Our wars in our Tribal Areas

The war in Khyber Agency now parallels the war in Kurram Agency. The first is three years old and the second is two years old in its latest phase. The Khyber war has unfolded right under the nose of the administration in Peshawar; and the Kurram war has proved too much for Islamabad as it spreads to adjacent Aurakzai and Mohmand agencies, coming down to the settled districts of the NWFP like Hangu and Kohat. There is also the greater war between the Taliban and the state of Pakistan over “lost territory”, and then there is the war with Afghanistan where the Tribal Areas of Pakistan provide up to 40 percent of the “cross-border” warriors. Finally, there is the war within the warriors of which the latest example is the sectarian bloodshed in the Khyber Agency.

Two factions that came on the scene in Khyber around 2005 on the basis of their propaganda on their FM radios are now killing each other freely. So far more than 200 warriors from both sides have been done to death with automatic fire and mortars and rockets. The latest battle has killed nearly 30 in one day’s battle, if the figures claimed by both sides are to be accepted. After Bara, the killings spread to Jamrud, where the murders of innocent people are now going to be avenged. The battle has also spread to the most inaccessible but picturesque Tirah and, going by the images being shown on TV, both sides are squared off with equal strength of weaponry and manpower.

The war in Kurram Agency forms a parallel. It is also close-by because one can reach Kurram from Tirah after a few hours’ journey. While the war in Khyber is between two versions of Sunni Islam — Deobandi versus Barelvi — the war in Kurram is between the Shia and the Sunni, the two major sects of Islam. The Kurram war, mostly centred on the headquarters of the agency Parachinar with a majority Shia population, is of longer gestation. In history it was known as the Turi-Mangal tribal war as both tribes embrace different sects. But after the jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, it became an indirectly state-supported mayhem because jihad was Deobandi-dominated.

Hundreds have been claimed in these two internal wars. As in other areas affected by retaliatory attacks from the NATO-ISAF forces, uninvolved populations are moving out of the affected areas and then wandering from pillar to post in search of shelter. Everywhere they go, the Taliban tighten the noose around their necks by enforcing a brand of Islam that the people have not known before. Meanwhile, the state of Pakistan is nowhere to be seen. The people of Parachinar have made heart-rending appeals to the state to come and save their lives but to no effect. The state is clearly in retreat in the face of all this.

When the Barelvi-Deobandi war started in the Khyber Agency in 2005, its repercussions went as far south as Multan and Karachi where the Deobandi madrassas organised wall-chalkings about a war that no one could figure out. Mufti Munir Shakir was fulminating against his Barelvi rival Pir Saifur Rehman. Both were exiled from Khyber but both left behind their followers. The Deobandi Mufti Shakir has now been replaced by warlord Mangal Bagh who is given to raiding Peshawar to fill his coffers and is clearly putting himself up for adoption by Al Qaeda without whose imprimatur no one can enter the business of terrorism in the Tribal Areas. On the other hand, Pir Saifur Rehman has been succeeded by other leaders, including Maulana Mustamin, who have vowed to fight to the end.

The federal government listened to the distant thunder of war on the FM radios and kept quiet, and there are many interpretations placed on this benign neglect, including the involvement of the intelligence agencies in secretly prosecuting the war against Afghanistan’s Karzai government. The MMA government in Peshawar kept out of the mess on two grounds. The first was overt and it was based on the argument that the Tribal Areas were in the charge of the federal government. That indirectly meant that the governor and the corps commander in Peshawar were effectively responsible for control and management in Khyber. The other less overt reason for the Deobandi-dominated MMA’s indifference was the natural Deobandi ascendancy of Lashkar-e Islam of Mangal Bagh, further empowered by the “alliance” between Deobandi Islam and Arab-dominated Al Qaeda.

Those who are busy counting the errors of President Pervez Musharraf these days should include the chaos of the Tribal Areas and its two epochal wars in Khyber and Kurram in their list. But the danger is that these are precisely the issues that will be ignored by his critics. And that will be the source of further trouble for the country. *
Daily Times - Site Edition Tuesday, June 24, 2008

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