The centuries-old sectarian harmony of Kurram Agency seem to be doomed by periodic violence and strained relations between the Shia and Sunni communities, which form the population of the yester years peaceful and now volatile tribal region. It is feared that peace and harmony will have little chances in Kurram if situation remains the same and effective steps are not taken by the authorities concerned to stem the tide of violence. An in-depth analysis of the Kurram situation reveals that political developments in the neighboring ‘Muslim brother countries’ played major role in fuelling hatred between the two sects living in the scenic tribal area.
The Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 and US-sponsored ‘jihad’ against Soviets in Afghanistan radicalized the society and sowed the seeds of hatred between Sunni and Shia population of the agency. It will not be an exaggeration if one says that Kurram residents suffer the most in the wake of ongoing war in FATA as compared to their cousins living in other tribal agencies. Since 2001, the year, US launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; Kurram Agency has seen endless sectarian clashes that have taken more than 2500 lives.
The anti-Taliban Shias were dubbed as pro-government and pro-American as perceived by the Taliban militants. They were also blamed for their alleged role in the arrest of fleeing al-Qaeda militants in the suburban areas of Parachinar, the headquarters of Kurram Agency. Shias in Kurram though are critical of US, yet they welcomed ouster of Taliban regime in Afghanistan as the latter had openly supported and assisted Kurram Sunnis, by providing weapons and logistics, against them during 1996 riots.
The emergence of Taliban in South and North Waziristan agencies triggered the latent conflict in Kurram in 2007. The allegation levelled by Taliban against Shias for their alleged cooperation with NATO forces, stationed in Afghanistan, is considered to be the one of the reasons of the current Shia-Sunni conflict in the region. In 2008, the deadly conflict left more than 2,500 men killed, scores injured, 32 villages looted and burnt. A considerable portion of the population left for safer places in the settled districts they considered restoration of peace in their hometowns a far cry.
Observers allege that all the stakeholders, including government mishandled the issue and played marginal role in the conflict management and peace building process. In 2008, when both the warring parties (Shia and Sunni) with hundreds and thousands fighters armed with heavy weapons were using all means to destruct each other, Interior Minister Rehman Malik set a 72-hour ultimatum to them for a ceasefire. In other words the marauding members of both the sects were allowed to try to eliminate each other for three more days by none other than the man, responsible for security of the entire country. The government-backed peace process initiated after Murree Accord, which was concluded on October 18, 2008, had also faced a three years deadlock.
The Murree Accord was initially regarded as milestone by the locals as both the parties to the conflict pledged to fully cooperate with each other in bringing back peace to the agency. However, the accord was not materialized because the Sunni tribes, living alongside Thall-Parachinar Road, couldn’t guarantee the security of the road and just after a month, several attacks were carried out by Taliban militants on Shia passengers, travelling on the road. The issue of reopening Thall-Parachinar Road dominated all talks and negotiations, held for bridging differences between Shia and Sunni communities and putting brake on violence in Kurram Agency. The Shia leaders understand that Suni tribal elders, who participated in Murree negotiations, cannot guarantee their safety on the road as the tribes living in the area can’t defy Taliban militants.
In such a situation, some new endeavours, for conflict management, have been made under PPP government to bring peace back to the agency. The recent peace agreement, which in essence is the continuation of Murree Accord, is regarded a major breakthrough for restoration of peace. Some critics of the agreement opine that Sirajul Din Haqqani, the leader of Haqqani network of Taliban, brokered the peace accord to further his own agenda in the area. They say that Haqqanis want a corridor through Kurram for their fighters to carry out attacks against Nato forces in Afghanistan . However, according to Shia top negotiator and Member of National Assembly, Sajid Turi, the Haqqanis have not demanded facilitation in their movement in the agency. Now the locals, especially the besieged Shia community, are using Thall-Parachinar Road since it was reopened on February 5, 2011, nevertheless, the recent attacks on Shia travellers in Hangu have posed serious threats to the safety and security of the road and also put a big question mark on the implementation of peace accord.
It is still not known how the Sunni tribes can guarantee the safe passage of Shia vehicles on the road, where they haven’t shown the capability in the last three years to counter TTP militants. With the recent military incursion in Orakzai and parts of central Kurram, the power of TTP is considerably contained and they can’t thrive in a manner what they did in 2009 and before. Where TTP is fighting for their survival in Kurram and Orakzai Agency, the recent peace endeavours might be resisted by them. The recent attacks which have left 11 Shia passengers dead in Mamoo Banda area of Hangu are not owned by TTP and have been apparently carried out by the locals of Parachinar which are traced back to Mangal tribe, the traditional arch-rival of Turi tribe. These attacks might be considered as personal revenge but it essentially put question mark on the agreement and the peace endeavours as the attacks seems very systematic. Hangu police have effectively retaliated the Sunday attack (March 13) and killed all three murderers who were fleeing to the adjacent Central Kurram which is considered to be the last stronghold of TTP in Kurram Agency. Shia community has been appeared the worst sufferers of the years long embargo imposed on them. They were completely cut off from the rest of Pakistan and were using the only route via Paktia and Ningarhar provinces of Afghanistan to reach Peshawar. In the latter half of 2010, the Afghan route was also not safe as Shias were attacked in the Taliban dominated area of Paktia province.
No doubt, that Shia community is more interested in the opening of Thall-Parachinar road but their leaders in Parachinar have warned that the recent wave of attacks on Shia passengers vans in Hangu area might jeopardize the recent peace deal. Now when the violent stage of conflict is in the management phase, it is vitally important for all the stakeholders including the security apparatus to work for another stage i.e. conflict transformation.
Conflict transformation is the process by which conflicts, such as Kurram conflict, are transformed into peaceful outcomes. It recognizes “that contemporary conflicts require more than the reframing of positions and the identification of win-win outcomes. The very structure of parties and relationships may be embedded in a pattern of conflictual relationships that extend beyond the particular site of conflict. Conflict transformation is therefore a process of engaging with and transforming the relationships, interests, discourses and, if necessary, the very constitution of society that supports the continuation of violent conflict.
The security apparatus needs to ensure the security of Thall-Parachinar road as without the violent stage of conflict managed, it cannot be transformed toward a win-win situation. The PPP government has to deliver in line with PM Gilani’s promise of giving economic package worth Rs. 1.7 billion to the affected people for reconstruction and rehabilitation. Besides the government agencies, the role to be played by the local community itself is quite crucial. To ensure peace and stability it is vital to seek grey areas, common interests and the restoration of traditional cultural life of this scenic Agency.