The writer was a Ford Scholar at the Programme in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at UIUC (1997) and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution's Foreign Policy Studies Programme
In a March 13 article in this newspaper, I wrote that Pakhtun society has been undergoing changes. Intertribal support along sectarian lines, as well as the activities of Punjabi extremists in Pakhtun heartland, bear testimony to that. Ms Taj says the mullah does not enjoy primacy in the tribal hierarchy. That is only partially true; Maulvi Abdullah in Orakzai, who died last year, was the leading sectarian troublemaker in collusion with Javed Ibrahim Piracha.
But more than the mullah, it is the young self-styled Taliban commanders who have done much to change the norms of Pakhtun society. For strategic and operational reasons they have indulged in acts that, despite feuds among Pakhtuns, were revered. Attacks on jirgas, funerals and shrines are a manifestation of this change. Indeed, because Ms Taj is writing a book, I strongly recommend that she read Patrick Porter's Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes to understand the significance of this phenomenon.
The same phenomenon is at work in Kurram, which I just visited and where I spoke not only with the Commandant of Kurram Militia (it is not Kurram Scouts, as Ms Taj mentions in her despatch) Colonel Tauseef Akhtar, but also former Senator Syed Sajjad Hussain and Sunni leader from Sadda, Haji Saleem. Far from acting against Shia interests, as alleged by Ms Taj, Colonel Akhtar, in trying to clear the area and the road, as part of Operation Khwakh Bade Sham, got shot himself (his right leg will never fully recover). The Frontier Corps (FC) and army have lost 80 personnel, including 10 officers, which is a very high officer-to-jawan casualty ratio.
Sajjad Hussain and many other common people who I met and talked to in Parachinar explained that trouble began from Mira Jan Colony after Sunnis supported by sectarian elements held rallies and made provocative speeches. A few Sunni villages were attacked and properties looted and burnt. These people had to leave the area. This sparked trouble down south in Sadda. Sunnis were also supported by Taliban elements, a fact accepted by Haji Saleem, though he said that this is more out of fear than conviction. The Sunnis closed down the road.
Colonel Akhtar has held three peace jirgas. When I pointedly asked him why he had invited Javed Ibrahim Piracha, he said that it was an effort to get everyone on board but that after the first meeting when some Shia leaders objected to Piracha's presence, he was not invited to the other two meetings. To corroborate this, he gave me videotapes of the jirgas held. I then independently asked Haji Saleem and he confirmed this fact. I still have to speak with MNA Munir Orakzai on this issue.
I have raced through this narrative again for reasons of space and eschewed many details. But it should be an amazing fact that Colonel Akhtar, supposed to be supporting Sunnis against Shias, as also his officers and men, should get injured and die in battles against Sunnis!
Equally absurd is the contention that ISI is playing a game which is not only getting civilians killed but also, empirically speaking, army and FC officers and men. The current Corps Commander Peshawar served in the ISI as DG of one of the wings. Going by Ms Taj's argument, then major-general, now Lt-General Asif Yasin Malik, pursued policies while in the ISI which got men in the field killed but now, having become the Corps Commander, would be interested that the operations succeed because he is no more in the ISI!
The Murree Accord had several points, most important being the return of Sunnis and Shias to their respective villages. In the March 2011, meeting of leaders from the area with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, the order of the points was reversed, making road opening a priority. Sunnis say they want agreement on other points before the road can be opened. MNA Orakzai has got a Rs1.7 billion package from the prime minister for rehabilitation and development. People in the area told me they think disbursements should begin shortly. My own sense is that while this money is important, it would also be necessary to clear central Kurram of Taliban elements through another operation. It is important for security forces to control the physical space to keep the road secure and open.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 12th, 2011.