Sectarian and Talibanic dimensions of the Orakzai Operation – by Asad Munir

Orakzai is the only tribal agency not bordering Afghanistan. It got the status of tribal agency in 1973. Prior to that it was under the administrative control of the DC Kohat as part of the Frontier Region. The agency’s population is about 300,000, out of which about 50,000 are Shias. There are about 64 Sikh and 18 Hindu families and they have been living in Orakzai for decades. The area witnessed Shia-Sunni riots, even during British rule, but never communal conflict. In 1936, the British demarcated the Shia-Sunni areas by relocating the Shia community to the south of the Mastura River.

In 1998, a Mamuzai tribal, raised a Taliban force. In the aftermath of 9/11, the Taliban force dispersed and there were no more extremist activities in the agency. Foreign militants have been taking refuge in Upper Orakzai since 2004. After formation of theTehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TPP) in 2007, the Taliban force was organised in Orakzai Agency, and it started terrorising the tribals. Prominent maliks were kidnapped and released on payment of ransom. Those who opposed were brutally killed. The Orakzais never wanted their area to be talibanised. In 2008, the Ali Khel and Feroz Khel tribes, raised lashkars, to fight the Taliban. These lashkars demolished houses of those who provided shelter to foreign militants. They were also fined heavily. Feroz Khels successfully cleared their area of the Taliban.

The Taliban reacted to these developments, as they wanted a base in the agency. Hakeemullah Mehsud took command of the force. A suicide bomber exploded a vehicle in a gathering of the Ali Khel lashkar, killing 114 and injuring 280 tribesmen. A vehicle laden with explosives was blown up in a market in Feroz Khel, reducing the whole market to ashes. Target killings of Ali Khel, Feroz Khel and Sunni Sturi Khel tribals started. Prominent tribal elders were kidnapped, tortured and killed. Many disappeared. Payment of jiziya was imposed on the Sikh community. They had no option but to leave the agency and take refuge in Panja Sahib and other places. These acts of violence forced the tribals to accept the rule of the Taliban in the agency.

Operation Rah-e-Nijat was launched in June 2009 to secure South Waziristan. The terrorists needed an area under their control, where they could establish training camps and fulfil their logistics requirements. Orakzai was the ideal choice, as the terrain of Upper Orakzai is difficult and the area facilitates back and forth movements from Tirah, Darra Adam Khel, North Waziristan and Kurram.

In March 2010, a formal operation was launched in the agency. More than 40,000 IDPs had to shift to Hangu and Kohat districts. More than 90 per cent of the agency has now been secured. The process of rehabilitation of IDPs has started. However, in the last one week, the security forces have suffered a number of casualties, including the death of a colonel and the Mamuzai area of Upper Orakzai is yet to be secured. The successful completion of the operation in Orakzai is likely to dilute the capabilities of terrorists in Tirah, Kurram Agency and North Waziristan.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 7th, 2010.