputes with AK-47s, which can be purchased for about $100 U.S. in the Northwest Frontier province.
Kalashnikovs are Karachi's weapon of choice: Across town the same afternoon, a carjacker takes a man and his young son hostage. The police give chase, open fire with their AK-47s. The result: three dead, the carjacker, the victim, his son.