Cross-border movement of Afghan Taliban continues to threaten peace and security in Chitral

By Zia Ur Rehman

Published in The News , 10  October 2010

On September 30, some 250 Taliban insurgents entered Chitral’s tehsil Arandu from Nuristan in bordering Afghanistan and tied the Pakistani security personnel deputed at a Gudibar checkpost with rope and snatched their rifles. According to press reports “about 70 masked men armed with weapons looted the equipment including uniforms and weapons from the security personnel of the checkpost after injuring them and fled to Afghanistan”. This frightened the wits out of the otherwise peace-loving and civilised Chitralis.

But, in a normally calm Chitral, a district of Malakand division of Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa, which borders Afghanistan’s provinces Nuristan and Kunar, this was not the first incident of its kind: On August 29, six men, logging forest wood in the Upper Dir district, were kidnapped allegedly by the Taliban and taken to Nuristan. A few days later, the throat-slit bodies of the three men were found in Arandu.

Incidentally, the kidnapped men belonged to Dhog Dara, an area of Upper Dir where the locals of 25 villages formed an armed anti-Taliban militia and killed many militants including two commanders in June last year. The confrontation was triggered on June 5 “when a suicide attack at a local mosque in Dogh Dara killed 40 local tribesmen”, states Javed Sheikh, an Upper Dir-based journalist.

Haji Motabar Khan, a leader of Dog Dara’s militia, says the network of Taliban militants kidnap the people from Chitral and its surrounding areas and then haul them to Nuristan. Khan criticised the local police and the administration, “They do not take action against the militants present in the valley”.

According to him, another three labourers were kidnapped as a protest against the formation of the Dhog Dara militia.

Reportedly, Omar Hasan Ahrabi, spokesperson of the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Malakand Division, while claiming responsibility of kidnapping the Dhog Dara’s men, said all those joining the anti-militants militias would not be spared — as they are government agents and oppose the enforcement of Sharia in Swat and Malakand Division (The News September 2).

Later, the Taliban set the three labourers free and handed them over to the Chitral district administration.

On September 7 last year, a Greek social worker Athanassios Lerunis was kidnapped by Taliban militants from Chitral’s Bambouret Valley and shifted to Nuristan. The abductors killed a policeman and injured two others who tried to foil the kidnapping. Lerunis was released in April this year in exchange of two Afghan Taliban commanders, one of them Maulana Rahmatuddin Nuristani. They also got millions of rupees in ransom, revealed an elder who was part of the jirga which went from Chitral to Nuristan to seek the recovery of Lerunis.

Authorities deny such a deal. A local elder, requesting anonymity, says Zahir, a former Afghan Taliban leader living in Chitral, played an important role in the release of Lerunis.

Nuristan, Afghanistan’s north-eastern province, is considered a stronghold of the Afghan Taliban. “Afghan Taliban govern the area. The Taliban Shura appointed Sheikh Dost Muhammad as a shadow governor of the province,” says Ali Afzal, a member of the local Sheikh tribe. Sheikhan tribesmen live in both Nuristan and Chitral and therefore Chitralis blame the locals for extending assistance to Nuristani Taliban in Chitral.

Some media reports also suggest that head of TTP Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, is hiding in Nuristan. Few months ago Afghan officials claimed Fazlullah had been killed in the Barg-e-Matal area of Nuristan but later Mufti Munibullah, head of Afghan Taliban in Nuristan, denied such reports. Faqir Muhammad, the TTP leader in Bajour agency, also said that Fazlullah could be in Nuristan because the Taliban have been moving back and forth along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

In an interview with BBC in November last year, Fazlullah said he had escaped to Afghanistan after a Pakistani military offensive against the Taliban in his Swat Valley stronghold in April last year.

Local political analysts are of view that Chitral has been steadily becoming more conservative and the influence of religious political parties has been on the rise. A development expert, who wished not to be named due to security reasons, confirmed the presence of both Malakand and Nuristan Taliban militants in the valley, and said these militants are also fanning sectarian violence in neighbouring Gilgit. He recalled that offices of the Agha Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), sponsored by Ismaili leader Prince Karim Agha Khan, were attacked by religious extremists in late 2004 while two workers of AKRSP were killed in December 2004.

Consequently, the relations between Sunnis (that constitute 65 percent of the Chitral population) and Ismaili Shias (35 percent) have become strained because of the influence of religious radical groups in the district. A small portion of the non-Muslim Kalash community, famous for its traditional dances and beautiful dress, are based in the south of the district.

Shehzada Mahiuddin, member of National Assembly elected from the district, admits Chitral has felt the effects of insurgency going on in Afghanistan. “In a bid to stop the incursions by the Afghan Taliban, we (the local government) are sending a local tribal jirga to Nuristan to meet the Taliban leadership,” he says, adding that contingents of paramilitary forces and police have been deployed at the borders and all the entry and exit point along the Pak-Afghan border following the incidents of incursion of Afghan Taliban.

The writer is an independent journalist and works on militancy, development and human rights.