By Imtiaz Ali
Pakistan’s Kurram Tribal Agency has been at the center of sectarian Shiite-Sunni conflict for decades. The area witnessed bloody clashes between the two rival sects of Islam long before the arrival of the Taliban phenomenon and foreign al-Qaeda elements in the region in the wake of the U.S. attack on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001. Major sectarian riots hit the region for the first time in 1963. Violence resumed in the mid-1980s and a third wave of major sectarian clashes occurred in 1996, amid the growing influence of Salafist Muslims in the area. After a decade of relative peace and harmony, however, Kurram Agency has once again plunged into a vicious cycle of sectarian violence that began last year. Despite many peace truces and pledges of rival groups to end the hostilities, the mayhem is still going on. The clashes intensified in the last month and have not only left scores of people dead and injured, but have also completely paralyzed life in the region. Overall, up to 700 people have been killed and over 1,000 wounded since the conflict began in April last year (Dawn [Karachi], April 12; The News [Islamabad], March 1).
Taking its name from the river which passes through it, Kurram is considered to be one of the most scenic tribal agencies along the Afghan border. The area forming the present day Kurram Agency was a part of Afghanistan before the Second Afghan War of 1878-79. Created in 1892, Kurram Agency is the second largest tribal region in Pakistan after the South Waziristan Agency, and also has the geographic distinction of sharing a border with Afghanistan on three sides. The agency’s headquarters is located at Parachinar. Kurram Agency is the only tribal region in the country’s semi-autonomous seven tribal territories which has a large number of Shiites—the rest of the six tribal agencies are overwhelmingly inhabited by Sunni Muslims. The population of Kurram valley consists of a number of tribes, namely Turi, Bangash, Parachamkani, Massozai, Alisherzai, Zaimusht, Mangal, Kharotai, Ghalgi and Hazara. According to official figures, its population is 58 percent Sunni and 42 percent Shiite. The majority of the Shiites live in the upper part of the Kurram Agency, while Sunnis inhabit lower and central Kurram (The News, January 20).
Much of the current tension originated after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Shiite Iran encouraged some Shiites in Kurram Agency to call for the creation of a Shiite majority province. President Zia al-Haq responded with force and a campaign to resettle Afghan and Pakistani Sunnis in Kurram. The current round of clashes erupted in April 2007 when a local sectarian group raised objectionable slogans during a religious procession. More than 50 people died in the first few days of fighting before military intervention brought a brief lull in the fighting. Rival groups agreed on ceasefires several times after the intervention of local jirgas (tribal councils). The government also deployed troops and imposed a curfew in the sensitive areas but none of these measures was particularly effective. Bloody clashes broke out again last November despite the heavy presence of security forces. The use of automatic weapons, mortars and rockets by both sides in four days of fierce fighting left more than 100 dead and up to 250 injured (The News, November 19, 2007). A delegation from Kurram to President Pervez Musharaff and Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Kiyani last December complained: “The armed forces of Pakistan are playing the role of silent spectators instead of countering the attackers and protecting the residents under attack” (The Frontier Post [Peshawar], December 31, 2007). Attempts by Taliban-associated tribesmen from Waziristan to exploit the situation in Kurram were rebuffed with heavy losses by fighters from the Shiite Turi tribe (The Frontier Post, December 27, 2007).
Lingering sporadic riots and violence forced thousands to migrate to the border provinces of Afghanistan last January. For the first time in the history of Pakistan, up to 500 families—or about 3,000 individuals—from the Pakistani side of the border migrated and took refuge in the Khost and Paktia provinces of southeastern Afghanistan (IRIN, January 2). In the violence that pre-dated last February’s elections, the Kurram Agency witnessed some of the worst carnage when a suicide bomber rammed his explosive-laden vehicle into the office of a political candidate in Eidgah Market in Parachinar, killing at least 38 persons, including six children, and injuring 109 others. Though the apparent target was a Pakistan People’s Party candidate, many thought the attack might have sectarian motives (The Post [Lahore], February 17).
The latest series of sectarian clashes started last month, again during a religious ceremony. Besides the main cities of Parachinar and Sadda, some suburban towns like Balishkhel, Karman, Para Chamkani, Pewar and Teri Mengal have become battlegrounds for the rival groups in the last month. Apart from the killing of a hundred people and scores of injured, dozens of houses, shops and other buildings have been torched by the rival sects during clashes. Frequent attacks on convoys on the main highway between Thall and Parachinar have led to serious shortages of food and medicine in the area (Dawn, April 6). Some leaders of the Shiite community have blamed the Sunni Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked foreign militants in the tribal region for the latest wave of violence in Kurram (Daily Times, March 29).
At a time when the whole tribal belt along the Afghan border has become a global flashpoint due to the rising tide of Islamic militancy and the presence of a significant number of al-Qaeda-linked militants, Kurram is the only agency in the border region where al-Qaeda and the militant Taliban cannot form a strong base because of the significant Shiite population, whose vast majority oppose the Sunni Taliban and al-Qaeda. Despite this, however, unabated sectarian fighting has thrown the whole Kurram Agency into complete chaos. As Pakistani authorities have bitterly failed in taming the continued violence, some local tribesmen have threatened to approach the United Nations and other global communities to seek their help in resolving this crisis (The Nation [Islamabad], April 10).