A community under siege in tribal Pakistan

As US prepares troop withdrawal, Taliban’s strong hold on border regions reveals Pakistan’s vulnerability.

Parachinar road people
At least 30,000 families have been displaced due to violence in Kurram, the UN says [EPA]

Parachinar, in Pakistan’s tribal north west, remains under siege. The only road connecting this district bordering Afghanistan to the rest of Pakistan has been blocked by Taliban fighters since 2007.

The blockade was briefly lifted in March, or so the Pakistani government proudly announced. The road was open again and travellers would be protected, they said. Owais, a 25-year-old recent graduate of engineering, was one of the few who took the risk and decided to visit his family.

On March 25, his Toyota HiAce and two other vans were stopped on the Thal-Parachinar road by Taliban fighters. Owais and 44 others were kidnapped.

The Taliban freed the women and children, but killed seven – some claim ten – of the abducted passengers. A further 30 men remained in captivity for close to three months.

After protracted negotiations between tribal elders, the Pakistani government, and varying Taliban factions, 22 of the captives were set free on June 21.  Owais was one of the lucky ones.

“They have been handed to the government forces of the Frontier Corps and are on their way home,” a friend of Owais told Al Jazeera.

Reports suggest the Taliban were paid a ransom of at least 30 million rupees, roughly $350,000. Eight men remain in captivity. And the road, though no longer described as “blocked”, still remains highly insecure.

In his speech this week announcing the military transition in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama once again emphasised Pakistan’s crucial role in combating extremism.

“Of course, our efforts must also address terrorist safe havens in Pakistan,” he said. “No country is more endangered by the presence of violent extremists, which is why we will … work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keeps its commitments.”

The siege on Parachinar is prime evidence to caution the “mission accomplished” rhetoric already employed by US policy makers. It speaks to the Taliban’s tight hold on the crucial border region, the absence of Pakistani government forces, and the challenges that lie ahead in reaching any meaningful conclusion to the “war against terror”.

“The whole Kurram region has turned into a detention centre for the people,” says local journalist Zulfiqar Ali,

People cannot even travel there to bury their dead

A local human rights activist

referring to the tribal agency of which Parachinar is the administrative capital. Pakistan’s tribal areas are divided into seven agencies, with Kurram bordering Afghanistan’s Khost province.

On the road to Parachinar, passenger vehicles are frequently attacked and food convoys are torched. Since 2007, hundreds of people have been killed in Kurram due to the violence, while the United Nations says at least 30,000 families have been forced to abandon their homes and move to camps for Internally Displaced People.

But escaping the region has become a difficult task. For residents to make it to Peshawar, the nearest Pakistani city, they have to first go into Afghanistan. That route has often been closed due to military operations by the Pakistani army. And even if they make it through, they face tremendous risks in Afghanistan – because the same fighters are active across the border.

“People cannot even travel there to bury their dead,” a local human rights activist told Al Jazeera in condition of anonymity, due to the risks involved in discussing the matter.

From sectarianism to militancy

The only road connecting Parachinar to the rest of the country has been blocked since 2007

The recent troubles in Kurram began as sectarian violence but analysts and local sources say the situation was hijacked by Taliban fighters who use the tribal areas to launch attacks against NATO in Afghanistan.

“Local sectarian groups do not have enough resources to block the road,” says Ali. “It is purely a militant issue now.”

The Shia are a slight majority in Kurram Agency, an area of about 500,000 residents. During the Afghan Jihad, when the tribal regions were used by the CIA as the training grounds for anti-Soviet fighters, the region saw an insurgence of Sunni hardliners.

“There have been sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia in Kurram for decades,” says Reza Jan, Pakistan Team Lead at the American Enterprise Institute. “But in the past, Sunni-Shia clashes were usually minor. Clashes, when they did occur, were resolved fairly quickly by local leaders and authorities.” 

After the fall of the Taliban government in Kabul, and Pakistan’s crackdown on radical elements in Punjab, the tribal areas became the hub of both Pakistani and Afghan insurgents. But many among the armed groups consider Kurram’s Shia tribes – who refused to shelter fighters – as apostates. And Kurram’s Shia paid a heavy price as a result.

“The Tareek-e-Taliban’s current leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, is known to be fervently anti-Shia,” says Reza Jan. “Before he led the TTP, he was the TTP commander for Kurram, Orakzai and Khyber agencies where he made a name for himself through his brutality towards Kurram’s Shia.”

For the past three years, locals have desperately looked for help, mainly from Islamabad – but also from Kabul. In 2008, they accepted a peace deal with the Taliban. The exact components of the deal are seen differently by analysts, but the purpose was clear: they wanted an end to the violence and a lifting of the blockade on the road.

“The Mari agreement in 2008 gave the government full authority to use force against any militants blocking the road,” says Ali. “Why has the government not been able to deliver?”

Failure of the state

With Pakistan’s security apparatus always focused on India, the insurgency in the tribal areas did not recieve sufficient attention in its early years.

As sectarian violence began to be dominated by the Sunni Taliban, the Pakistani government relied on the Frontier Corps, a federally-controlled paramilitary force. But the Frontier Corps was ill-equipped in counter-insurgency and failed to stem the Taliban’s rapid growth.

In 2009, two Pakistani generals told the Associated Press that, of $6.6 billion in US military aid provided during the previous six years for counter-terrorism measures, only $500 million had been used for that purpose. The rest of the funds were used towards Pakistan’s “defence against India”.

Since April 2010, the Pakistani army has reportedly paid more attention to the problem and launched operations in central and lower Kurram agency. But the army’s repeated reliance on peace deals with the insurgents suggests they have failed in rooting out the problem.

“It does not mean the state is not trying,” says Irfan Ashraf, a journalism lecturer at neighbouring Peshawar University. “The fact of the matter is that [the] state is too weak to resolve the issue. And it is not accepting its weakness.”

More people have been displaced by these recent operations. And the route via Afghanistan has also now closed, limiting the flow of food, medicine and other supplies.

“If a sack of flour costs 2000 rupees in Islamabad, it cost us 6000 in Parachinar,” one local, recently relocated to Islamabad, said.

The presence of the army in the region has also limited media access, pushing the issue out of the public discussion.

Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder reports from
Pakistan’s tribal areas

“Anything that is security related is a ‘no go area’ for media and the rest,” says Ashraf. “The media looks up to the security forces, and the official line of the security forces is that it is quiet there.”

When the government announced the reopening of the road in March, it was on the back of a peace deal. Signed in 2008 at the height of the sectarian violence, the deal was being implemented three years later, when local dynamics had changed. Sectarianism was the smaller problem for locals. By then, the Taliban were dominating the area.

The deal itself is not problematic, but the peace deal’s reported mediators, the Haqqani “independent militia”, appears to have become one of the main sources of the abuses now. 

“The Haqqanis – with backing from the state – were able to broker a deal between Shia and Sunni. They, in return, would be given transit rights through Kurram,” says Reza Jan.

“The Haqqanis essentially fashioned themselves as the guarantors of the deal.”

Not only has the deal brought more problems for the locals as the Haqqani fighters move around more easily, it has also brought US drone aircraft. The population, once caught in constant sectarian violence, now finds itself again under siege – by the Taliban and the Pakistani army on the ground – and US drones amid the skies.

Follow Mujib Mashal on Twitter: @mujibmashal

Source: Al Jazeera