The Kurram conundrum — by Farhat Taj

Kurram Agency has been in turmoil since the violent sectarian clashes of 2007. Since then thousands of Sunni and Shia families have been displaced, hundreds killed and the Parachinar-Tal road is unsafe for Shia travel. Shia travellers on the road have come under several attacks, forcing them to travel via Afghanistan to reach Peshawar. Travelling via Afghanistan has never been easy — it is expensive and not always safe. Even the Afghan route has now been closed by the government of Pakistan since September 2010 when NATO forces violated the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. Due to the road blockade, the prices of food, medicine and other daily commodities are exceptionally high in Parachinar. The displaced people report that aid agencies have stopped giving them food aid, which has added to their hardships. There seems to be no sign of the end to violence and despair in Kurram.

The first month of 2011 too has been violent. On January 4, a convoy carrying food and other goods of daily use to Parachinar was attacked. Some 22 trucks were first looted and then burnt. Seemingly, the security forces accompanying the convoy did nothing to stop the attackers. By the end of this month, an important tribal leader from Parachinar, Iqbal Hussain, who belongs to the Sunni sect, was target killed in his home. The killer introduced himself as the political agent of Kurram to a child of the family on the doorstep. The child informed her grandfather, Iqbal Hussain, who rushed to the door where the killer showered him with bullets.

An outsider dealing with the Shias and Sunnis of Kurram would experience that they often desist from sitting with each other due to perceived security problems. The Shias tend to feel insecure in a ‘Sunni place’ and vice versa. Iqbal Hussain’s home in Hayatabad, Peshawar was one such place where the Shias and Sunnis would sit together without fear. A well-educated man, Iqbal Hussain was widely respected by both the Shias and Sunnis of Kurram. In his last few days, he had been documenting a history of Kurram. His assassination is a setback for any hopes of peace in Kurram and a scholarly loss in terms of his work on Kurram’s history, which abruptly came to an end with his assassination.

At the macro-level, the crisis in Kurram is part of the crisis in the rest of FATA, i.e. the fruition of the military establishment’s strategic depth pursuit in Afghanistan. At a micro-level, however, Kurram presents a totally different picture from the rest of FATA, including Orakzai, which is a mixed Shia-Sunni area like Kurram. In all other parts of FATA, people hold the Pakistan Army and the Taliban responsible for the brutalities committed against them.

In Kurram, the Shias hold the local Sunnis responsible for their sufferings and vice versa. Both accuse each other of being co-opted by outside forces — the Taliban in the case of Sunnis and the Ayatollah’s Iran in case of the Shias — for committing atrocities against each other. The Shias hold local Sunnis like Eid Nazar Mangal, linked with the Punjab-based anti-Shia terrorist group Sipah-e-Sahaba, and Fazal Saeed, linked with the Taliban, as being responsible for the crimes against them. The Sunnis hold local Shias like Abid Hussain, Syed Hashem Ibrahimzai and a non-local Shia, Maulana Irfan Nawaz Irfani, responsible for the atrocities committed against Sunnis in Kurram. The Shias claim that the Sunnis have filled the rank and file of the Taliban, who have indiscriminately been killing Shias. The Sunnis say that the Shias have established armed militant gangs, Hizbullah and Mehdi Militia, who have massacred and displaced Sunnis.

One thing is clear in the Kurram crisis: innocent people, both Shias and Sunnis, have greatly suffered since 2007. This includes thousands of displaced Shia and Sunni families since 2007 and the trapped people in Parachinar.

There is only one way forward for peace in Kurram: strict enforcement of the writ of the government. It is true that some people or groups, both Shia and Sunni, in Kurram have shown that they are capable of committing the worst kinds of brutalities against each other. However, there may be people like that in any society. It is the primary responsibility of the state to exert control over such people and protect the rest of the population from their violent tendencies. The Shia and Sunni tribes in Kurram are the same ones that have always been present in the area, most of the time living in peace and harmony. It is true that they have had tribal and sectarian clashes in the past as well. In the past, the clashes or crises were brought under control in a short time of mere days or weeks. How was that possible in the past? The people of Kurram say that in past clashes, the warring tribal groups used to immediately vacate their positions when only a couple of shots were fired in the air by the government’s long range artillery based in Kurram. This would be followed by a tribal jirga under the watch of the political agent of Kurram and the crisis would be brought to an end. The end of the crisis would be followed by years of peace. Such was the writ of the government in Kurram. The people wonder why the government is desisting since 2007 to fire those couple of shots at the Shia-Sunni warring positions.

The problem of attacks on Shia travellers on the Parachinar-Tal road is linked with the displacement of Sunnis from Kurram since 2007. The displacement of Sunnis is linked with the displacement of Shias from lower Kurram in the 1980s under General Zia’s plan to cleanse the area from Shias for accommodation of his Afghan mujahideen. The government needs to resolve these issues immediately after having imposed its writ on the warring Shia and Sunni groups. Unless this is done, peace will remain elusive. In the meanwhile, moderate Shia and Sunni tribal leaders, like Iqbal Hussain, will continue to be target-killed, the hardliners on both sides will grow in strength and the innocent people, both Shia and Sunni, will continue to suffer atrocities.

The writer is a PhD Research Fellow with the University of Oslo and currently writing a book, Taliban and Anti-Taliban

Source: Daily Times, 5 Feb 2011



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