“When the leaders are oblivious of their responsibilities, when self projection remains their only concern, the people should act before the countries head towards oblivion.” Raja Mujtaba

By Dr Ghayur Ayub

Lord Curzon understood the Pakhtun psyche and separated Pakhtu speaking areas from the domination of Punjab in 1901, creating NWFP. He particularly concentrated on the tribal region and wisely combined the draconian Frontier Crime Regulation (FCR) and military objectives with a softer policy of winning the hearts and minds of the tribal people through development projects pertaining to communication, railways, roads, education and health. His knowledge of the Pakhtun mental make-up surfaced in his Darbar speech, at Shahi Bagh, Peshawar on April, 26, 1903, when he said, “Pathan is a curious mixture. He is a man of war but he is also a born trader. I see him conducting business right away in the Bazzars of Bengal. I have come across him in Burma and Asam.” He could have added religion as third element in the mixture.

In recent decades, the Shias of Kurrum agency have suffered on all three counts. It all started when Gen. Zia targeted their religious beliefs by; relocating the Shia Kurrum Militia from Parachinar to other agencies; upsetting a century-old tradition of keeping a Shia officer either as head of Kurrum Militia or as political administration; and having a mixture of Shias and Sunnis in appointments of subordinate administrative staff of APA, Tehsildar and Naib Tehsildar. His policy went against the local Shias and when the Taliban took over in Afghanistan, the situation got deplorably worse for them.

After the Taliban defeat in 2001, a large number of them along with Al-Qaeda members fled to the tribal areas settling among other places, in regions around the Shia dominated upper Kurrum. As a result, their defeat in Afghanistan became a flashpoint for Shia miseries. The religious oppression of Shias multiplied manifold when, five years ago, they blocked the only road that connects Parachinar with Tal-the first town in the settled area. It adversely affected Shia trade and commerce downgrading their social life and strangulating their livelihood. As a consequence they found it difficult to safeguard their families, find jobs, decent food and sometimes even medicine.

A glaring example was that of Sarwan Ali from village Malana, who shot himself because he could not get food and medicine for his ailing wife. Or a young mother in her early twenties from village Alamsher, who was fatally wounded in her home, holding her baby in her arms, by a splinter of mortar shell fired by Taliban from a nearby hilltop. Bombing, shelling,shooting, killing and living in a constant state of fear, anguish and disappointment has become routine. Ironically, for their daily essentials they cross the border to Afghanistan; and when they want to visit their relatives and friends in Pakistan they travel through Afghanistan and re-enter their own country at Torkham. Can things be more pathetic than this? For them, the Afghan government is friendlier than Pakistan’s; thanks to the failure of political administration to redress their grievances and control the Taliban’s brutal onslaught. When an angry local Shia was asked, which country was safer to live in; Pakistan or Afghanistan? He replied in an argumentative query, “Just look around and you tell me?” He had lost two sons, when, one night, the Taliban left their beheaded and mutilated bodies at his doorstep. The valley is full of such grieving Shias.

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The unbearably harsh life is reaching an explosive point, leaving them with two options; either to migrate or fight back. They have opted for the second. For that, they need possible support from Iran, Hezbollah, Afghanistan or even the Americans. Material help from the latter two seems logical because of easy access. They can see new venues of hope through Khost, Paktia and Nangarhar after being regularly attacked at Tor Ghar near Tal, Doaba near Hangu and Japanese tunnel near Kohat. In frustration, some have started thinking to react the way certain rebellious Baloch have reacted with one difference; the Shias understand that Kurrum cannot survive independently. So they have looked back at history and have found two incidents they can get guidance from.

  1. First; in the early 20th century, the Sunnis created a deplorable situation for the Shia population identical to the one seen today. The grand Khan of Turi Duperzai, Noor Khan (alias Dur Khan) wrote to the Deputy Commissioner of Kohat on behalf of the Shia elders, inviting the British government to Kurrum agency to safeguard the Shia population. The British accepted the invitation by appointing a political agent at Parachinar. That’s how the massacre of Shias was stopped.
  2. Second; a treaty known as Durand Line Agreement was signed on November 12, 1893, between Amir Abdur Rahman Khan and Sir Henry Mortimer Durand creating a buffer zone between British India and Afghanistan. The signed treaty was in English-a language the Amir couldn’t read or understand. The translated portions in Dari and Pakhtu were not signed by the Amir. According to historians, the Pakhtun elders close to the Amir were not aware of the written agreement. They thought the treaty was according to an unwritten Jirga practised in those days.
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This brings up an important point of the time frame of the pact which remains ambiguous till the present day. Maybe the treaty was actually in two parts; a written part according to the British legal requirement signed by the Amir; and an unwritten part called ‘Tiga’ according to the requirement of the Jirga System. ‘Tiga’ in the Jirga system is like a seal between the two participating parties and is time bound. Was a hundred year limit part of ‘Tiga’? The Pakhtun elders then and in the following decades believed so. And this could be the reason that successive governments in Afghanistan, including the very friendly Taliban of Mullah Omar, took a firm stand on this issue. They have consistently disregarded certifications by SEATO and SENTO which supported Pakistan’s version, by arguing that Afghanistan was not made party during the dialogues, and that those two bodies are dead and buried. They also argue; that how can a treaty of such a nature and magnitude be agreed upon without a time-frame. The issue has not reached the United Nations thus far, and the US and UK both ignore it because it can affect their war strategy in Afghanistan.

Some frustrated Shias share Afghanistan’s version and consider the DLA as null and void since 1993, thus making Kurum part of Afghanistan. When asked what if the Taliban got back to power in Afghanistan, they reply they will cross that bridge when they come to it; so strong are their feelings. According to them things have changed since 9/11.They conducted a private survey, amongst 500 Shias aged between 20 and 65, (its authenticity cannot be verified) which gives opposite figures to the one given by another public survey conducted by the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow, which stated “Nearly nine out every ten people in FATA oppose the U.S. military pursuing al-Qaeda and the Taliban in their region.” The local survey showed that 99% are against Taliban and Al-Qaeda; 70% are disappointed by the role played by the Sunni led Pak army in Kurum; 85% are against the existing political set-up in Kurrum; 45% are ready to take up arms against the Pak army.

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Irrespective of the survey being authentic or not, a strong lobby is surfacing especially amongst the youth who blame Pakistan for their miseries. They want to safeguard their livelihoods, bring safety to their families, put trade back on track, achieve an atmosphere of peaceful existence, and most importantly have freedom of religious beliefs. They are ready to take up arms in Hezbollah style to achieve those aims.

The American administration must closely be watching the situation in Kurum in the context of their non-productive military actions in FATA and non-implementation of Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZ) policy in the region. Obama is desperate to show the American people that he can crush Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in FATA and help the locals economically. Upper Kurrum could turn out to be his dream come true if it becomes a launching pad to achieve those aims. Its location bordering Afghanistan from three sides and with direct land-linkage with the three important FATA regions of North Waziristan, Aurakzai and Khyber makes it ideal to fight his worst enemy from within FATA. If the local Shias are willing to participate; why shouldn’t he take advantage of the opportunity and offer material help to the trained fighters against Al-Qaeda and Taliban?

Before it turns into a reality, Pakistan should seriously think of taking the following reconciliatory steps;

  • Take the Shia population, especially the youth, in confidence and show them in real terms that the government is willing to help take them out of their miseries.
  • Construct a second road along the south bank of Mar Toi (Kurrum river) bypassing the strongholds of Taliban dominated regions at Sadda and beyond, thus opening communication and trade links with the rest of Pakistan
  • Undo what Gen Zia did, by reintroducing the century-old system of power sharing between Shia and Sunni officers in civil and military bureaucracy in Parachinar.
  • Bring back the HQ of Kurrum Militia to Parachinar and build it afresh by inducting both Sunnis and Shias in its ranks and files.

Otherwise, the Pakistani leadership should open its eyes and read the writing on the wall which says; Islamabad is fast losing Parachinar to Kabul.