2017 has been a bloody year for the people of Parachinar, a town in the tribal area of Kurram Agency. There have been four incidents of suicide bombings this year which claimed the lives of a large number of people but mainly those belonging to the Shia sect. The latest incident, a twin bombing, took place on June 23 in Turi Bazaar, killing more than 70 people.
This begs the question: why is Parachinar routinely targeted by terrorists?
There are two main reasons that explain why Parachinar comes in the line of fire. First, it is a Shia-dominated town and terrorists are aware that any activity carried out by them will target the maximum number of Shias. This is likely to lead to Shia-Sunni conflict and destabilisation of the wider region.
Second, Kurram is bordered by four provinces of Afghanistan: Khost, Paktia, Ningrehar and Logar (which is close to the border but does not touch the boundary).The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other Pakistani militant organisations continue to maintain presence in these provinces. Parachinar is the closest Shia town for these organisations to strike and unleash terror.
The reality of conflict is layered and complex
But before we get into the politics surrounding Parachinar, let me first explain its geography and demography. Parachinar is part of the Kurram Agency but the Kurram Agency itself has three divisions: upper, central, and lower. Parachinar lies in the upper belt and is a Shia-majority town, with the Turi and Bangash tribes comprising most of the population. On the hilltops surrounding the valley are the Sunni tribes — Mangal and Muqbal.
In order to make some sense of the situation in Parachinar, its history has to be understood.
Muharram in Parachinar has not been a peaceful event since decades. When sectarian conflict was unheard of in other parts of Pakistan, it was rampant in Kurram Agency. This is of course before the advent of the Sipah-i-Sahaba, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Sipah-i-Muhammad. Crucially, tribes are divided along sectarian lines. A dispute between two tribes can often swell into something bigger. So, for example, petty inter-tribal issues not religious in nature — such as the grazing of cattle, control over water sources, cutting of forest trees — often morph into sectarian conflict.
But while minor sectarian conflict has been a routine in each Muharram, Parachinar has seen various changes to its society over the years. The Iranian revolution, the entry of Sunni Afghan refugees, and the influx of lethal weapons during the Afghan jihad are some factors that have contributed to the intensity and frequency of sectarian violence. In 1982, 1996 and 2007, major sectarian clashes erupted in Kurram Agency, with Parachinar emerging as the epicentre of violence.
In fact, the year 2007 is a significant one in Parachinar’s history. It is the same year when the TTP was formed. But even before, by 2006, the Taliban had penetrated the Sunni areas of central and lower Kurram. Local Taliban, controlled by the Taliban of South Waziristan, emerged in these areas.
Muharram in Parachinar has not been a peaceful event since decades. When sectarian conflict was unheard of in other parts of Pakistan, it was rampant in Kurram Agency. This is of course before the advent of the Sipah-i-Sahaba, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Sipah-i-Muhammad. Crucially, tribes are divided along sectarian lines. A dispute between two tribes can often swell into something bigger.
In April 2007, participants of a Sunni procession in upper Kurram, raised objectionable slogans against the Shia. The Shia reacted and staged a protest procession in Parachinar. Some people fired at this procession and this led to sectarian clashes, which subsequently spread to other parts of the Agency.
In November, violence erupted again after unidentified people attacked the central mosque in Parachinar, where Sunnis were offering Friday prayers. Hundreds of people from both sects were killed during these clashes and 40 villages were destroyed. More than 3,000 families from both sects were displaced. The Thall-Parachinar Road remained closed for almost four years.
A grand jirga comprising of representatives from all tribal agencies as well as the parliamentarian from Kurram, was constituted in 2008. With the efforts of the Jirga, the Murree Peace Accord was signed by the warring factions in October of the same year.
There were elements within and outside the agency, including the Taliban, who never wanted this accord to be implemented. As a result of hectic efforts, the opponents of the accord were brought on board and the main issue of opening the Thall-Parachinar Road was resolved, raising hopes among locals that lasting peace would finally arrive in the area.
There is another view from conspiracy theorists who are not familiar with the geography of Kurram Agency. The theory is that the ‘Good Taliban’ such as the Haqqanis post Operation Zarb-i-Azb were relocated from North Waziristan to Parachinar by the intelligence agencies. Had they been relocated, the Shia town of Parachinar would be the last place for their relocation. Areas near the border that are inhabited by the Sunni Mangal and Muqbal tribes are more ideal places if at all they had to be relocated.
Despite the fact that the TTP have largely been driven out of Pakistani territory, most of them settled in the three Afghan provinces abutting Kurram Agency: Khost, Paktia and Nangarhar. These are the same provinces that today are said to be the stronghold of the militant Islamic State (IS) group. That said, the truth is that TTP elements as well as those from the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Jundallah comprise the IS support in these provinces rather than there being any organic presence of IS. In fact, Jundallah pledged allegiance to IS way back in November, 2014. This relationship stands intact even today.
What complicates matters today is the perception of Shia militants helping out in Syria in the war against IS. In practice, this means that most attacks conducted in Parachinar are described as retaliatory attacks to avenge one form of killing or another. On January 21, 2017, another bomb had ripped through a vegetable market in Parachinar, killing 25 and leaving at least 87 injured. This attack was claimed by both the outlawed Lashkar-i-Jhangvi al-Alami as well as the TTP. The spokesman for the banned TTP, Mohammad Khurasani, said at the time that the attack “avenged the murders of Malik Ishaq, Noorul Amin, Asif Chhoto and many other associates, who were killed in fake police encounters.”
In recent times, the argument that suicide attacks have risen because of state complicity has gained traction. The fact of the matter is that terrorist groups often have local support within central Kurram. If a suicide bomber arrives from Afghanistan, for example, more often than not the bombs are locally prepared and handed to him.
In the final analysis, it is important to note that both sects have signed a number of peace accords in the past but these were violated. Only time will tell whether this recent accord inked in Murree will bring lasting peace to the Agency. The extent of suffering the people have endured, the huge losses incurred and the duration of this conflict, are some of the reasons which may force the people from both sects to honour this accord.