For a few weeks, it looked like the sectarian conflict in Kurram Tribal Agency had been brought to a solution. The years-long siege on Shia residents had been lifted thanks to a much talked about peace agreement, allegedly brokered with the help of Jalaluddin Haqqani. This, however, now looks increasingly doubtful and seems to be more the part of a narrative that wants to paint a favourable picture of the old mujahedin commander’s network. Meanwhile, a series of brutal attacks have plunged one of the most strategic areas of FATA once more into instability, while the links between this conflict and the one in Afghanistan grow even stronger. AAN’s analyst Fabrizio Foschini pieces the story together.
The 3 February Kurram Tribal Agency peace agreement that took at least two years to broker, has broken down in a matter of weeks. After the initial agreement, traffic on the Parachinar-Thal road which had been blocked for the last three years because of attacks of Sunni militants, resumed with a semblance of normality after it had been inaugurated in a solemn way by the elders returning from a jirga in Islamabad barely two months ago. For the first time since, the Shia inhabitants of Upper Kurram – from the Pashtun tribe of the Turi – were able to use the most direct road to Peshawar and elsewhere in Pakistan. The Sunni militants were supposed to halt their attacks.
But their attacks on Shia travellers started again from mid-March onwards, first near Thal in Hangu district, right outside the agency’s border, then, on 25 March, near Bagan in Lower Kurram. In this last instance, they stopped some minivans at a checkpoint, killed 13 people and kidnapped another 45 (sources differ about the number of victims, though; local people insist on higher figures, reporting that some women and children were released after a few days).
Kurram, along with Khyber, is often considered the most strategic of the tribal agencies because of its proximity to Afghanistan. The Durand Line here plunges deep towards Kabul; the Afghan capital lies less than 100 kilometers from Parachinar, the main town in Kurram. Almost half of the around 500,000 inhabitants of Kurram are Shia, mostly Turi, and they constitute the majority in the northern portion of the agency. Occasional clashes between the Turi and their Sunni neighbours – mainly Bangash (there are also some Shia Bangash) – over land and water disputes have been recorded since the nineteenth century. Also, the sectarian nature of these clashes and the involvement of fellow Sunni tribesmen from adjoining areas predates the recent conflict. The English colonial recordings for the NWFP and Tribal Areas around the turn of the twentieth century extensively report the presence of Afridi lashkar joining the fight under the guidance of Sunni religious leaders.
At the same time, the agency has been one of the least ‘tribal’ ones, in relation to the way many observers have typically portrayed the FATA: it is being partially inhabited by a religious minority who are forced to rely on good relations with the state in order to face down the threats of their neighbours. This has made Kurram one of the most accessible spots for the British colonial power and then the Pakistani institutions in the region. From the perspective of the Pakistani government, it was less remote and wild than, for example, the Waziristans or Bajaur. Parachinar town also has a literacy rate comparable to national levels, a unique feature in the FATA. However, the sectarian clashes triggered in the rest of the country by Sunni extremist militant groups in due course reached Kurram, exacerbating the pre-existing tribal rivalries(*).
It was the 1980s, with the influx of Afghan refugees and the arming by the Pakistani government of Sunni tribesmen willing to take part in the Afghan jihad led to the first major clashes in decades. According to some sources,Hezb-e Islami fighters had a part in attacking the Shia inhabitants in the town of Sadda in 1986-87, but the conflict was sparked by confrontations between the two sects during religious ceremonies (for example during Ashura and on the Birthday of the Prophet). Communal riots continued to affect Parachinar at intervals of ten years, but the situation did not escalate into full warfare until April 2007. Since then, a low-intensity conflict has predominated, marked by outbursts of hard fighting which each cost hundreds of lives, and by a blockade of Upper Kurram by the Sunni combatants. This has cut off the Shia from urban centres in Pakistan and reduced their lives to dire extremities(**).
The establishment of the Tehrik-e Taleban-e Pakistan (TTP) maximized opportunities for the local Sunnis to receive support from other areas and, as early as autumn 2007, TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud reportedly sent the first Waziri/Mahsud lashkar to Kurram. In the spring of the following year, this was followed by a more permanent group of TTP militants who came from Orakzai agency and whose presence in Kurram was made more formal in the summer of 2009 by the appointment of Mulla Tufan as TTP commander in charge of the agency. Tensions have at times been reported between local Sunnis and their external allies. Even fighters from Khyber agency – belonging to Lashkar-e Islam and Ansar al-Islam, Pakistani Taleban groups that had remained outside TTP – have joined the anti-Shia fight on various occasions, although rivals among themselves.
The strategic position of Kurram, which had already entailed a problematic flux of Taleban and foreign fighters fleeing Afghanistan in late 2001, quite naturally makes it an interesting spot for those groups who, like the Haqqani network, enjoy cross-border insurgent activities. The presence of Afghan Taleban and al-Qaida fighters and even some top leaders has been widely reported, and sometimes exaggerated, by foreign analysts’ websites as well as by local Shias who hope to get external support to fight the siege imposed on them. Reports about the shift of the Haqqanis’ activities to Kurram and about Serajuddin Haqqani himself hiding in Kurram, after North Waziristan became heavily affected by drone strikes, reached their peak late last summer. According to some sources, these reports played a role in triggering US helicopter attacks on Teri Mangal and Mata Sangar on 27 September 2010, attacks which were directed at militants involved in cross-border firing, but in which some Pakistani security personnel were killed. The most visible, although short-term, reaction to this attack was the closure of the Khyber Pass supply route for NATO troops for over a week. Less evident, although with more far-reaching consequences for the people of Kurram, was the closure by the Pakistani army of the border crossings leading from Kurram to Afghanistan. This closure is enforced to this day.
Border crossings leading to Afghanistan had, until then, provided the safest and most reliable way out of the agency. Through these routes, the Shias could reach Kabul and then Peshawar or Islamabad, while access to the provincial capitals of Khost and Gardez in itself remained an important channel for the supply of foodstuffs and other basic goods which could not be got through the blockade in Lower Kurram. Since October, however, Kurram has been almost completely isolated. According to locals AAN spoke too, it is still possible to bribe the Pakistani border guards with 25,000 to 30,000 rupees (US$300-350) and be allowed to cross the border, but given these high costs, this is an opportunity for big businessmen only, not for normal people.
Reasons that the Pakistani authorities give for the draconian measure are the need to prevent ‘miscreants from outside from exploiting the situation’ (ie the sectarian struggle), and the slightly worn-out issue of the Indian consulates in Afghanistan built close to Pakistan’s border who are ‘engaged in terrorist activities’. ‘We always get this answer from the local commander of the Frontier Corps’, one local journalist told AAN. ‘But why then are the frontier crossings in Waziristan and Khyber agencies open?’
A more local element of Pakistani paranoia could also have played a role: the fear that Kurram’s Shias are growing closer to Kabul than to Islamabad. Kurram, as stated, has been a comparatively ‘civilized’ tribal area, so much so that there was a certain degree of state control by Kabul when the area was part of the Afghan kingdom (until the second Anglo-Afghan War in 1878/80) – certainly to a much higher degree than in neighbouring Khyber or Waziristan, and slightly more so even than in Khost or Paktia. Much later, the minority position of Shia Turi tribesmen made them turn to the PDPA government in Kabul at a time when they were hard-pressed by mujahedin and by Zia ul-Haq’s support for Sunni sectarians (religion was not the only cause; PDPA outreach efforts to the tribes across the border were significant and, at times, quite effective.) More recently, the Afghan government seems to have considered resuming contacts with the beleaguered Turi in order to prevent Taleban infiltrations. This, however, has been done with the usual degree of confusion and inconsistency which plagues Afghan institutions.
In a joint jirga in 2007, the governor of Paktia managed to dissuade the tiny Mangal community of Upper Kurram from accepting financial offers from the Taleban in exchange for access to its strategic position on the border: it was the Turi, worried by the Taleban, which had requested him to intervene. A few months later, however, after clashes had erupted between Afghan and Pakistani troops on the Paktia-Kurram section of the Durand Line, and a meeting had been called in Parachinar to settle things, the same governor and Afghan and US officers were fired at by what were reported by some as ‘rogue elements’ of the Frontier Corps. ‘They fired at us twice, even when the plane was taking off’, related one of those present. ‘Karzai’s only reaction was to express astonishment, and the Americans were convinced by the Pakistani that it had been the Taleban arriving on the scene – or they pretended to be convinced.’
Even before the Pak-Afghan Joint Peace Jirga in August 2007, a series of trans-border jirgas between Jaji and Turi elders had agreed to ‘fight terrorism together and live like brothers’, in the words of one of the Afghan participants, the former MP Bedar Jaji. Even in this case, the involvement of the Afghan government was minimal, with just a small contribution to expenses from the Ministry of Border and Tribal Affairs(***).
However, a 2010 article by the former Nawaz Sharif advisor and prominent Pashtun politician Ghayur Ayub, which was widely republished by the Pakistani press, while advocating state support for the Shia, raised the alarm by its title: ‘Is Islamabad losing Parachinar to Kabul?’
It seems likely that the bogeyman of a long-dead Afghan irredentism on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line was considered useful to justify the sealing of the borders of Kurram, a policy which actually delivers its population into the hands of the militants. Locals are unhappy with the Pakistani army, as one complained: ‘The military does not take serious action against the Taleban. Only in the eastern part of Kurram, near the border with Khyber and Orakzai, do they sometimes claim they’ve killed some Taleban…but if they really wanted to act, they could clear them out in a couple of months.’
Militants, on the other hand, have been hectically active. Rumours of a concerted attack on the Shias by different Taleban groups started to circulate in October 2010. In particular, the Pakistani press highlighted the role to be played by Mulla Tufan and Tariq Afridi, the latter a TTP commander originally from Dara Adamkhel, and both notorious for their anti-Shia stance. It also described how they were supported by ‘thousands’ of Orakzai Taleban (and Panjabi elements of Lashkar-e Jhangvi or similar groups, although this was not so highlighted by the media). Several articles started introducing the idea that Serajuddin Haqqani had been asked by the Shia Turi to mediate with the TTP on their behalf. In an alternative narrative, reported by the Pakistani Express Nation on 28 October 2010, the Turi tribesmen ‘…sought the Haqqanis’ help… They want the Taliban to stand by them in case of intrusions into their area by NATO troops,’ as explained a former MP from Kohat who, according to himself, had a part in the talks.
The ideal intention, if such a request was true, of avoiding bloodshed among Muslims – including even Shias – and concentrating instead on the ‘real jihad’ against NATO and the Afghan government, fits well with the evolution of the Afghan Taleban’s discourse after 2001. Very sensibly, for example, the Taleban never claimed the killing of eleven Shia travellers from Kurram in Chamkani district of Paktia last summer, even if it was probably Haqqani Taleban enacting the blockade also on the Afghan side. Jalaluddin Haqqani, the father, and Serajuddin, the son, have been endowed with unlimited influence and powers of mediation among the militant galaxy in the FATA, at least by the Pakistani press(****).
Later it was ‘revealed’ that the accord had already been brokered in September 2010, that actually Haqqani’s involvement dated back to 2009, that Khalil and Ibrahim, two other relatives of Haqqani senior, had taken part in several meetings in Peshawar and Islamabad, and finally, that the Haqqanis had obtained access to the Shia territory in exchange for their mediation and permission to infiltrate the border from Kurram and to re-deploy safely to their areas if US pressures finally induced the Pakistani army to move its operations into North Waziristan.
An elder from Parachinar interviewed by AAN dismissed the whole engagement of the Haqqanis in the jirgas as a tale only, saying that it did not happen in such an overt or relevant way, if it happened at all.
Whatever Haqqani’s role was, on 3 February 2011 a 220-strong peace jirga in Islamabad headed by the former federal minister, Waris Khan Afridi, concluded a process initiated over two years previously and sanctioned the peace agreement. It also received verbal support from the TTP in Kurram. Its current commander, Fazl Sayed, was quoted as declaring: ‘Violating the new accord would be punished according to shari’a (Islamic law)…We will first ask the political administration and jirga members to take action against the side violating the agreement. But we will be justified to punish the violators after 15 days, as per the accord.’
However, it was the same commander who bears the strongest suspicion of being behind the recent attacks on travellers. According to the local journalist who interviewed seven women who were released by their captors, the women were sent with a message for the Turi elders, to the effect that the attacks were in retaliation for the Pakistani government not having fulfilled its promises to the militant group. Reportedly, one of Fazl Sayed’s brothers is being held in a Pakistani prison along with another 20 of his affiliates. Again, whatever the truth of the matter, a breach in the cease-fire was only to be expected. If not the local TTP, the Orakzai-based anti-Shia fanatics, Afridi militants fleeing from the current infighting in Tirah, or Hakimullah Mehsud himself could have broken the truce at any moment, given their strong armed presence and the lack of control of the area by the Pakistani security forces.
The idea of Haqqani taking a lion-share in successfully bringing the warring parties to the negotiating table fitted both the ISI’s current whim of presenting Jalaluddin Haqqani as an elderly philanthropist, and his sons as moderate elements acting as potential peace-makers for the FATA on behalf of Pakistan, and the American anti-terrorism experts’ wailing and crying over Pakistani ‘duplicity’ and the renewed ability of the diabolic ‘Haqqani Network’ to steal across the border and strike into Afghanistan(*****).
Nobody challenged the crazy idea that a man, or even a family, could single-handedly solve a conflict which had lasted for years and which featured at least seven major militant groups. Nobody questioned the idea that, outside of Islamist rhetoric, a clan of refugee guerrillas from another tribe could exert influence in such a degree on the Mehsud, Waziri, Afridi, Orakzai and Panjabi militant outfits, or even the original fighting parties, the Bangash and Turi. As for the degree of support the Haqqanis would have received from the Pakistan military and intelligence in their peacemaking intervention – whatever its extent – the institutions involved should have learnt by now that it is much easier to destabilize a region than to put the pieces together once the first objective is achieved.
The real objective of last month’s attacks may have been to further isolate the Shia of Upper Kurram, disrupt the cohesiveness of their social networks, and bring them to their knees, which, it should not be forgotten, could be the desire of a state confronting semi-autonomous, tribal communities. Of course, the jirga provided the perfect excuse for the state to keep away from Kurram’s problems and gave a façade of law and order. There is no need to admit state failure as long as ‘obsolete tribal customs’ or foreign plots can be blamed.
One can only hope that the details concerning a guarantee supposedly placed with the Haqqanis by the Turi and Bangash – a sum of between 40 and 60 million rupees (US$500,000-700,000) as well as sheep – was a joke. It would be exceedingly untoward if the Haqqanis have managed to add this money to the funding sources of the Taleban.
(*) Conversely, years of sectarian tensions also stimulated the creation of a couple of Shia militant groups in Kurram, called Hizbullah and Mehdi Militia, which have played an prominent role in the recent fights.
(**) In Kurram, basic goods like fuel cost three times more than in other areas of the FATA and Pakistan. A blockade on a smaller scale has in turn sometimes been enforced by the Turi on some of the small enclaves of Sunni tribes dwelling in the uppermost portion of Kurram, for example in Teri Mangal.
(***) Afghanistan’s Ministry for Tribal and Border Affairs was initially established to take care of the relations with the so-called Free Tribes (Qabayel-e Azad), an expression of Kabul’s never fully relinquished claim to the areas cut off from it by the Durand Line.
(****) We reproduce the conclusion of a visionary article by Dawn (click here for the full text), as it provides an insight on the type of disinformation that reaches Pakistani mass media, most probably through some security institutions (propaganda on peace talks is not a feature unique to Afghanistan, nor is it desperation for peace among the public), and on the rather explicit territorial and political claims that the latter seem to entertain regarding Afghanistan:
‘An elder who is familiar with recent arrangements said that the Haqqani network undertook initiatives for restoration of peace in Kurram Agency against the backdrop of growing understanding between President Hamid Karzai and those who had influence over Pakistan’s Afghan policy. Now, an option for securing stakes for the Haqqani network in Afghanistan’s future political settlement is being reviewed at the highest level. The option is to give the group some share in power in Afghanistan’s southern provinces, which will end violence in the volatile Kurram Agency. About the Haqqani network’s offers, the elder said that even its affiliates would help the government in maintaining peace in Hangu and Dera Ismail Khan districts, which are facing the worst type of sectarian violence. To that end, the Haqqani network will use its influence over rouge sectarian elements, which are part of their operations, to end attacking innocent civilians. “If the formula works in Kurram then it can be replicated in other troubled areas,” he remarked.’
(*****) Even the authoritative article by Daud Khattak published on the AfPakChannel in mid-February, although sceptical on the goodwill of the parties involved, seemed inclined to believe that the deal would have worked (click for it here).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020