Kurram Agency and the U.S. and Pakistan's Divergent Interests
November 2, 2010 | 1214 GMT
A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistani soldiers patrol in northwestern Kurram tribal district close to the Afghan border on July 6, 2010
Two of prominent militant leader Jalauddin Haqqani's sons have been meeting with tribal elders from Kurram agency in Peshawar and Islamabad in a bid to end Sunni-Shiite violence in northwestern Pakistan's Kurram agency. Many outside parties have an interest in what happens in the strategic region, including the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, Islamabad and Washington. While having the Haqqanis negotiate a settlement may be a boon to Islamabad and the Afghan Taliban, it will create challenges for the Pakistani Taliban and Washington.
Media reports have emerged that two of important Taliban leader Jalauddin Haqqani's sons, Khalil and Ibrahim, are involved in peace talks in Pakistan's tribal belt between Sunni and Shiite leaders from Kurram agency. The talks, which have been held in Peshawar and Islamabad, represent an attempt to settle the long-running sectarian dispute in Kurram agency.
This dispute has expanded beyond localized sectarian violence into one with much further-reaching consequences involving the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. The implications of the wider struggle encapsulate divergent U.S. and Pakistani interests in the wider region.
The area became the main staging ground for joint U.S.-Saudi-Pakistani intelligence aid for the multinational force of Islamist insurgents battling Soviet forces and the pro-Moscow regime in Kabul during the 1980s, during which time Kurram's capital, Parachinar, frequently came under attack by Soviet and Afghan aircraft. The influx of predominantly Sunni Afghan and other Islamist fighters altered the sectarian demographic balance to some extent. The Shia bitterly resisted, but Islamabad's support of Sunni locals overcame their efforts.
Kurram saw its most intense sectarian clashes only after the rise of the Pakistani Taliban phenomenon in 2006-07, however. The agency saw two weeks of violence in April 2007 as sectarian attacks spiraled out of control after a gunman opened fire on a Shiite procession in Parachinar. The violence spread all the way southeast to Sadda before the Pakistani military went in to restore order. Despite a peace agreement between the two sides that officially ended the conflict in October 2008, antagonism between the communities continued to simmer. Violence comes mostly in the form of tit-for-tat small-arms attacks carried out by tribal militias on their Sunni or Shiite neighbors.
Tribal and geographic differences reinforce the sectarian conflict. The Shia break down into three major tribes, the Turi, Bangash and Hazara. Meanwhile, eight major Sunni tribes populate most of central and lower Kurram. Sunni and Shia live in close proximity to each other throughout Kurram, which has a population of around 500,000 consisting of roughly 58 percent Sunni and 42 percent Shia.
The Sunnis' main advantage lies in control of lower Kurram. They have exploited this to close off the only major road from Parachinar, which lies on the edge of the mountains of Upper Kurram, to Thal in lower Kurram — where connections to larger markets of Peshawar and Karachi can be made. Without access to this highway, supplies have become scarce in upper Kurram.
The Shia's main advantage is control of a strategic piece of high ground that forms a peninsula of Pakistani territory jutting into Afghanistan, territory that has shifted over the centuries between Mughal, Afghan, British and Pakistani control. Upper Kurram provides powers from the east easy access to Kabul, which lies just under 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) from the border between Kurram agency and Paktia province, Afghanistan. This geographic advantage is why the CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate decided on it as the location for training and deploying Mujahideen fighters into Afghanistan to fight the Soviets during the 1980s. It is thus key territory for anyone who wants access into eastern Afghanistan — Islamabad and the Taliban included.
The sectarian violence simmering in Kurram complicates Islamabad's efforts to defeat the Pakistani Taliban while maintaining ties with the Afghan Taliban. The violence has become a more serious threat to Islamabad's efforts in recent years, as outside forces reportedly have begun to exploit the sectarian violence. Sunni leaders in Kurram have blamed Iran for supplying weapons and cash to their Shiite rivals. While there is little evidence to back up this claim, it would make sense that Iran would want to establish a bridgehead in the Shiite population allowing it to operate in eastern Afghanistan.
The Sunni Militant Landscape in Kurram and the Afghan Angle
The TTP formed alliances with the Sunni tribes in Kurram in its bid to establish a sanctuary there. The TTP later began using the sanctuary provided by allied Sunni tribes in Kurram in coordination with Orakzai and South Waziristan to conduct attacks in the core of Pakistan.
For their part, the Haqqanis want a more stable environment in Kurram. Kurram is a key piece of territory for the Haqqani network, which organizes and has sanctuaries in Pakistan's northwest from which it engages U.S., NATO and Afghan government military forces in eastern Afghanistan as part of the Afghan Taliban's eastern front.
Islamabad is very open to cooperation with the Haqqanis. They pose no direct threat to Islamabad but have the military and political clout to shape conditions on the ground in northwestern Pakistan — to say nothing of Afghanistan, where Pakistan is trying to rebuild its influence. The Haqqanis are best positioned to convince Sunnis in lower Kurram to open up the road to Parachinar and to restrain Shiite forces from attacking Sunnis (and vice versa). The easing of sectarian tensions, likely if this happens, would hamper the TTP's ability to grow in Kurram, satisfying Islamabad's goal in the agency.
If the Haqqanis can successfully negotiate a peace in Kurram (or at least a cease-fire — Kurram's geopolitical and sectarian rivalries will not simply vanish) it would give them a stronger foothold in an area close to Kabul and eastern Afghanistan. This arrangement would not bode well for security in eastern Afghanistan, where U.S. and coalition forces are concentrating much of their efforts in their current offensive against the Taliban and al Qaeda.
This would come at a bad time for Washington, which is looking to contain the Afghan Taliban as it seeks to bolster the U.S. negotiating position ahead of eventual talks regarding a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Kurram sectarian conflict is also the most prominent example of Islamabad trying to eliminate "bad" Taliban while supporting "good" Taliban. Preventing sectarian violence in Kurram from spiraling out of control and benefiting the TTP requires that Islamabad seek the services of the Haqqanis. This also will help Pakistan's longer-term efforts to re-establish its influence in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces. Kurram thus encapsulates the larger challenges Washington faces in containing a militant movement that enjoys Islamabad's tacit support.