By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Koh-i-Sufaid (White Mountain), the Pakistan Army’s first major counter-terrorism operation since the May 2, 2011, killing of al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, was launched at midnight, July 2-3, 2011. Over 4,000 troops were deployed for a full-fledged air and ground offensive, purportedly to secure the heights and plains of the Central Kurram Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). By July 5, 2011, Brigadier Basharat Ahmed, Sector Commander, Central Kurram Agency, disclosed, some 40 militants had been killed and several areas were ‘cleared’ of militants, including Manato, Dombeki, Gawaki and Sungroba. The forces, Basharat claimed, ‘continued to advance’. On July 25, 2011, Major General Athar Abbas, Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), added that Operation Koh-e-Sufaid was “continuing successfully”. He said the Army was trying to flush out the militants from the Agency, and that tribal lashkars (militia) were lending their support to Security Forces (SFs).
According to the partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, at least 133 ‘militants’ [no independent verification of this categorization is possible, as media access to areas of conflict is severely restricted], nine SF personnel and four lashkar members had been killed till July 31, 2011.
The strategically located Kurram Agency, which projects into Afghanistan on three sides, has always been of critical importance for Pakistan. It shares the major portion of its borders with the troubled Logar, Paktia, Khost and Nangarhar Provinces of Afghanistan. The al Qaeda and Taliban infested Tora Bora Mountain range in the Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan shares its boundaries with the Kurram Agency. In the north-east, it borders with the Khyber Agency; Orakzai Agency lies to the east; the Hangu District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) lies south-east, and the North Waziristan Agency lies south. The Kurram Agency connects the tribal areas of Pakistan to Afghanistan through lower, central and upper Kurram. Crucially, the Thal-Parachinar route is the shortest route to Kabul.
Escalating sectarian violence and growing terrorist activities have devastated the region since 2007, though sectarian violence is nothing new to the Kurram Agency, which is the only tribal Agency with a significant Shia population. Kurram comprises three sub-divisions: Upper, Central and Lower Kurram. Some 58 per cent of its population is Sunni, and 42 per cent Shia (according to the 1998 Census). The majority of the Shias live in Upper Kurram, while Sunnis dominate Lower and Central Kurram. The present cycle of escalation started when three people were killed and 13 were injured, in and attack on a Shia Imambargah (Shia place of worship) in the morning of April 6, 2007. The Thal-Parachinar Road, the only artery linking Kurram with other parts of the country, has remained closed to normal traffic since November 2007, when clashes broke out in the area. Three years of sectarian fighting has left over 2,000 dead and at least 3,500 injured.
A truce was declared between Sunni and Shia tribes on February 3, 2011, to end bloodshed between the two sects. A grand jirga (tribal council) composed of tribal elders and parliamentarians from the FATA announced a peace accord. Headed by Malik Waris Khan Afridi, a former Federal Minister from the Khyber Agency, the 225-member tribal jirga took two years to arrange a negotiated settlement. Member of National Assembly (MNA) Sajid Turi from NA-37 (Tribal Area III) and MNA Munir Khan Orakzai from NA-38 (Tribal Area III) constituencies in Kurram Agency played leading roles to bring the two sides to the negotiation table. Federal Minister of the Interior Rehman Malik attended the News Conference announcing the accord, to demonstrate the Government’s support for this ‘historic’ event.
The truce did not last long. On March 25, 2011, at least 13 passengers were killed and eight injured, while another 33 were abducted by suspected Sunni militants in an attack on a convoy of Shia passenger vehicles in the Kurram Agency. The Thal-Parachinar route was shut down again after March 25. The issue of the forced closure of the Thal-Parachinar road in the Kurram Agency was raised in the National Assembly on April 13, 2011. Sajid Turi, the Shia legislator from Kurram Agency, demanded that the Government take action against the militant groups responsible for the attacks on this route. A military operation had appeared imminent for some time.
On May 19, 2011, Lieutenant-General Asif Yaseen Malik, XI Corps Commander, while addressing a jirga on Parachinar, disclosed that a strategy was being chalked out to empty the area of ‘trouble-makers’. “Result-oriented action will be taken very soon,” he declared. The tribal elders assured the military officials of full support for restoration of peace, and demanded that paramilitary forces be replaced with the Army in the area.
The offensive came days after senior Tehreek–e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) ‘commander’ and its Kurram chapter ‘chief’ Fazal Saeed Haqqani deserted the group on June 27, 2011. He claimed that he had broken with the TTP, and would form his own anti-American group Tehreek-e-Taliban Islami (TTI). Hours after reports of the split emerged, unidentified assailants in a car opened fire at Shakirullah Shakir, a senior ‘commander’ and ‘spokesman’ for the Fidayeen-e-Islam faction of the TTP. It is believed that Fazal Haqqani’s defection was a calculated move by the Government and SFs to engineer a split in the TTP before the start of operation.
Despite the ongoing operation, on July 16, 2011, unidentified militants ambushed a bus carrying Sunni Muslims and killed all 10 passengers near Parachinar town. In retaliation, unidentified assailants attacked a convoy of trucks, abducted 10 Shia persons and set ablaze six vehicles near Charkhel village on the Thal-Parachinar road.
These incidents raise crucial questions about the proclaimed ‘success’ of Operation Koh-i-Sufaid. Further, doubts have also been raised regarding the timing and the motive of the military Operation. Specifically, there have been sustained reports regarding a powerful extremist consolidation in the neighbouring North Waziristan Agency. If Islamabad was serious about fighting terror, it would have been expected that this would be the first target of an urgent military operation. Sources indicated that the Operations in the Kurram Agency are, in fact, intended to prepare a safe-haven for militants, especially of the Jalaluddin Haqqani Network, who would need such a refuge when operations are launched in NWA. Indeed, the Shiite News Monitoring desk has described Operation Koh-i-Sufaid as “a State sponsored drama to secure the Taliban terrorists of Waziristan and Orakzai agency as they were facing the US drones attack on their hideouts”.
The Haqqani Network has used the Kurram Agency area as a transit point to launch attacks against NATO Forces across the border in Afghanistan. The Haqqani Network was also involved, with implicit support from Islamabad, in the Kurram Peace Accord of February 3, 2011. The Network’s intervention in the Kurram peace process, in fact, dates back to 2007. Moreover, the Network’s presence in the Kurram Agency was demonstrated by US drone strikes on June 20, 2011, in which 12 militants, nine of them from the Haqqani network, were killed in a compound in the Khardand area. Khardand is a stronghold of the TTP Kurram Agency ‘chief’ Fazal Saeed Haqqani, who has a close association with the Jalaluddin Haqqani network. Indeed, the disassociation of Fazal Saeed Haqqani from the TTP on June 27, just before the start of Operation Koh-i-Sufaid has been interpreted as an effort to shield its ally, the Jalaluddin Haqqani Network. Significantly, there is no report of any cadre of the Jalaluddin Haqqani Network being killed or captured by the Pakistan Army in Operation Koh-i-Sufaid.
There are already allegations that representatives of the United Nations and other international organizations have been barred from visiting the internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp in Upper Kurram, because it has become the safe haven of militants. Significantly, by July 26, 2011, the number of IDPs exodus from Kurram Agency had reached 100,000, according to Sahibzada Anis, the District coordination officer for Peshawar.
There is much to suggest that military operations in the Kurram Agency are part of Pakistan’s ongoing and duplicitous campaigns against a small minority of sectarian and anti-Islamabad terrorist formations, even as the state seeks to protect and provide spaces to other groupings that are seen to be instrumental in securing Pakistan’s supposed strategic interests. Indeed, voices of dissent are now rising in the Kurram Agency, questioning the motives and purpose of Operation Koh-e-Sufaid and concern over the increasing displacement of civilian populations is mounting. The ‘success’ of the operation has also been called into question as a result of continuing terrorist and sectarian attacks in the Agency, as well as the continuing disruption of normal life and the principal transportation routes in the region.
Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management