The peace truce between Sunnis and Shias in Kurram Agency is being celebrated and looked at with suspicion

By Zia Ur Rehman

The News,    27 February, 2011

Although Sunni and Shia warring tribes of Kurram Agency have agreed to end their four-year long conflict through a government-backed jirga of tribal elders, it is yet to be seen how long the deal holds ground and helps maintain normalcy in the area.

Kurram, one of Pakistan’s seven tribal agencies, borders Khost, Paktia and Nangarhar in Afghanistan and Khyber, Orakzai and North Waziristan agencies in Pakistan. Unlike in other tribal agencies of Fata, sectarian tensions are the main drivers of militancy in Kurram Agency.

“Since 1980s, deadly sectarian clashes have been taking place in Kurram. However, the situation worsened following the emergence of different groups of Taliban in South and North Waziristan, Orakzai and Khyber Agencies,” Aqeel Yousafzai, an expert on security issues in tribal areas, tells TNS. “The conflict was brought to Kurram by militant groups from North and South Waziristan and Khyber agencies in 2006. Shia tribes had also established their own lashkars (tribal militias) to defend themselves, but these lashkars are no match for the Taliban. More than 3,500 people had been killed, 50 villages torched and thousands of people displaced in sectarian clashes in Kurram between 2007 and 2010,” says Yousafzai, who has also authored two books on militancy in tribal areas.

Over the years, the Shias of Kurram accused various Pakistani and Afghan Taliban groups, including the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), of violence and blamed the Pakistan security agencies for lending support to their rival Sunni militant groups. The Sunnis had been saying that Iran was providing arms and money to the Shia militants in Kurram.

The outside militant groups active in Kurram are the TTP, the Orakzai Taliban and the Afridi Taliban which had killed hundreds of Shias and Sunnis. In October 2007, the first Waziristan Taliban lashkar, comprising 400 Mehsud militants, was sent to Kurram by the then head of the TTP, Baitullah Mehsud. Qari Hussain, an anti-Shia commander of the TTP, commanded the lashkar and torched villages and killed dozens of Shias.

After two months, Hussain returned to South Waziristan and Hakimullah Mehsud, the then TTP commander for Kurram, Khyber and Orakzai agencies, sent hundreds more militants under the command of Faqir Alam Mehsud to Kurram to fight against Shia lashkars. “Faqir Alam Mehsud, reputed for his brutalities, personally beheaded at least 100 Shias from Kurram, along with a few Sunnis for cooperating with Shias,” a Taliban fighter under his command informs TNS.

Orakzai TTP head Mullah Noor Jamal (alias Mullah Toofan) also brought hundreds of his militants to Kurram to take part in the sectarian violence. Different Afridi militant groups, including Tariq Afridi’s TTP Darra Adam Khel, Mangal Bagh’s Laskhar-e-Islam and Haji Mehboob’s Ansar-ul-Islam, also sent hundreds of militants to fights against Shias.

Although Kurram Shias are reluctant to disclose information about Shia militant groups; they have two militant groups active in Kurram — Mehdi Militia and Kurram Hizbullah.

During the last four years, the roads in Kurram Agency, especially Thal-Parachinar Road connecting Kurram with Peshawar, had remained closed and people had been trapped in their areas. The Shia community as a whole and some Sunni tribes like Mangal in Upper Kurram find it extremely difficult and risky to move out of Kurram Agency. They were not able to travel on the Thal-Parachinar road as it was controlled by Taliban militants. Shias were compelled to use only one road which runs through the Afghan cities of Khost, Gardez, Kabul and Jalalabad.

After two years of negotiations by a jirga, comprising 220 elders and politicians of Fata, a peace truce between Sunnis and Shias was announced at Parachinar on February 3. According to the agreement, all the main roads, including the Thal-Parachinar road, will be opened for traffic while safe return of the forcibly displaced tribesmen to their homes will be ensured by the government.

“The natives of Kurram have been waiting for the restoration of peace for years, and after the truce, they would live like brothers again,” says Malik Waris Khan Afridi, a former federal minister and head of the jirga. Haji Munir Orakzai and Sajid Hussain Turi, elected parliamentarians from Orakzai and Kurram agencies respectively, also played a key role in brokering the peace truce. “Tribesmen across both sects assured us of their support to the peace accord while the government will financially compensate the affected people,” Waris Afridi informs TNS.

A few days after the agreement, the TTP Kurram head, Fazal Saeed, told a press conference that his organisation would extend all-out support to the political administration and security forces to implement the peace truce and would punish violators if the government or jirga members failed to do so. “The TTP’s statement of support for peace in the area redefines the role of the militants and most dangerous villains are now becoming heroes involved in maintaining peace in the agency,” says Ashfaq Turi, an elder of Shia Turi Bangash tribe of Kurram Agency.

“Everybody is happy and celebrating the peace truce by distributing sweets and dancing the Atanh (Pashto traditional dance) in Parachinar,” a Parachinar-based journalist tells TNS.

The peace agreement came amid reports by the Pakistani and international media that the Haqqani Network (HN), a powerful Afghan militant group based in North Waziristan, had brokered the deal in return for a new safe haven and right of passage into Afghanistan. The reports of HN’s involvement had been privately confirmed by members of the jirga. International media had reported that Ibrahim Haqqani and Khalil Haqqani, sons of HN’s head Jalaluddin Haqqani, had participated in two rounds of negotiations in September 2010, but the politicians and jirga members involved in the talks had dismissed the report as “a propaganda”.

The growing number of drone attacks and American pressure on the Pakistani government to begin a military operation in North Waziristan had increased the strategic significance of Kurram agency, particularly for the TTP and the HN. Experts believe the militants will not only take refuge in this area in case of an operation in North Waziristan, but will also use the area as junction to go onward and back in tribal agencies, settled districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and provinces of Afghanistan.

The writer is a journalist and researcher and works on militancy issues.