Saturday, August 23, 2008

What is really happening in the Kurram Agency, Pakistan?

Around 400 people have been killed in the Kurram Agency in the last two weeks. Thousand others have been badly wounded in what appears to be a tribal conflict between two groups. At least, this is how it appears to the general audience watching the media coverage in Pakistan. The ground reality, however, is much more complicated.

One, this is not a conflict between two symmetrical powers. For over 15 months now, the Taliban militants from within Pakistan and across the Afghan border have actively supported the criminal elements belonging to a few tribes in the Kurram agency against the residents of Parachinar and its surrounding. The Tal-Parachinar road that connects this remote area to the rest of Pakistan has been effectively blocked by these criminal elements for more than 10 months. A group that tried to travel through this road was literally slaughtered on 19 June, 2008. The people of Parachinar and its surrounding, mostly from the Turi tribal and Shia Muslim background, have continuously pleaded to the government and the army to come to their support, but to no avail so far. The residents are forced to cross the border into Afghanistan to get their basic supplies of food and medicine, and to get to Peshawar. According to news reports, at least fourteen innocent children have died due to shortage of medicine. For several months now, the criminal elements have subjected these people to a protracted, low-intensity ethnic cleansing. It was only under these adverse conditions that the Turi/Shia tribesmen decided to respond forcefully. But their capacities are nothing compared to the organized terror machinery of their opponents.

Two, this is not a tribal or sectarian conflict per se. Rather it is a conflict instigated by the Taliban militants and supported by local criminal elements. (The Taliban militants who fled from other agencies of FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) are also re-grouping in the Kurram agency.) The tribal and sectarian differences are being used for fueling the conflict. But the real reason is that the Taliban want an easy access from Kurram agency to various provinces in Afghanistan. Parachinar is the best route for that purpose. (The NY Times did a story on this issue on July 26, 2008. See here) However, the Parachinar people would not to allow that, not only because they do not want to support these criminals but also because they would become a target of NATO bombardment (like the case in other areas of FATA).

The furious Taliban militants and their local supporters are therefore subjecting the non-cooperating tribes in Kurram agency to this protracted torment, with the goal of either making them surrender to their demands or forcing them out of their ancestral lands. As one can see, the underlying logic of this conflict is power and dominance. What needs to be emphasized here is that the common people as well as many leaders of the local tribes from all sides do not want to fight. Many believe that this conflict has been imposed on them by 'external hands'. The common people just want peace and security.

Three, it is very unfortunate that the rogue elements within the intelligence agencies are also involved in these crimes. Their continued connection with the Taliban is widely known (see, for example, here). Without their support, it is hard to imagine that these fringed militants would have spread far and wide, not only across the FATA region but also to Peshawar and D.I. Khan, even Karachi, (and, of course, the Afghan areas), when they are actively hunted by the Pakistan Army, FC, and NATO forces. Any serious efforts to rescue the Kurram agency from these militants would require that the state also control the hidden hands behind these criminals.

Among the immediate things that the government should do: End the humanitarian crisis in Parachinar by freeing the Tal-Parachinar road from the militants and ensuring the safety of the passengers. Put a halt on Taliban movement from other agencies to this area. Reinstate the Kurram militia, comprising of local residents from different tribes and sectarian backgrounds, which used to safeguard this region before. Set up an independent commission to investigate the complicity of the state officials and intelligence agencies and estimate the level of damage and destruction. Pay due compensation to the aggrieved families and help them re-settle in their hometowns.

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