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Taliban Commanders ‘Disappear’ in Lawless Karachi

Wanted poster of "Top Commander" of TTP in Karachi, Pakistan.

Wanted poster of suspected Pakistani Taliban bombmaker Azizullah, who is also known as Shamazai Baba. Wajahat S. Khan / NBC News

KARACHI, Pakistan -- The Pakistani Taliban have traded the mountains of the tribal badlands to the ghettos of the country's largest city.

Karachi, which is Pakistan's financial nerve center, has seen decades of criminal and political violence. Around 27,000 police officers and 15,000 paramilitary forces are struggling to keep the coastal megacity's 20 million people safe.

However, their presence in entire neighborhoods is limited because of the well-armed and organized militants operating there.

Image: A busy street in Karachi, Pakistan
A busy street in Karachi, Pakistan, where around 27,000 police officers and 15,000 paramilitary forces are struggling keeping the coastal megacity's 20 million people safe. AKHTAR SOOMRO / Reuters, file

“The Taliban find easy camouflage in a place like Karachi,” said Major General Rizwan Akhtar of the Sindh Rangers, the paramilitary outfit tasked last September to lead a massive intelligence-led ground operation.

" They come from the mountains, maybe get a shave, and just disappear.”

Pointing to a massive map in his "tactical headquarters" in a converted school in west Karachi, he explained: “The unplanned slums on the fringes of the city and it’s various ethnic enclaves provide the perfect cover for these guys. They come from the mountains, maybe get a shave, and just disappear.”

According to figures from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, almost 10,700 citizens were killed from 2010 until last year in various "target killings," the local term used for those killed deliberatley over ethnicity, sect or even affiliation with a rival political or Taliban group.

Security forces are struggling for their own safety as the Taliban increase the ferocity and nature of their attacks. On Thursday, a suicide attack killed 13 police commandos and injured over 50 as they were leaving their base for deployment. The Pakistani Taliban, which is headqauartered 745 miles away in North Waziristan and is currently engaged in negotiations with the government, claimed it as a "defensive operation."

Image: Suicide attack targeting police bus in Karachi, Pakistan, on Thursday
Security officials collect evidence following a suicide attack targeting a police bus in Karachi, Pakistan, on Thursday. Anadolu Agency / Getty Images Contributor

On Friday morning, a suicide bomber on foot attempted to target a brigadier-general, the second most important paramilitary officer in the city, as he jumped under his speeding SUV. The officer survived, but two of his guards were injured. Meanwhile, the commercial city moved on at its usual, brisk pace.

Karachi is also a key port of exit for billions of dollars worth of military hardware that U.S. and NATO forces will be trucking out of neighboring Afghanistan as the drawdown intensifies.

“What do you think we should place for this guy’s head money,” Akhtar asked as he received a freshly printed "Wanted" poster of Azizullah, alias Shamazai Baba.

Azizullah is an alleged member of a Taliban offshoot which has been accused of masterminding attacking police officers in Karachi’s industrial areas. He is being hunted for crimes including bombmaking, fundraising and running Taliban operations.

“One million? One point two million [around $12,000]? What do you think the families of the cops he’s lobbed grenades at would want us to put as his bounty?”