By Zia Ur Rehman

August 8, 2014

Since July 29, the first day of Eid, Turi and Bangash tribesmen have been in a sit-in in Parachinar, the headquarters of Kurram Agency, protesting against the arrest of tribal elders and the expulsion of an influential Shia cleric from the area.

Local elders allege that the Kurram Agency political administration has pitched local Shia groups against each other, after divisions emerged in the community following the general elections in May last year. After Sajid Hussain Turi defeated Air Marshal (r) Syed Qaiser Hussain in the NA-37 constituency, the latter refused to accept the election results and accused Agha Muhammad Nawaz Irfani, Imam of the central mosque of Kurram Agency, of supporting Sajid Turi in the elections. Syed Shias began to support Qaiser Hussain, while the Turi and Bangash tribesmen are backing Sajid Turi and Agha Irfani.

An official of the Kurram Agency political administration said the authorities had detained a number of tribal elders and expelled Agha Irfani, who is from Gilgit Baltistan and had been living in tribal agency for 14 years, under Frontier Crimes Regulation, because the situation was deteriorating. The political administration also froze the bank accounts of Anjuman-e-Hussainia, a local organization consisting of local elders.

Agha Irfani was instrumental against the Taliban during the skirmishes from 2007 to 2009

After the Eid prayers, Turi and Bangash tribesmen began protests against the move in three different places in the tribal agency. “We demand the immediate release of our tribal elders who were arrested seven months ago, and lifting the ban on the entry of Irfani into Kurram Agency,” said Muhammad Hussain Turi, a leader of Turi Bangash Supreme Council. He also demanded the removal of Political Agent Riaz Mehsud and asked government not to interfere in the Anjuman’s community funds.

But Air Marshal Qaiser Hussain says Irfani should not be allowed to re-enter Kurram because he and some Sunni clerics are involved in fueling sectarian divides in the tribal district. “Agha Irfani misappropriated around Rs 500 million from the Anjuman’s community funds, and now he is harassing his opponents through members of his private army called ‘Pasdar’,” he alleged.

Independent elders and political activists say Agha Irfani was instrumental in providing a leadership against Taliban militants during 2007-09 skirmishes in Kurram. “That situation was wrongly given a sectarian angle,” said an academic at a state-run university.

Kurram, one of Pakistan’s seven tribal agencies, borders Khost, Pakita and Nangarhar provinces of Afghanistan, and the Khyber, Orakzai and North Waziristan tribal agencies of Pakistan. Unlike other tribal agencies of FATA, sectarian tensions are the main drivers of militancy in Kurram Agency. But the situation worsened after the arrival of various Taliban groups from neighboring tribal districts in late 2006.

In October 2007, the first lashkar, consisting of 400 Mehsud militants, was sent to Kurram by the then head of TTP, Baitullah Mehsud. Qari Hussain, an anti-Shia commander of the TTP, commanded the lashkar and torched villages and killed dozens of local Shia tribesmen. After two months, Qari Hussain returned and Hakimullah Mehsud, then TTP commander for Kurram, Khyber and Orakzai regions, sent hundreds of more militants under the command of Faqir Alam Mehsud, to Kurram to fight a Shia lashkar. Known for his brutalities, Faqir Alam Mehsud personally beheaded dozens of Shia tribesmen of Kurram, along with some Sunnis for cooperating with the Shias. Orakzai Taliban, headed by Mullah Noor Jamal (alias Mullah Toofan), Tariq Afridi-led TTP Darra Adamkhel, Mangal Bagh’s Lashkar-e-Islam and Haji Mehboob’s Ansarul Islam from Khyber, also sent hundreds of militants to fight against Shia tribes in Kurram Agency.

“Agha Irfani united us against Taliban groups at that time,” said a Turi tribal elder. Local Shia tribes had established their own lashkars to defend themselves against the Taliban. Some local elders allege that the political administration wants to dismantle the existing Shia leadership and replace it with Shia Syeds. Because of the strategic importance of the region and the ongoing military operation in North Waziristan, they say, the local administration wants to relocate Taliban militants and the Haqqani Network in Kurram Agency.

The allegations cannot be verified independently, but some journalists and analysts monitoring the situation echo the concerns of the tribal elders.

“Things are not that simple in Kurram,” says Kahar Zalmay, a security analyst who is monitoring the ongoing situation in the region. “Shia tribesmen are apparently protesting for the release of their elders and for Irfani to be allowed back in the agency, but in fact they are protesting against the military strategy of relocating Taliban militant groups, especially the Haqqani Network, in the Upper Kurram’s areas like Shilozan.”

The writer is a journalist and researcher