The South Asia Channel

A Haqqani-brokered peace in Kurram agency?

It would seem that Machiavellian politics have finally won out in the Pakistani tribal agency of Kurram; last week, leaders from Kurram’s Shi’a Muslim community (located mostly in Upper Kurram) finally came to an agreement with their Sunni Muslim rivals (located mostly in Lower and Central Kurram) – through the intervention of the powerful insurgent ...

A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images
A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images

It would seem that Machiavellian politics have finally won out in the Pakistani tribal agency of Kurram; last week, leaders from Kurram’s Shi’a Muslim community (located mostly in Upper Kurram) finally came to an agreement with their Sunni Muslim rivals (located mostly in Lower and Central Kurram) – through the intervention of the powerful insurgent network led by famed mujahideen Jalaluddin Haqqani – to put an end to the four-year-old sectarian war that has claimed roughly 3,000 lives according to various media reports, with thousands more displaced and nearly 50 villages burned to the ground as a result of the fighting.

Deadly sectarian clashes have been taking place in Kurram since at least 1987; however, the situation worsened following the emergence of different groups of Taliban under the leadership of Hakimullah Mehsud and Mullah Toofan in the neighboring Waziristan and Orakzai agencies and other tribal districts after the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001. Over the years, the Shi’a of Kurram have accused various Taliban groups and the Pakistani security establishment of lending support to their Sunni enemies, while the Sunnis accuse their rivals of drawing financial and material support from Iran, the country that once narrowly avoided a full-fledged war with Afghanistan during Taliban rule.

Nine mini-wars have taken place in the agency since 2001, with the latest, started in November 2007, only ending with last week’s truce. During that period, the Shi’a populated areas remained cut off from rest of Pakistan, as the road leading from Peshawar to Parachinar, the main town in Upper Kurram, passes through Sunni-populated settled districts which prevented Shi’a access to the road. Thus communication with and travel to Peshawar in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province was only available by a road that runs through the Afghan cities of Khost, Gardez, Kabul and Jalalabad.

This circuitous route meant a roughly 18-hour journey to Peshawar from Parachinar. Besides being expensive, such a trip requires an enormous risk given the instability in these areas of south-eastern Afghanistan. By contrast, a normal journey from Parachinar to Peshawar on Pakistan’s roads takes an average four hours.

Among other factors, the truce, achieved after four months of extensive negotiations between representatives of the two sects, elected legislators from the area, and key elders from other tribes, can be attributed to the direct involvement of Haqqani network, based in the Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal agency.

Though the Shi’a representative and elected member of the Pakistan National Assembly from Kurram, Sajid Hussain Turi, rejected the involvement of the Haqqani network or any other Taliban group in negotiating the truce, some elders privy to the talks indicated to the author that Fazal Haidar Haqqani, a grandson of the ailing Jalaluddin, was the key figure pressuring leaders of the two sects to sign the peace accord. One elder told the author that Fazal Haidar once warned the negotiating parties that a deal could not be achieved without Haqqani support, and local and international media have also mentioned the involvement of two other Haqqani family members, Ibrahim and Khalil Haqqani, in the negotiations.

The Haqqani pressure seems to have guaranteed the peace deal’s acceptance by all parties in the conflict. Interestingly, the first congratulatory note on the peace agreement came from the Kurram Taliban, known before for their hatred of Shi’a both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Fazal Saeed, head of the Taliban in Kurram and a man worth 5 million Pakistani Rupee in reward money, told a news conference that violators of the accord would be punished under the Sharia Laws.

It is unlikely that the Taliban and Haqqani network suddenly believe in Sunni-Shi’a peace, or wish to leave the Shi’a alone. Rather, the accord seems to be more of a marriage of convenience than the beginning of a true ‘Love Story’ between the rival sects with the prevailing situation in the tribal belt and strategic location of Kurram Agency both explaining the sudden militant Sunni interest in a cessation of sectarian conflict.

Besides having a long, triangle-shaped border with Afghanistan in the its north, west and south, Kurram is also adjoins the Khyber and Orakzai tribal districts in the north and the settled district of Hangu and North Waziristan tribal agency in the south.

The increasing number of drone attacks and U.S. pressure on the Pakistani government to launch an operation in North Waziristan has further increased the strategic importance of Kurram Agency, particularly for the Taliban and Haqqani network. Kurram could be used as a junction to go forth and back into Khyber, Orakzai and Waziristan agencies on one hand, and Afghanistan and the settled districts of Pakistan on the other. However, this back-and-forth transit depends on peace with and readiness on part of the Shi’a to allow the Taliban to cross their areas.

This strategic positioning meant the Haqqanis needed to win the goodwill of the local Shi’a in order to guarantee safe passage through their areas.

When the Taliban in Central Kurram closed the major road through the region over the past four years, the Shi’a population suffered from shortages of  food and medicine (although arms supplies continued to reach the area), and their schools and hospitals were closed. The Haqqani pressure during the peace negotiations has helped re-open the road, a move intended to further expand their influence and improve their relationship with the Shi’a. The Haqqanis also intervened last July to win the release of six Shi’a kidnapped by their Sunni rivals. According to local journalists who spoke to the author, the Shi’a finally agreed, though not publicly, that they would let Taliban pass through their areas (if not allowing them to stay) in case the Pakistani security forces launch an operation in North Waziristan.

Keeping the past mistreatment of Pakistani and Afghan Shi’a populations by the Taliban and affiliates, the Haqqani network and the Shi’a of Kurram will never be friends; but through lengthy negotiation and careful diplomacy, it seems that the Haqqanis, or their supporters, have secured enough future cooperation, or acquiescence, to ensure their continued ability to operate in Pakistan’s tribal regions.