One morning in September last year, a van pulled up outside an unmarked house in Karachi's posh Defence neighbourhood. Two kids appeared from the front door and sat in the rear seat of the family car parked inside the compound. After confirming the target, the man sitting in the van outside reached for the detonator. But then, suddenly something happened that he was not prepared for. The kids came out fighting and cursing each other and rushed inside the house. Fraction of seconds later, the van blew.
Powerful shockwaves rippled through the neighbourhood, bringing down the entire front of the house. Several of the neighbouring houses too took the impact as eight people lay dead: policemen, house guards and passersby among others. The target of the attack was the family of Muhammad Aslam Khan, Karachi's Dirty Harry. This was the fifth attack on him and his family by Taliban in as many years.
Eyewitnesses say that shaken out of sleep, Aslam Khan, SSP CID, popularly known as Chaudhry Aslam, was the first to come out of the house to load the dead and injured into am¬bulances. Minutes later, standing in the eight feet by six feet crater and facing the camera, Aslam did not betray any sign of fear. “Yeh dekho! Issi gaddhe mein dafan karunga tum sab ko (Take a good look, I will bury you all in this same crater),” was his defiant message to Taliban. Within an hour, as his children went to school unperturbed, Aslam, washed in mud and blood, was back to what he does best – hunting Taliban and other nuts in Karachi.
At first glance, Aslam hardly appears distinct from the people he takes on. Colourful in language, chain-smoking and adorned in starched white unbuttoned salwar-kurta, Aslam looks cut out for operating in the badlands of Karachi. After repeated requests to Pakistan's Interior Ministry, we finally received a go-ahead to see for ourselves how he operates.
Just like his house, he operates from an unmarked compound in the Garden area in Karachi that has three layers of defences. Aslam's day starts when others comfort¬ably tuck themselves into bed. Roaming in an armoured jeep in the dead of the night, Aslam's lone company are the daring men from his CID Force who, like their boss, do not wear uniform. Aslam's idea is sim¬ple: hit Taliban before they know what hit them. Under the circumstances, uniforms are a dead giveaway.
In the tradition of all Dirty Harry clones of the world who have taken on organised crime, Aslam has climbed up in the hier¬archy one step by another, “making his bones” in the process. He started his career in 1987 as an assistant sub-inspector, the lowest rung offi cer in the police force in the subcontinent. You talk with him for a couple of minutes and it is evident that he does not come out suave and mannered like his counterparts who have become SSP by clearing the prestigious Police Service exams. But that is the point. He does not need to appear as such.
He kept getting promoted every time he either arrested or knocked off some of the most wanted criminals in Pakistan. Pro¬moted as an Inspector in 1991 and SHO in 1994, Aslam's biggest test came in the mid-90s when security forces and police started the controversial clean-up opera¬tion against the millitants of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). It was not without retaliation. In years to follow, most of the officers who "made their bones" in that operation were gunned down. Aslam survived by grit and wit.
An uneasy understanding developed between him and MQM when the threat of Taliban loomed large. After all, MQM was the only party that had a clear policy on Taliban: eliminate every single one.
Aslam, meanwhile, kept taking on mob-bosses, racketeers, extortionists, abductors and plain dacoits. In every single opera¬tion that Aslam commanded, he led from the front. He still does, in his 50s.
As a DSP he unravelled the empire of underworld don Shoaib Khan. As an SP, he headed the Lyari Task Force that clamped down on the mafia run by Lyari gangsters Rehman Dakait and Arshad Pappu. He managed to gun down Dakait in 2010, cutting short his reign of terror. The impressive CV catapuled him to CID where he joined as head of the Counter Terrorism Unit and as chief of the Anti-Extremism Cell the same year.
Clearly, his vivid resume means, while his dress is always white, he has an army of enemies who want to see him dead. But he is very clear in his thoughts. “I've seen so much that nothing scares me,” he tells TSI. “As a Muslim, my faith says everyone has to die one day. I'm not afraid of it.”
Question him about moments of inhibi¬tion, moments of hesitation while taking on the Taliban and he gives you a look that shakes you from within. “I know where this question is coming from. Don’t be confused. We don’t hesitate when we take on Taliban. They are not Muslims. Th ey are criminals, pure criminals.”
Aslam's brashness has come at a cost. After the attack on his house in Defence neighbourhood, some of his neighbours filed a court petition to force him to move to another area. Understandably, Aslam and his force was furious. “People should think about the work we do. If our chil¬dren are being targeted, it is because we are protecting those people,” said one of his aides. Mercifully, the petition was struck down.
There are other problems as well. Aslam does not complain but people who know his work maintain that the newly insur¬gent judiciary poses a big problem. Many of the militants from sectarian organisa¬tions like Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi who were apprehended by Aslam and his men at great personal risk, were let loose by the court just like that. True, in any democracy, judiciary needs to keep a tab on organisations like CID. But in Pa¬kistan it has different contours. A society where judiciary and police are so politi¬cised and divided along ethnic lines, Aslam and his men come up as rare examples.
And it is in individuals like him that the salvation of Pakistan rests.