On the surface, the recently concluded sit-in in Parachinar could have easily led an outsider to believe that the problem revolved around a feud between two Shia factions, namely the Syeds and the Turis of Upper Kurram Agency, who have been squabbling over official funds and control of Parachinar’s main mosque/imambargah, while also engaged in an age old political vendetta.
Nothing could be further from truth because inside the belly of Kurram Agency, a commotion of a very dangerous kind has been brewing. To genuinely understand the multi-faceted issue that we have on our hands, a holistic view of the situation in Kurram Agency needs urgent mention.
Kurram Agency is spread across 3,380 square kilometres and shares borders with the North Waziristan Agency on the south, and Hangu, Orakzai and Khyber Agency on the east. The agency is further divided into three administrative units namely upper, central and lower Kurram. The importance of Upper Kurram Agency is directly connected to its location as some of its area protrudes into Afghanistan’s Nangarhar to its north and Khost in the south, thus giving it a strategic standing that has been exploited recklessly by guerrilla fighters for decades now.
The Thall-Parachinar road running throughout the length of the Kurram river valley provides the shortest transit route from any point in Pakistan to Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. During the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s, Kurram served as a key safe haven for proxy militant forces and the area was used as a launching pad by the anti-Soviet mujahideen fighters to attack the Red Army in neighbouring Afghanistan. Apart from this, Kurram is also home to a significant Shia population. Of the agency’s 500,000 inhabitants, around 40 per cent are Shia, mostly concentrated in Upper Kurram. Even though Shia tribes there have periodically clashed with Sunni tribes from Sunni-dominated central and lower Kurram and vice versa, conflicts in the past were usually less intensive and short-lived.
The people of Kurram Agency have previously experienced lethal sectarian outbursts in 1986 and 1996, but the deadliest conflicts here started in April 2007 and continued till February 2011. According to an official report, between the year 2007-2009, 1,500 people had died while 5,000 were injured in the infighting between Pashtun tribes belonging to the Sunni and Shia sects. Per unofficial data gathered from local sources, the number of Shia Pashtuns, including children and women, killed in sectarian conflict was 1,100 while more than 10,000 were injured. In addition, the number of Sunni Pashtuns killed in the conflict was 1,537 and more than 25,000 were injured. Almost 43 villages were reduced to cinders during this entire phase of constant strife.
Later, the warring Shia and Sunni tribes were brought together for a meeting in February 2011 where a peace agreement was signed between both the parties under the aegis of Sirajuddin Haqqani.
Before a peace agreement was reached, the local Turi tribesmen had refused any sort of access to the Haqqani network militants for several years, but by 2011 the conditions had changed dramatically. Worn down by constant fighting, the siege of the Thall-Parachinar road, and the perception that the Pakistani government was not particularly serious in solving the problem, the Shias acquiesced to a Haqqani-brokered deal that gave the banned militant network access to the Pashtun Shia territory, that provided an ideal transit route into Afghanistan, in exchange for peace with Sunni tribesmen and a guarantee that the Thall-Parachinar road would be opened to unimpeded traffic.
To this day, the Turi tribe holds the opinion that the fuelling and stoking of sectarian violence back then was meticulously planned by the local administration in collaboration with the security establishment for motivated reasons.
The peace agreement was honoured for over a month before sectarian skirmishes started again. The sullying of the deal was a major setback for Sirajuddin Haqqani who even asked the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Hakimullah Mehsud to cease his network’s attacks against the Shia tribes. The Pakistani state had to intervene when TTP failed to honour its part of the bargain and a major military operation (Operation Koh-i-Sufaiyad) was launched in Kurram in July 2011. The military operation not only consolidated the presence of Haqqanis in the agency but also resulted in the upholding of the February peace accord which was manipulated by the Haqqani network to serve its own interest.
The Haqqani network had been working tirelessly to expand its safe havens from North Waziristan to other areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to gain control of fresh access points to Afghanistan, particularly to Kabul city. The opening in Kurram would provide the militant network to relieve the pressure on the organisation in its traditional strongholds. The Haqqanis would likely relocate critical elements of the network to Kurram Agency. This would have the dual effect of protecting the network from US drone strikes in North Waziristan and allow for greater freedom of movement for its fighters, facilitators, and leaders.
The 8,000 strong Turi and Bangash tribesmen who had staged a sit-in against government policies are still skeptical about the reassurances given to them by the government. Ali Turi, a local said, “Before the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan, curfews were imposed in Kurram. During this period locals witnessed suspicious movement taking place towards and around the Pak-Afghan border”. He further said, “Our suspicions were confirmed once the local administration, during one such curfew, asked Imam Agha Nawaz Irfani to leave the agency as his life was under threat with the promise that he would be brought back to the area after Eid.”
The Turi tribe claims that the Haqqani network fighters are being relocated to Upper Kurram region that include Mengal tribe settlements of Shalozan, Muqbal, Narai and Shapo. This movement was made possible under the garb of the Murree Agreement that was signed between the Shia and Sunni tribal elders under the auspices of the Government of Pakistan in 2008. The agreement asked for armed Shia and Sunni groups to vacate their positions and assist in the repatriation of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
For many long years, the majority of the Turi and Bangash tribes forbid the Haqqanis and other Taliban militants from carving out hideouts in Upper Kurram region, even though the militants already have existing sanctuaries within the Aurakzai tribe dominated areas of Central and Lower Kurram. The locals are left feeling helpless as the Pakistani security establishment continues to move their Haqqani assets to the Shalozan area that is strategically placed in the foothills of Koh-e-Sufaid (locally called Spin Ghar). Locals believe this area provides the perfect environment to the Haqqanis for two reasons: Cover from drone strikes and easy/quick access to Kabul.
Since the country got behind its army for the ongoing Operation in North Waziristan, the signs of things to come are not auspicious for the people of Kurram. The uptick in post election violence in the bordering country of Afghanistan is only fuelling the longtime fears harboured by locals that the spillover effect of the Afghan war might throw the entire agency into anarchy and strife once more. They believe that if the Afghan war actually comes home, the violence that it entails would be the worst kind this region has seen in a long time.