In Pakistan, a Shia-Sunni war to oust Taliban

Nirupama Subramanian, The Hindu, Sep 03, 2008

According to Shia leaders and independent analysts, the Taliban control the Sunni tribes in Kurram and want to battle the Shias until they have control of the region.

Kurram is not the average tribal area on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The Pashto-speaking population has higher literacy rates than in the other six agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Area. Even a Pakistan government internet site on Kurram expresses surprise that “a significant” number of people from the region are employed abroad. But perhaps the most important difference is that Kurram is the only tribal region in FATA with a significant Shia population.

The almost equal numbers of Shia and Sunni — each sect claims it is the majority — in a region with an estimated population of over 500,000 never made for an entirely peaceful place. But since April 2007, Kurram has been the scene of one carnage after another. Hundreds have been killed in sectarian fighting in the last 17 months, and all attempts to broker ceasefires have failed. The reason, according to Shia community leaders and independent analysts, is that Taliban militants now control the Sunni tribes and want to battle the Shia until they have control of the entire agency for additional access routes into Afghanistan.

Last weekend, Kurram exploded once again. The Shia Turi tribe called a unilateral ceasefire five days earlier, but the Sunni Bangash kept attacking Turi targets. On Sunday, the Turi retaliated with a powerful attack in the predominantly Sunni Lower Kurram, on the Bangash stronghold of Bagzai. The ensuing battle left over 100 dead in two days. Over 400 have been killed in the region since the beginning of August, and according to unofficial estimates, the number of dead since April 2007 is over 1,500.

After the fighting, six Sunni tribes called a unilateral ceasefire, but the Shias say they do not trust the announcement. “There have been so many ceasefire announcements. Making peace is not in the hands of the Sunni tribes anymore. They have come under the thumb of the Taliban, and they have to do what the Taliban ask them to do,” Ali Akbar, secretary-general of the Anjuman Hussainia, a Shia community group in the predominantly Shia Parachinar, the main town in Kurram, told The Hindu. According to him, the Taliban wanted to convert Kurram into “another Waziristan or Bajaur,” but the Turi would not let them. “We were forced to take action in Bagzai, and we have cleaned up the place,” he said. But, he said, the Taliban had several other strongholds in Lower Kurram.

Allama Jawwad Hadi, another Shia leader in Parachinar, said the Shia tribes would not accept any truce call by the Sunni tribes unless it was accompanied by guarantees that they will not give room to the Taliban. “[The Sunni tribesmen] have to pledge that they will not allow the Taliban into their villages, that they will not give any more opportunities for the Taliban to make their own strongholds here, or to launch attacks on the Turi. Only then there can be peace in Kurram,” he said. According to him, the Turis were the only force that was preventing the Taliban from taking over Kurram, which they wanted “to use for their activities.”

“Kurram shares borders with Afghanistan on three sides. This is why the Taliban want control of this agency. From here, there are so many routes they can use. The Sunnis must accept the leadership of the Turi because only they can stop the Taliban,” he said.

The present troubles in Kurram date back to April 2007, when according to a Parachinar journalist who did not want to be named, the Sunnis took out a rally in the main town at which, for the first time, they raised slogans against Hussein, the Shia martyr. Three days later, when the Shias took out a rally in protest, gunmen fired at them; 80 people died.

A suicide attack in August punctured an uneasy truce but the fragile peace held until November, when fighting broke out once again in Parachinar, a Shia-majority town. A week of clashes left some 100 people dead, with the Shias simultaneously “cleansing” the town of Sunnis. The government’s token efforts could not stop the fighting. Since then, Parachinar has been cut off from the rest of Pakistan. Sunni tribes have blockaded the road link from the town to the NWFP capital, Peshawar.

“Now to go to Peshawar, we must first cross into Afghanistan, and then cross back into Pakistan. The journey by car costs Rs.7,000 and takes two days. When the road was open, an express bus could take us in two hours,” the Parachinar journalist said. Military aircraft have ferried some stranded civilians to and from the town but the service is erratic.

Since the first week of August, the town has gone without electricity. Diesel, smuggled in from Afghanistan, costs Rs.100 a litre and medicines are in short supply. Traders bringing in medicines and food supplies from Afghanistan are charging sky-high prices. A 100-kg bag of atta costs Rs.5,500 — more than double the price in the rest of the country.

In June, militants attacked a convoy of trucks that was transporting food and medicines to Parachinar near Pir Qayyum in Lower Kurram. They burnt several of the trucks and killed 12 truck drivers. Independent analysts say the Taliban started moving into Kurram when the Pakistan security forces began military operations in other tribal agencies and in parts of the NWFP such as Darra Adam Khel and Hangu.

“The Kurram issue is basically sectarian, and the Taliban have weighed in on the side of the Sunnis. They are trying to gain control of a small triangle of land [in Kurram] because it gives them an alternate route into Afghanistan,” said Brigadier (retd.) Mahmood Shah, who used to be Secretary FATA, the senior-most government official administering the tribal areas. Brig. Shah said the Taliban were thwarting all attempts at brokering peace between the two communities. Those familiar with the area also spoke of the presence in Kurram of a large number of “external elements” — cadres from banned Punjabi-dominated outfits such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, who had joined hands with the Tehreek-e-Taliban.

There have also been allegations that Iran and Afghanistan are assisting the Shias with money, manpower and weapons. A group called the Reforms Committee of Parachinar told journalists in Peshawar recently that the two countries had supplied two Shia militant groups with large quantities of medicines, mortar launchers and other weapons. Brig. Shah said the area involved was so small, and the government’s priorities in the region were so many that thus far, it was being treated as a “local issue,” even though the political agent, the official in-charge of the agency, had been knocking at the doors of the federal government for help. The government deployed the Frontier Corps in the region two weeks ago, but that had no effect on the fighting.

“If the government can apportion some force — a brigade would do — it can bring the area under control,” he said adding that presently, security forces had only a “token presence” in Kurram. But he also stressed the need for an overall policy to tackle militancy in the entire region, and following up on that, an area-specific policy. “There is a need to put pressure on all sides, and then take up operations on priority,” he said. Otherwise, the former official said, when the security forces hit in one place, the militants would simply set up camp in another, as in Kurram.