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Tirah capture

June 12, 2012

A FACTION of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan has defeated the local Kukikhel tribe to take over one of the last bits of Khyber Agency’s Tirah Valley that had not already fallen into militant hands. Remote as it is, Tirah is no insignificant mountain hideout. On the one side it shares a border with Afghanistan. On the other it leads to the plains of Bara, which connect the agency to the outskirts of Peshawar. Khyber also links several agencies to each other, serving as a north-south route within Fata. So it has long been fought over by a mix of militant organisations, including the TTP, the Ansarul Islam and Mangal Bagh’s Lashkar-i-Islam. But given the mountainous terrain and remoteness of the area, the task of fending off militant occupation was outsourced to local tribal lashkars, supported by occasional aerial bombardments by the army. This latest militant victory in Tirah is proof that the strategy has failed.

Pakistani troops had gone into the area shortly after the American invasion of Afghanistan had pushed militants across the border. The move had more than just practical importance; given the area’s remoteness, it was seen at the time as evidence of Pakistan’s commitment to containing militancy. But for the last several years the security forces have not maintained a presence in Tirah and the situation has deteriorated, likely because they had their hands full elsewhere, were unable to claim the decisive upper hand in neighbouring agencies that have served as communications and supply routes, did not manage to come up with a successful strategy for the area, and simply didn’t pay enough attention. Experts point out that conducting an operation in Tirah might not have been a smart approach; various militant groups may have started working together in response. If so, another workable approach was required, and was not worked out.

The upshot is that almost all of Tirah is now in militant hands. The implications are both foreign and domestic, strategic and humanitarian. Cross-border movement could become another bone of contention with Afghanistan. If Tirah’s militants are now able to make even more headway in Bara, Peshawar’s security, so tenuously improved, will be at risk once again. Militants in other parts of Fata could see the defeat as an encouraging sign of state weakness. Meanwhile, the Kukikhel have had to flee their homes, and according to the local administration it is entirely unclear when they will be able to return. Pakistan has made progress against militancy, but Tirah is an example of how it still hasn’t managed to crack the code in parts of the tribal areas.