THE government of Pakistan and its strategic planners in the security establishment do not appear interested in peace in the strategically important Kurram tribal agency. This is the popular perception among the region’s Shias and Sunnis after the eruption of a fresh wave of violence.
The views seem to be grounded in reality, otherwise the government would not so easily have squandered the opportunity for peace after the warring sects signed a peace accord on Feb 3.
The tribal elders from other regions of Fata, who were part of the grand tribal jirga that succeeded in formulating the peace accord, are also questioning the government’s failure to exploit the chance to bring lasting peace to this violence-prone region. The crucial issue for everybody, whether Shia, Sunni or tribal elder, is the government’s failure to secure the Thall-Parachinar highway so that the residents of upper, lower and central Kurram can commute freely.
The Thall-Parachinar road is the lifeline of the Kurram Agency, and the jirga earnestly urged the government to secure this road by increasing the number of check posts, particularly at places such as Chappari, Mandori, Ochatt, Baggan and Alizai where both Shias and Sunnis are being killed or kidnapped. At the time the peace accord was signed in Islamabad, Interior Minister Rehman Malik assured the jirga that the government would re-establish its surrendered writ in Kurram Agency.
Following the truce, peace seemed to be achievable. Unbelievably, however, both the government and the security forces wasted this opportunity very early. Arriving at a peace agreement between Shias and Sunnis took years of hectic efforts by the grand jirga. Economic losses aside, violence in the region had already extracted a heavy toll, killing more than 2,000 and injuring another 4,000 people, with hundreds of thousands more displaced.
Shias and Sunnis showed excitement in welcoming the jirga elders at Chappari post — the entry to Kurram Agency — on Feb 3. This marked the symbolic opening of the Thall-Parachinar road that has remained closed for years. The celebration at Chappari was replicated at other places by Shias and Sunnis jointly, negating the idea that Shias and Sunnis were killing each other for faith-based reasons.
Local militants also jumped on the peace bandwagon. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Kurram commander, Fazal Saeed, extended support to the accord and warned that in case of any violations, the TTP would first ask the political administration and jirga to take action, and failing that would consider itself justified in punishing the side violating the agreement.
There was also the impression that Afghan Taliban leader Siraj Haqqani was instrumental in bringing the warring sects to the negotiation table. The militant group, which perceived Shias as heretics, asked the Shias of upper and lower Kurram to use the roads, including the vital Thall-Parachinar road, without fear. Many believed that the TTP was expecting windfall benefits from the accord.
Come March 5 and the accord was violated. On March 13, there was another violation at Mamo Khwar of tehsil Thall when militants killed 11 passengers and left several others injured. On March 25, yet another convoy was attacked and 13 passengers were killed, eight were injured and another 45 were abducted by suspected militants in the Baggan area.
The government acted as a spectator. The abduction of 45 people is not a single man’s job, yet the abducted and their abductors managed to vanish into thin air. Locals believe that this could not have happened without the connivance of the government and the security forces.
The fundamental questions remain unanswered: why did the militants retaliate so early and why have the government and the security forces maintained such a criminal silence? A senior member of the jirga confided that in order to elicit the support of the TTP Kurram commander, Fazal Saeed, for the accord, the government tacitly agreed to release one of his close relatives and allow his petrol pump businesses to be reopened. Honouring this commitment has been delayed for unknown reasons.
The militants were also expecting more benefits, particularly from the Shias of upper Kurram, in return for promising them safe passage on the Thall-Parachinar road. They wanted the Shias to allow safe passage to militants into the areas in Afghanistan known as the Khost Bowl and up in the north in Tora Bora. Taliban commander Siraj Haqqani’s forces are operating primarily out of the Khost Bowl, including Paktika, Paktia and Khost.
Shias are in the majority in upper Kurram with access to all the strategic routes, including the Malikili-Kharlachi route, the Parachinar-Terimangal route leading to the Khost Bowl and the third route leading to Tora Bora via Zairan and Malanah.
Those keeping an eye on the conflict across the Durand Line believe that the Nato/US announcement regarding the withdrawal of troops has also put regional powers in a new situation. These regional powers — particularly Pakistan — have started preparing for the post-2014 Afghanistan.
The Kurram tribal agency is highly prone to violence in the name of sectarianism, and this phenomenon has been used during the prolonged Afghan conflict by those playing double games. It constitutes strategic ground for the militants and is called the ‘parrot beak’, going deep into Afghanistan and thus providing militants easy access to areas such as the Khost Bowl.
It is acknowledged that some quarters in Pakistan’s security establishment are still sticking to the infamous ‘strategic depth’ policy in Afghanistan. In the emerging Afghan scenario, the reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar does not dance to the tune of the Pakistani establishment. And instead of banking all out on Omar, ‘strategic depth’ proponents are keeping the Haqqani card — an influential Taliban commander in the south and southeast of Afghanistan — very close to their chest.
Easy access to the Khost Bowl is the top priority of the Pakistani security establishment, and upper Kurram, dominated by Shias, has all the access routes. If supported by the Shia population, not only will militants have more space in Pakistan’s tribal territories, it would also provide easier access to Khost Bowl for others fighting the US/Nato forces.
Many believe that the Shia community’s denial of benefits to militants and the Taliban led to the government using delaying tactics in taking action against those who violated the accord. The government also delayed the resettlement, as per the agreement, of thousands of displaced families, both Shia and Sunni, as it kept waiting for cooperation from the Shias.
The writer is the director of news and current affairs at Khyber TV.