By Zia Ur Rehman
April 27-May 3, 2012
Although the several counterterrorism operations launched by the Pakistani military in Khyber Agency in the past few years failed to dislodge local militant groups, the government has decided to launch yet another operation.
Khyber is one of Pakistan’s seven tribal agencies and borders Afghanistan to the west, Orakzai Agency to the south, Mohmand Agency to the north and the district of Peshawar to the east. Sectarian violence, drug cartels and militant groups aiming to establish a Taliban-style government fuel conflict in the region. The different militant outfits, such as the LI, Ansaarul Islam (AI) and Amr Bil Maroof Wanahi Anil Munkar (Invitation to Virtue and Negation of Vice) became active in the region after 2004, but since 2007, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Abdullah Azam Brigade (AAB) and various Punjabi jihadi groups also started subversive activities in the region, said Aqeel Yousafzai, a Peshawar-based security analyst and author.
All of these groups frequently attack and rob trucks carrying fuel and other goods for NATO forces in Afghanistan. Although the militant groups often compete with one another, the LI, headed by militant commander Mangal Bagh, has a strong base in the region, he said.
The recent operation was launched in Bara tehsil of Khyber Agency in mid January with a goal to clear the area of LI militants. The campaign was intensified after recent terrorist attacks carried out in the neighbouring Peshawar in mid-March. “It was planned to carry out operations by security forces in Sepah, Shalobar, Malik Din Khel and Aka Khel areas of Khyber Agency,” said an official serving in the local political administration.
The recent operation has also forced thousands of families to flee the area. “As of 21 April, over 206,664 people (nearly 47,472) families from have been registered at Jalozai IDP camp displaced from Khyber Agency,” said Duniya Aslam Khan, an official at UNHCR Islamabad. The displacement mainly occurred from Bara tehsil of Khyber Agency, mainly from Shalobar, Qambar Khel, Aka Khel, Stori Khel, Malik Din Khel, Kamar Khel and Sipah tribes, she said.
The displaced tribesmen complain that the operation was launched by the government in a hurry, and they did not even get time to take any of their belongings. “This is the fifth such operation in the area. The government is not targeting the militants, it is just destroying our houses and businesses,” said Shah Rasool, an angry displaced resident of Bara who is now living in Jalozai camp of Nowshera with his family.
Lawmakers can explain why people feel that way. “The military operation in Khyber Agency is different from those conducted in other tribal areas because they were carried out against Taliban and foreign militants. But in Khyber Agency, the military had to intervene because of clashes between two rival groups – the LI and the AI – that turned bloody,” said Asma Arbab Alamgir, a PPP MNA and an advisor to prime minister.
It is pertinent to mention that Pakistan’s security forces have targeted the LI in at least five operations over the past three years in order to relieve pressure on Peshawar and secure NATO supplies through the Khyber Pass, but has failed to dislodge the group.
Despite occasional claims about government successes, the Khyber Agency remains a serious problem. Interestingly, all the military operations in Khyber Agency were given theatrical Pashto codenames, like Daraghlam (Here I Come!), Bya Daraghlam (Here I Come Again!), and Khwakh ba de Sham (I will fix you). Yousafzai says the names show the operations are not serious.
Local tribal elders and security analysts say that Bagh is facing severe resistance from local Zakakhel, Akhakhel and Kukikhel sub-tribes and suffered significantly in fierce clashes with Tariq Afridi-led TTP Darra Adamkhel, which is also locally known at Geedar Group.
The Zakakhel sub-tribe was provided the support base to the LI in strategic Tirah valley, but a group of Zakakhel tribesmen revolted against LI after an influential religious scholar of the tribe, Maulana Muhammad Hashim, was kidnapped from the bazaar area of Landi Kotal sub-division on March 21, 2011 and beheaded a day later by a group of LI militants led by Commander Khan, a close aide of Bagh.
At the same time, Ghuncha Gul, a Zakakhel leader of an LI breakaway faction, was also captured by LI’s militants. The Zakakhel demanded the LI release their fellow tribesman from detention, hand over Commander Khan, who is blamed for the killing of Hashim, and guarantee that LI militants will not operate in the Zakakhel area again. Their demands were turned down by Bagh and as a result, Zakakhel tribesmen formed their own group named Tauheedul Islam (TI) to fight against Bagh. The TI is led by three senior LI dissident commanders – Shireen, Tooti and Munshi.
The AI, the arch-rival of LI, joined hands with the TI. Hundreds of people have been killed in clashes between the LI and the AI during the last five years. Two other sub-tribes in Khyber, the Kookikhel and Akakhel, have also organized armed militias to keep their areas secure from the LI.
As the region is strategically located on the confluence of border of three tribal agencies and Afghanistan, the TTP Darra Adam Khel chapter is also fighting with LI to gain influence in the area. On March 23, a TTP suicide bomber struck at a mosque in Tirah valley, killing over a dozen people. A majority of them were LI militants. Three weeks before this attack, a similar suicide bombing after the Friday prayers at another LI mosque also in Tirah valley killed 23 people.
A tribal jirga consisting of elders of Bara tehsil of Khyber Agency and backed by the local political administration, failed to convince Bagh in meeting with him in the end of March to shun violence and surrender unconditionally, said a journalist based in Bara.
Security analysts believe that fighting with the TI, the AI and the TTP has weakened the LI in the Khyber Agency, and that would help the security forces hunt them down easily. They also say the TI and the AI are providing support to the security forces.
But Yousafzai believes forming and supporting armed tribal militias would increase violence and sow the seeds of unending tribal feuds which could in turn spiral out of control. “Too much power and weapons in civilian hands has risks,” he said, “It can lead to warlordism, creating a new set of problems to replace those posed by the Taliban.”
The writer is a journalist and a researcher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org