By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
On February 3, 2011, an Aman Jirga (peace conclave) between Sunni and Shia tribes in the Kurram Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) signed an accord to end bloodshed between the two sects.
On March 13, a group of militants attacked a Shia convoy coming from Kurram Agency, at Mamo Khwar area of Hangu District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, leaving 11 passengers dead and six injured.
On March 25, at least 13 passengers were killed and eight were injured, while another 33 were abducted by suspected militants, in an attack on a convoy of passenger vehicles in the Kurram Agency. Sources indicated that the victims were Turi tribesmen of the Shia sect. The convoy had entered Kurram Agency after crossing the Chapari check-post via Thall tehsil (revenue unit) in the Hangu District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
In the wake of the second attack, Sajid Hussain Turi, the Member of the National Assembly (MNA) from the Kurram Agency, declared the agreement signed by the warring tribes was a ‘useless document’, and that the attack on passengers by terrorists was a failure of security agencies and a serious breach of the peace deal.
A grand jirga (tribal council) composed of tribal elders and parliamentarians from the FATA, had announced a peace accord between Shias and Sunnis at Parachinar, the headquarters of the Kurram Agency, on February 3, 2011. The ‘truce’ was declared after three years of fighting that left over 2,000 dead and at least 3,500 injured.
Headed by Malik Waris Khan Afridi, a former Federal Minister from the Khyber Agency, the 225-member tribal jirga took two years to arrange a negotiated settlement of the issue. MNA Sajid Toori from Parachinar and MNA Muneer Orakzai played leading roles to bring the two sides to the negotiation table. Federal Minister of Interior Rehman Malik also attended the news conference announcing the accord, to demonstrate the Government’s support for this ‘historic’ event.
The jirga also appealed to the Government of Pakistan to ensure the execution of the accord, implying clearly that the state should re-establish its writ in the Agency. Indeed, even Fazal Saeed, ‘commander’ of the Kurram Chapter of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), declared that “anyone violating the new accord would be punished according to Shariah (Islamic law)… We will first ask the political administration and jirga members to take action against the side violating the agreement. But we will be justified to punish the violators after 15 days as per the accord.” Saeed asked Shias to use roads, including the Thall-Parachinar Road, without any fear, as the TTP was not against the peace deal between the Shia and Sunni elders. However, it was feared that the deal would not be acceptable to certain quarters of the TTP.
Sectarian violence is nothing new to the Kurram Agency, the only tribal Agency with a significant Shia population. Sectarian strife in the Agency dates back to the British era, long before the advent of sectarian terrorist groupings such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Sipah-e-Muhammad (SeM). About 40 percent of the region’s 500,000 inhabitants are Shia. Upper Kurram is inhabited largely by the Turi (the only Pashtun tribe which is wholly Shia) while Lower Kurram is inhabited by Sunnis, principally of the Bangash tribe. Historically the Turis were under domination of the Bangash, until the 18th century when they attacked the Bangash and pushed them into Lower Kurram.
There are disputes over land and water resources between Sunni and Shia tribes and sporadic incidents of communal violence have taken place since the 1930s, particularly during Muharram and Nowroz (the Iranian New Year is celebrated by the Shia). Till 1977, the Shias were in a preponderant majority in the Kurram Agency, on its border with Afghanistan, and in the areas of Gilgit and Baltistan. After the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in February, 1979, there was a measure of radicalisation among the Shias of these areas, who started demanding the creation of a separate Shia majority province, to be called the Karakoram Province, consisting of the Kurram Agency, the Northern Areas and other contiguous Shia majority areas. The leadership of this movement came mainly from the Turi tribe of the Kurram Agency. The movement was allegedly funded by the Iranian Intelligence. Then President General Zia-ul-Haq ruthlessly suppressed this movement, and also initiated a policy of re-settling Sunnis in these areas in order to control the Shias and dilute their preponderant majority. While Sunni ex-servicemen from other parts of Pakistan were re-settled in the Northern Areas, Afghan Sunni refugees were re-settled in the Kurram Agency. This led to widespread resentment among the Shias against the Government and the Sunni settlers.
The massive influx of Afghan refugees during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan inverted the demographic equation in the Agency, and also introduced a militant (Taliban) brand of the Sunni ideology, at a time when the Shias of Parachinar, under the leadership of cleric Allama Arif Hussain al-Hussaini, were being radicalized by the Iranian Revolution. As modern weapons became available, clashes grew in frequency and intensity, while the local administration was viewed as indifferent or partisan.
The first large-scale attack was recorded in 1986, when the Turis prevented Sunni Mujahideen from passing through to Afghanistan. General Zia ul-Haq allowed a purge of the Turi Shias at the hands of the Afghan Mujahideen, with the active help and assistance of local Sunnis. Arif Hussain Al Hussaini was killed in Peshawar on August 5, 1988, and the Turis held General Zia responsible. The Kurram Agency has also been the scene of frequent Shia-Sunni clashes, with most of the attacks by the Shias directed against the Afghan and Pakistani Sunni settlers brought in by Zia.
Another round of the conflict began in 2001, when the Shias refused to offer shelter to al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban fleeing from US led NATO forces. Both the nature and dimensions of the sectarian conflict were transformed after 2001, with organised terrorist and insurgent groupings, including the Taliban getting involved in what was, earlier, far more irregular confrontations between local tribes.
There was a recrudescence of the violence in April 2007, after three people were killed and 13 injured, when Shias were attacked in an Imambargah in the morning of April 6, 2007. The trouble erupted when Shias staged a demonstration outside their mosque against local Sunnis, who had allegedly chanted anti-Shia slogans during a religious rally the previous week. At least 40 persons were killed and an unspecified number were wounded at Parachinar and other parts of the Kurram Agency on the second day of sectarian clashes that followed. Another 16 were killed on the third day, as sectarian clashes spread to most parts of the tribal region bordering Afghanistan. Despite a cease-fire between the rival Sunni and Shia groups on April 9, sectarian riots continued for three days in different parts of the Kurram Agency. The Army used helicopter gunships to control Parachinar and Sadda (headquarters of Lower Kurram), but the fighting continued in the rural areas.
Another round of sectarian violence commenced in the month of November 2007. At least 86 persons were killed and over 50 were injured during a clash at Parachinar on November 16, 2007. A 16-member peace jirga headed by Pir Haider Ali Shah brokered a cease-fire on November 19, but failed to stem the violence. At least 129 persons were killed and over 300 were injured in the Tangi and Mengak areas in the night of November 23. The very next day, violence claimed another 50 lives. Local Sunnis were joined by al-Qaeda fighters and the TTP from Waziristan, and even paramilitary forces were targeted. The situation in Parachinar and Sadda town, however, remained peaceful as the Army, Frontier Corps and Kurram Militia personnel had taken control of the town. The cease-fire also remained intact in Balishkhel and Ibrahimzai, where no untoward incident took place.
According to UNHCR, 6,000 Sunnis, mostly women and children, fled to Afghanistan in January 2008. The clashes intensified during the summer, and the Government was blamed for doing nothing to stop the influx of militant outsiders from North Waziristan. In June 2008, people from Kurram staged a demonstration in front of Parliament House in Islamabad, seeking the intervention of the Federal Government, but to no avail. Instead, the Government kept denying the sectarian problem in Kurram, blaming a ‘foreign hand’ for pitting the tribes against each other.
As the violence continued, the road from Parachinar to Peshawar was blocked, resulting in a shortage of food and medicines. Shia truck drivers were abducted and beheaded. Shia communities were besieged, as Sunnis controlled the road from Parachinar to Thal. People going to Peshawar were forced to travel across the much longer and difficult route, via Paktia and Kabul.
A unilateral cease-fire was declared by the Turis ahead of Ramzan (Islamic holy month) on September 2, 2008, but the bloodshed continued. A peace jirga was later convened in Islamabad under the supervision of the Political Agent of Kurram. More than 1,500 persons had been killed and 5,000 had been injured in sectarian clashes in the Agency over the preceding year-and-a-half, The News reported on September 19, 2008.
The intervention of the Haqqani network in the Kurram peace talks, which dates back to 2007, has also surprised and concerned many, since this group had been associated principally with the wars in Afghanistan, and had its base in North Waziristan. The US has been pressurising the Pakistan Government for months to dislodge the Haqqanis from the North Waziristan Agency. Khalil and Ibrahim, sons of the network’s founder Jalaluddin Haqqani, had reportedly been meeting tribal elders from Kurram in Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and in Islamabad, to end the hostilities between the local tribes. The last round of these talks was held in Islamabad on October 10, 2010. “They first turned up at a meeting held in Peshawar in the first week of September,” a tribal elder told the media, and his account was corroborated by another elder, who added that the two brothers were also present at a second meeting in the provincial capital on September 16, 2010, and then at one in Islamabad.
The Kurram tribes are wary of the involvement of the Haqqanis, because they assume that such intervention would have the tacit approval of the Army, which has strong links with the Haqqani network. Reports suggest that the Haqqanis have sought full authority and machlaka (bonds) from rival factions before hammering out a new peace agreement. The proposed deal will be binding on all parties. The tribes, however, remain reluctant to give full authority and machlaka to the Haqqanis, and the February Accord sought to marginalize the Haqqani initiative.
Through all this, the Pakistan Government and Army have chosen to remain silent observers, implicitly backing the Haqqani initiative, despite the US pressures to act against this group.
Meanwhile, tribal groups are stressing that the Murree Agreement of October 16, 2008, brokered by the Government and signed by all the tribes, be implemented. Under the agreement, the rival tribes deposited PKR 20 million with the local authorities as a guarantee that they would refrain from fighting. But the five-point Agreement, which covers all major issues, has never been implemented. Tribesmen blame a lack of interest on the part of the Government for this.
On March 1, 2011, shortly after the Kurram Accord, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani announced PKR one billion in the current budget and PKR 700 million in next year’s budget for rehabilitation of an estimated 32 thousand residents of the Kurram Agency who left their homes due to sectarian riots and militancy. Gilani stressed that the amount allocated for the purpose of rehabilitation and welfare of the affected people must be spent in the “most transparent manner, so that everybody who had suffered during the last four years may benefit from the compensation”.
But the Kurram Accord is little more than a collection of recommendations and appeals to the Government of Pakistan, with no corresponding guarantees from the Government’s side. The Accord appeals to the Government of Pakistan for support and necessary action for the repatriation of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and implementation of the Murree Agreement; and for approval of a special development package for Kurram to compensate for the losses the agency has suffered in violent clashes since 2007. It ‘urges’ both Shias and Sunnis to ‘show restraint’ and cooperate with the Government for peace, and calls on the political administration and Security Forces to play their due roles to re-establish their writ in the Agency.
Islamabad, however, has never been in good faith on the issue of sectarian violence, and shows no inclination to end the conflict. Indeed, there is almost no official resistance to any actions – including militant activity – that would help bring the Shia minority to heel, and the administration appears to have intentionally ceded its writ in Kurram to Sunni extremists. With the state fanning the fires of hatred, Peace Accords can only end up in flames.
Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management India