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Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative Policy Paper

The Battle for Pakistan: Kurram

Militancy and Conflict in Kurram
  • By Mansur Khan Mahsud
April 19, 2010 |

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A sectarian history

Unlike in other agencies of the FATA, sectarian tension rather than tribal or political issues are the main drivers of militancy in Kurram. The Afghan jihad against the Soviet invasion forced thousands of Afghans over the border into Kurram, where the Pakistani government established several refugee camps.[i] Many weapons also flowed into Pakistan, ranging from small arms to the famed Stinger missiles, and local families purchased these weapons for protection and attacks against enemies.[ii] Thus, clashes between Sunnis and Shia in Kurram looked less like two sectarian rivals squabbling than a full-scale war. Afghan refugees fought largely on the side of the Sunnis in Kurram, and conflicts continued to occur throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Periodically, the fighting would be stopped by tribal elders of both sects.[iii]
Sectarian tension in Kurram has been one result of Pakistan’s role in the Afghan jihad. The Turis, a Shia tribe, became alarmed when Pakistan’s intelligence services provided funding and arms to Sunni insurgent groups like Hezb-i-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.[iv] The Turis demanded that the Pakistani government supply them with weapons and ammunition as well, even though they were not participating in the anti-Soviet jihad because the Soviet Union had not attacked Pakistan.[v] Kurram’s Shia were reluctant to provide shelter to the fleeing Afghan refugees, who were mostly Sunni, fearing that the Pakistani government was attempting to diminish the Shia haven in Kurram.[vi]
Sectarian tension built across Pakistan during the 1980s, and in 1987 the first major sectarian fight broke out in Sada, in Lower Kurram, sparked by a clash during the Muharram procession, in which hundreds of Sunni and Shia were killed. As the Sunni-led Taliban rose to power in Afghanistan, sectarian conflict in Kurram reached a fever pitch, and in 1997, hundreds more were killed in Parachinar, in Upper Kurram, after schoolboys wrote anti-Shia slurs on buildings across the city. The conflict escalated, and fighting eventually spread across the agency. It was weeks before tribal elders from both sects, religious leaders, and political agents were able to bring the situation under control.[vii]
The expansion of the Taliban’s anti-Shia agenda added to conflict between the sects in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, many foreign militants and al-Qaeda fighters crossed the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan, seeking a safe harbor in the FATA from which to carry on their anti-Western activities. Only in Kurram were these fighters turned away; in fact, around 200 al-Qaeda-affiliated Arabs were turned over by Shia in Lower Kurram to Pakistani government authorities after the Arabs sought shelter overnight during the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001.[vii]

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Mansur Khan Mahsud is the research coordinator for the FATA Research Center, an Islamabad-based think tank. He is from the Mahsud tribe of South Waziristan and has worked with several NGOs and news outlets as a researcher. He holds a masters degree in Pakistan studies from the University of Peshawar.

[i] Author interview with Zaman Muqbal, tribal elder in Parachinar, March 14, 2010, in Peshawar.
[ii] Ali Afzal Turi, interview, March 13, 2010.

[i] Author interview with Ali Afzal Turi, correspondent for Geo TV, March 12, 2010, in Islamabad.
[ii] Author interview with Gohar Khan Bangash, tribal elder and resident of Sada, March 14, 2010, in Peshawar.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Suba Chandran, "Sectarian Violence in Pakistan’s Kurram," September 22, 2008.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Author interview with Iqbal Hussain, tribal elder in Parachinar, March 14, 2010, in Peshawar.
[vii] Ibid.


Unlike in other agencies of the FATA, sectarian tensions rather than tribal or political issues are the main drivers of militancy in Kurram.

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