Pakistan Tribal Elders: Living On A Sword’s Edge


By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty

A bomb blast at a meeting of tribal elders killed seven persons and injured another seven in Khumas village, about 10 kilometres east of Parachinar, in the Kurram Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on August 23, 2010. Two days earlier, on August 21, suspected Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists had killed the son of a pro-Government tribal elder and active member of the Charmang Peace Committee, Malak Gul Khan, in an attack on his house in the Charmang area of the Bajaur Agency. Two others were injured in the attack. In the same night, militants attacked the house of another pro-Government tribal elder, Malak Sher Zamin Khan, with hand grenades, in the same area. However, no casualty was reported in this incident.

Before this, at least 65 people, including women and children, had been killed, and another 110 sustained injuries, when a suicide bomber rammed his vehicle into the office of Rasool Khan, the Mohmand Assistant Political Agent, in the Yakka Ghund tehsil (revenue unit) of Mohmand Agency, on July 9, 2010. Hundreds of tribal elders had gathered around the office for a meeting. Claiming responsibility for the attack, the TTP spokesman for the Mohmand chapter, Ikramullah Mohmand, disclosed that their targets were the offices of the political administration and the local peace committee, which had arranged an anti-TTP jirga (tribal assembly) there. “We have no enmity with the people,” he added.

Since the beginning of United States (US)-led operation in Afghanistan in 2001 and the consequent influx of Afghan Taliban into the tribal areas, an unspecified number of tribal elders and pro-Government tribal militia members have become victims of a sustained campaign of annihilation that has virtually destroyed the structure of traditional tribal power in these regions. Though there is no specific official statement regarding the number of tribal militia/tribal elders’ casualties, Mohmand Agency Additional Political Agent (APA) Ahmed Jan stated, on January 6, 2010, that about 104 pro-Government elders and volunteers of peace committee were killed in the Mohmand Agency in the year 2009 alone. The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) data, based on erratic reporting in the Pakistan media, records the killing of at least 86 tribal elders since 2005 in 54 incidents.

Tribal elders killed in Pakistan: 2005-2010

*Data till August 29, 2010.
Sources: SATP

Some of the other significant attacks targeting tribal elders include the following:

May 27, 2010: TTP militants armed with rockets and grenades stormed the home of a pro-Government tribal elder, killing him, his wife and son, before blowing up the house in Asghar village, about 40 kilometers northwest of Khar, the main town in Bajaur Agency.

March 29, 2010: The bodies of three anti-TTP tribal elders, with their throats slit, were recovered in the Chinarak area of Kurram Agency.

November 6, 2008: 22 tribesmen were killed and 45 others injured when a suicide bomber blew himself up at a Salarzai jirga in the Charmang area of Bajaur Agency.

October 23, 2008: TTP militants killed at least eight pro-government Ferozkhel tribal elders in an ambush in the Orakzai Agency.

October 10, 2008: TTP militants beheaded four elders from the Charmang tribe after they had attended a pro-Government jirga in Bajaur Agency.

June 13, 2008: Militants shot dead five tribesmen, including a pro-government tribal elder, Malik Zahideen, near Miranshah in North Waziristan Agency (NWA).

August 10, 2005: Four persons died when the vehicle of a tribal elder hit a landmine in the Taza Ghondai area of South Waziristan Agency (SWA).

July 22, 2005: Unidentified gunmen assassinated nine tribesmen, including two leading pro-Government tribal elders, in different parts of SWA.

May 29, 2005: Former federal minister and Senator, Malik Faridullah Khan Wazir, was assassinated along with two other tribal elders by four suspected terrorists in the Jandola area of SWA.

These attacks on the tribal elders and their families demonstrate their vulnerabilities in the FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP, formerly known as North West Frontier Province) areas. The attacks mainly target tribal elders who support Government operations against the militants.

Significantly, the tribesmen, fed-up with the increasing brutality of the TTP, and encouraged by state agencies and the Army, have widened armed resistance against the Islamist extremists in the area since 2008. By the beginning of September 2008, the tribal elders had organised a private army of approximately 30,000 tribesmen to fight the TTP. The tribal militia have set ablaze houses of TTP ‘commanders’ in Bajaur, near the Afghan border, and have vowed to fight them until they have been expelled from the region. A local jirga had decided to create armed militia in the wake of the increasing presence of the TTP in the area. Earlier, the fear of Taliban reprisals and uncertainty about the sincerity of the Government and the Army’s commitment to fighting militancy had prevented the communities from challenging the militants. However, though the Government has stirred up the tribal militia against the TTP, these have largely been left to their own devices, and abandoned to vicious retaliation by the extremists, relying on own old-fashioned guns against the sophisticated weapons of the TTP.

Among the most noteworthy anti-TTP uprisings, to date, took place in the Buner District of KP, on August 30, 2008, when tribesmen retaliated by killing a group of six TTP extremists, who had attacked a Police Station in the Kingargalli area killing eight Policemen. Since then, other anti-TTP armed militia have been encouraged to hunt for the terrorists. Mukhtar A. Khan, a Pashtun journalist, on November 27, 2008, had noted that that, after successive failed attempts to tackle the rising militancy in FATA and the adjoining KP, the Government was encouraging local tribal people to stand up against the TTP and al Qaeda and flush them out of their regions. Conspicuously, Lakki Marwat was the first District in KP to raise a volunteer militia to evict militants from the area.

Significantly, over the past five years, tribal elders have signed several agreements with the Government, and also have convened innumerable jirgas, to fight terrorism and consolidate peace in the tribal areas. The most significant among these include:

March 11, 2009: Political authorities and elders of three tribes of Bajaur Agency signed a 28-point agreement to bring peace in the area. About 1,400 tribal elders of Khar, Salarzai and Atmanzai tribes signed the agreement in a grand jirga in Khar.

March 9, 2009: The Mamoond tribe and the authorities signed a 28-point agreement to bring the law and order situation under control in Bajaur Agency.

October 20, 2008: About 300 elders from the Salarzai tribe vowed to resist TTP in their areas during a grand jirga (council) held in Bajaur.

October 6, 2008: A press release by the FATA Secretariat’s media cell said tribal elders from the Khyber, Bajaur, Mohmand and Orakzai Agencies and the Frontier Regions assured the Government of support against the TTP in separate jirgas.

March 26, 2007: Tribesmen in the Bajaur agency gave an undertaking to the Government to deny shelter to “locals as well as foreigners, including Afghans” involved in terrorist or anti-State activities.

March 9, 2007: A deal was signed between the NWA political agent representing the KP Governor and “Tribal leaders of North Waziristan, local Mujahideen and elders of the Utmanzai tribes”.

Despite several losses of life and Pakistan Government’s apathy, the tribal elders and tribal militia continue their support to the Government in its ‘war against terror’. Notably, on September 4, 2007, the Pakistan Government had asked a tribal jirga to help free some 275 Pakistani soldiers and officers, who had been taken hostage on August 30, 2007, by pro-TTP militants in the SWA. The militants had demanded troop withdrawal from the Agency and the release of 15 of their men from Government custody. Significantly, a leading member of the jirga, Senator Maulana Salih Shah, met then TTP ‘commander’ Baitullah Mehsud on the Government’s behalf. During subsequent negotiations through tribal elders, the Government was able to secure the release of 272 soldiers on different dates. Three soldiers were, however, executed on October 4, 2007 as a warning to the Government not to launch a rescue operation. Unofficial reports said that a letter left with the soldiers’ bodies said: “We will gift three bodies everyday.” The Government also released 25 militants, including Sohail Zeb, a relative of slain Taliban ‘commander’ Abdullah Mehsud, in exchange for the soldiers’ release. Officials had then revealed that the soldiers and militants had been exchanged through jirga members at Tiarza tehsil, 25 kilometres northeast of Wana.

In a recognition of their contribution, when Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani visited troops in Mohmand Agency on February 6, 2009, he made sure he met with the tribal elders as well. He expressed appreciation of their efforts to evict ‘foreign elements’ from their areas, and declared that the support of ‘local people’ was critical for success of Army operations to purge area of ‘miscreants and terrorists’. The tribal elders, in response, once again expressed their full support for the military operations. Demonstrating their resolve to eliminate the extremists from their areas and to bring back peace and security, they declared that, “They were, they are and they will always remain the first line of Defence for Pakistan.”

Despite unqualified support from and immense help from the tribal elders, Islamabad had demonstrated little concern for the safety, and for the development of the tribal regions. The populations of FATA and KP continue to suffer under sweeping and indiscriminate military operations, largely executed through haphazard bombing and artillery attacks on populated areas, which has forced vast numbers to become refugees in their own country, languishing in different Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), by June 15, 2010, there were more than 3.3 million conflict IDPs in Pakistan, since the start of the fight between Pakistan’s Armed Forces and militant groups in 2008.

The tribal elders and populations in Pakistan’s troubled FATA and KP regions are under constant threat from both terrorists and indiscriminate Army operations, living on the very edge of a sword. Their difficulties have now been immensely compounded by the floods that have enveloped large parts of Pakistan, displacing millions more, even as radical Islamist groupings expand their activities and influence under the guise of ‘relief operations’, while state agencies look the other way. The absence of a consistent counter-terrorism policy in Pakistan, and the alternating strategy of support some terrorist formations, even as the state fights others, has brought chaos and devastation to the lives of millions in Pakistan’s tribal regions, with no relief in sight in the foreseeable future.

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is a Research Assistant at the Institute for Conflict Management which produces SATP.


SATP, or the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) publishes the South Asia Intelligence Review, and is a product of The Institute for Conflict Management, a non-Profit Society set up in 1997 in New Delhi, and which is committed to the continuous evaluation and resolution of problems of internal security in South Asia. The Institute was set up on the initiative of, and is presently headed by, its President, Mr. K.P.S. Gill, IPS (Retd).

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