Kurram Should Not Bleed Again

Kurram Should Not Bleed Again
Neither was the sky full of fireflies, nor was this a scene from a Hollywood thriller, but the tottering was of heavy weaponry oozing fire in real-time as the snowy Koh-e-Safyd Mountains quietly watched in the dark of Parachinar. A longstanding territorial tribal rivalry has just acquired a sectarian dimension, and has started spewing blood once again in the northwest tribal Kurram district bordering Afghanistan.

On its fourth day, the strife that began as a land dispute over the barren catchment areas, twisted into a serious sectarian strife with the potential to escalate into a possible proxy war in the scenic rugged mountainous tribal region.

Shia-Muslim majority Kurram, one of the seven tribal districts bordering Afghanistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan has witnessed a bloodstained history of sectarian violence. The besieged inhabitants of Parachinar keep sending frantic messages on social media platforms for help, as the locals claim to have been surrounded by Sunni-Muslim tribes who are charging on them from all directions.

Nobody can get in or out of Parachinar, as the charging militants belonging to the Parachamkani, Mahsoodzai and Pir Qayyum tribes have surrounded the town from the Gido/Pewar, Boshehra/Dandar, Balishkhel/Sadda and Bughaki/Parachamkani for the past four days. The besieged locals in Parachinar have resolved to self-defense, which they believe is their Constitutional and religious right. However, the local administration and law enforcement has been keeping quiet so far, as nearly a dozen have been killed and more than 40 lay wounded from both sides as of the evening of July 9.

The strife that began as a land dispute over the barren catchment areas, twisted into a serious sectarian strife with the potential to escalate into a possible proxy war in the scenic rugged mountainous tribal region.

Reportedly, the Taliban have also allegedly joined hands in the escalating battle, and so have Shia militants, allegedly trained in Iran. The Kurram district borders three Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia and Nangarhar, the location of the infamous Tora Bora cavern den of slain Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden. This region had been affected by sectarian conflict several times in the past and the threat multiplied several folds with the advent of the Taliban government in Kabul.

The fall of Kabul and the Taliban takeover of the government in August 2021 sent a chill through the spine of the inhabitants of Kurram, a majority Shia region in northwest Pakistan, as the scars of the 2007 sectarian conflict that had left 80 dead come afresh and the Shia population started feeling insecure.

However, as I spoke to the locals from both the Shia and Sunni sides in the region, they do not see the prevailing crisis as a sectarian conflict. Both communities want an end to the bloodshed, fearing that the fighting would escalate into a bigger conflict, if it is not resolved immediately. The terrain is such that the spiraling roads pass through both Shia and Sunni pockets, hence peaceful coexistence is more of a necessity due to interdependence, yet interestingly, the same winding roads are used as locations to snipe on each other when conflict breaks out.

A suicide bomber took 24 lives, injuring over 70 in a Shia mosque in Parachinar in 2017. While in May this year, the sectarian undercurrent resurfaced with the killing of eight, including six teachers in a retaliatory incident in Kurram.

The Taliban clearly harbor an agenda of working transboundary for the expansion of the Emirate beyond Afghanistan, and Pakistan might possibly be the most vulnerable victim of this imminent threat, with apparently no concrete solution in sight. The extreme right wing Salafist Taliban are not the only anti-Shia Muslim force in the region, and the even greater threat from the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) has also been reconfiguring the nature of sectarian militancy in Pakistan.

The Islamic State militants that bombed a Shia mosque in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial capital Peshawar in March 2022, killing over 60 and injuring several hundred, do not believe in national borders. The Khorasan, a symbolic Messianic region comprising parts of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, is what the ISKP has been seeking to constitute. While the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has left a deep and unhealed scar in the heart that beats in Pakistan, inflicting the gory incident of Army Public School (APS), Peshawar that killed 145, including 132 school children in 2014.

The reemergence of radicalized groups adds an additional setback, a new dimension and challenge to the counterterrorism industry.

Amid the transforming geopolitical and geostrategic landscape, it was hoped that the milestone truce between the two Muslim countries of Iran and Saudi Arabia brokered by China, the Cold War fought through sectarianism in the Muslim world would come to an end, but the resurgence of sectarian strife remains baffling. Most likely, the once leashed ultra-orthodox groups have been set lose, operating perpetually in the private. The reemergence of radicalized groups adds an additional setback, a new dimension and challenge to the counterterrorism industry. An unanswered question remains on the table as to why this conflict has just erupted out-of-the-will of warring locals, just days ahead of the beginning of the first Islamic month of Muharram, in which sentiments are highly charged, particularly during the first ten days.

Equipped with the power of newer propaganda tools, narrative building has never been that easy for extremist organizations, particularly with the availability of the nearly unregulated virtual world of cyberterrorism. All extremist groups not only extensively use various social media platforms globally, but also effectively keep an eye on any countering efforts. The ISKP is rallying its global jihadi recruits following in the footsteps of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the havoc they have played in those countries is not a secret. Its communication ventures might be a leaf from the thick book of industrious transformation and empowerment of jihadist groups. The ISKP now has an English-language magazine called Voice of Khorasan (VOK). What had been a modest al-Azaim Foundation for media production in Arabic has now expanded its content outreach tentacles in Urdu, Hindi, English, Tajik, Uzbek and Malayalam-languages.

Amid a scenario where sectarian strife has been tearing the inner fabric of the Pakistani polity, extremist ideologues and rogue narratives are yet to be countered effectively, and it is important that Kurram should not bleed further and the charging extremists ought to be contained. Because, if the conflict escalates, it would set a precedent and encourage the ISKP and the Taliban to further their agenda into the mainland. They have already brought their transnational Salafi jihad back to Pakistan, where the country’s fragility has multiplied the human security challenges and created further vulnerability.

The writer is a journalist, an academic and former Political Affairs Advisor at the US Consulate General in Karachi.