Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its local ally Lashkar-e-Islam (LI) finally overran Tirah Valley in the Khyber Agency on March 19, 2013, after nearly two months of intermittent heavy clashes with Ansarul Islam (AI) and the Kamarkhel militia, both pro-Government militant outfits.
The deadly turf war, which started on January 23, 2013, ended with TTP and LI entering AI stronghold areas on March 18-19 and AI ´chief´ Qari Mehboobul Haq and ´deputy chief´ Maulana Izatullah Hamkhayal fleeing the area with just 25 confidants. Nevertheless, two AI supporters blew themselves up on March 19, killing 46 of the raiding TTP terrorists. The first suicide attacker blew himself up when the TTP terrorists entered the main office of the AI in the Bagh area. The other suicide attack was carried when TTP cadres moved into the ammunition depots inside the AI headquarters. Sources in the AI said the two suicide attacks were carried out by ´commander´ Abdul Ghafar and Kashmir Khan. As the clashes ended, Ehsanullah Ehsan, main ´spokesman´ for TTP, declared, on March 19, that TTP controlled 95 per cent of the Tirah Valley. He further claimed that no civilian was targeted during the fighting, though those who had become ´part of the war against the Taliban´ would not be spared.
TTP had been trying to re-establish its dominance over the Valley for the past years. The recent turf war, however, commenced on January 23, 2013, after cadres of TTP´s Tariq Afridi faction, who operate in the Khyber Agency, captured a building belonging to AI. AI re-captured their centre after intense fighting. Around 50 TTP militants then attacked the Narhao area of Bar Qamber Khel and torched 15 AI supporters´ houses. Around 18 fighters on both sides were killed in this clash. Another 30 militants were reportedly killed on January 24, when TTP cadres, after attacking the AI in the Narhao area, advanced towards Maidan Bagh, torching more houses and shops on their way.
Media reports indicate that skirmishes between the four groups further intensified on January 26, when hundreds of TTP militants came to Tirah from Mamozai in Orakzai Agency, following a Security Forces (SFs) operation, and tried to wrest control from AI. At the same time, in Sipah, Malikdinkhel and Akkakhel areas of Bara, LI militants moved towards Zakhakhel and Takhtakai areas of the Valley and began fighting with the pro-government Kamarkhel militia to seize important check posts. In the subsequent fighting, LI captured all the check posts earlier held by the pro-Government militia, in Takhtakai, Naray Baba, Lakai Sar and Madai, on February 1. Following this, pro-Government volunteers moved towards the mountainous check posts of Tora Lagad and joined AI to repulse LI militants from their areas. On February 12, TTP forces attacked AI check posts in Rocket Sanghar and Kajay areas. However, the AI fought back and managed to retain control. On February 26, a gunfight erupted between AI and TTP fighters for control of the Adam Khel area. AI ´deputy chief´ Islam Gul was killed during these clashes. TTP militants then attacked the AI stronghold at Narhao in Bar Qamber Khel on March 13, torched some 15 houses belonging to AI fighters, and killed the ´area chief´ Haji Samar Gul. On March 18, hundreds of LI and TTP militants attacked AI positions in Malikdinkhel, and the Muhammadi Compound in the Maidan Bagh and Kalavach areas. The AI fighters put up some resistance, though the TTP overcame them to establish their control in the area.
After capturing the entire Valley, TTP and LI militants destroyed its communication systems. Residents hoisted white flags on top of their houses in surrender to the TTP, while tribesmen supporting AI started vacating their houses, moving to the Orakzai Agency. Talking to reporters from an undisclosed location, the ´deputy head´ of AI, Ezatullah, had stated, on January 25, that the group was still intact and its fighters had dispersed under a strategy, and it would retaliate and capture their stronghold in Tirah Maidan. However, the Mehboobul Haq-led AI has so far failed to expel the LI and TTP fighters from Tirah Maidan. Reports indicate that loyal AI fighters have been confined to a post on the mountaintop towards Orakzai Agency.
After much of the Tirah Valley had fallen to the TTP-LI combine, Sadat Afridi, spokesman of the AI, observed, "We have resisted insurgents for over seven years, but this attack was unusual... There were foreign fighters . Uzbeks, Chechens . almost 3,000 of them... We ran out of ammunition and other supplies."
During the clashes, the Army did pitch in with aerial bombings in favour of the pro-government AI and Kamarkhel militia, though such support was, at best, sporadic. At least six aerial bombing attacks were recorded in media sources, in which 86 extremists were reportedly killed, out a total of 297 extremists killed during the entire offensive. Some of the major aerial attacks included:
January 29: At least 24 militants were killed when Army warplanes bombed militant positions in Dwa Thoe, Bara Gatt, Wocha Wona and Nakai areas of Tirah valley. Officials said the planes attacked targets where TTP and LI had bases or hideouts.
February: 20 Nine militants were killed and several others injured in shelling and bombing by military jets in Tirah Valley. Security sources said that three suspected militant hideouts were bombarded. A cache of arms and ammunition was also destroyed in the operation.
February 22: 15 militants and two security personnel were killed in shelling by warplanes on TTP positions, and during an encounter between the LI and SFs in Tirah Valley.
March 8: At least 20 militants were killed when fighter jets bombed TTP hideouts in various areas of the Tirah Valley. Three hideouts of militants were destroyed in the military offensive.
The remote Tirah Valley has key strategic significance for militant groups. The Valley is a mountainous region of the Khyber Agency, bordering the Orakzai and Kurram Agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and provides easy access to Afghanistan. On the other side, it leads to the plains of Bara, which connect the Agency to the outskirts of Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The Tirah Valley gives access to the settled areas beyond FATA and even threatens Peshawar. Khyber also links several Agencies to each other, serving as a north-south route within FATA. It is also important as a conduit linking Khyber Agency to the neighbouring Orakzai Agency and Afghanistan. The region has long been fought over by a mix of militant organisations, including the TTP, LI, Tawheed-e-Islam (TI), AI, Haji Namdar group and the Abdullah Azzam Brigade.
Tirah Valley is inhabited by Malik Din Khel, Shalobar, Adam Khel, Qambarkhel and Zakhakhel sub-tribes of the larger Afridi tribe. The area where these tribes are settled is called Maidan, which is surrounded by hills from all sides. In the north of Maidan lies the area of the Kukikhel Afridi tribe, which has been controlled by TTP for the past few years. In the south it borders with the upper Orakzai Agency; to its west is the Kurram Agency and to the east are the Sipah and Kamarkhel Afridi tribes living under LI ´chief´ Mangal Bagh´s rule for the past six years.
Historically, inhabitants of the Tirah Valley move to Bara in the Khyber Agency during the winters, to escape harsh weather. Bara tehsil (revenue unit) has been ruled by LI . LI was founded in 2004 by Mufti Munir Shakir. As a reaction, locals in the Tirah Valley formed AI to defend their area against the LI. AI included volunteers from almost all parts of the Tirah Valley and was organised as a defensive tribal lashkar. It was also considered pro-Government and did not bar Government employees, including the polio teams, from functioning. AI has consistently resisted the LI, which is considered to be close to the TTP.
Since the beginning of clash in Tirah Valley on January 23, 297 militants, 24 civilians and two SF personnel have been killed in the violence, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database. Actual fatalities may be significantly higher, as direct access of the media to the region is restricted. With all the seven Agencies facing the brunt of militancy, the Khyber Agency, for the second consecutive year, has recorded the highest number of acts of violence. The Agency recorded a total of 767 fatalities in the year 2012, and the first three months of 2013 have already seen at least 367 killings.
Clashes between TTP and AI had already forced a large number of civilians to leave the area for safer places in Orakzai and Kurram Agencies (FATA), Peshawar, Hangu and Kohat Districts (KP). The Government has made no arrangements for the internally displaced persons (IDPs), and the people of host areas have been providing assistance to the affected families. The chief of the Khyber Agency ´affectees´ (affected persons) movement, Sobat Khan Afridi, noted, on March 21, that the ongoing crisis in Khyber Agency had affected over 50,000 families and the Government was providing no relief whatsoever.
Meanwhile, the misfortune continues to follow the IDPs wherever they go. On March 21, a car bomb explosion killed at least 17 persons and injured another 34 in the Jalozai Camp of IDPs in Nowshera District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The explosion, which occurred near a food distribution centre, was "triggered by explosives loaded into a vehicle," Nowshera Deputy Commissioner Ghulam Qadir disclosed. The TTP disassociated itself from the attack, but there is high likelihood of TTP-LI involvement, as the IDPs in the camp are from the Tirah Valley, and are thought to be supporters of AI.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) postponed the registration of IDPs at Jalozai camp on March 22. UNHCR spokesperson in Pakistan, Dunya Aslam Khan, noted, "After the blast in Jalozai camp, we have suspended the registration of displaced persons and have decided not to start it till a new security plan is chalked out". Arshad Khan, Director of the FATA Disaster Management Authority (FDMA) stated, further, "The number of displaced families was 4,290 - including 6,436 men, 10,872 women and 15,608 children - who are being assisted by the FDMA with its limited resources."
While the whole country readies itself for the forthcoming General Election of May 11, 2013, the fall of Tirah Valley to the TTP-LI extremists has created fear in the minds, not only of the people of Khyber Agency, but much wider adjacent areas. The return of the extremists has also put enormous pressure on political candidates. Candidates for the National Assembly seat in Bara tehsil have demanded the postponement of General Elections in the NA-46 constituency owing to threats from terrorist groups and the inability of the political administration to devise a foolproof security plan for electioneering. Although the election campaign has not yet been launched in the Bara tehsil of Khyber Agency, LI has threatened that it would target all the people who try to take part in the elections.
The Awami National Party candidate Imran Afridi has declared that it was not possible to hold elections in Bara, as most of its parts were still inaccessible. Besides, he argued, fresh displacement of people from Tirah Valley made it difficult for the candidates to run a smooth and peaceful election campaign.
The fall of Tirah Valley to the TTP, despite the Army´s aerial support to AI, is an indication of the strategic failure of the state. Pakistan has outsourced its war against the extremists to the tribal militias who, despite all efforts, are outclassed by TTP. With the fall of Tirah Valley, the cross-border movement of extremists, which is a major bone of contention between Pakistan and Afghanistan, is likely to escalate. Tirah´s strategic location will give more leverage to the terrorists in their campaigns towards Peshawar as well. The fall of the Tirah Valley bodes ill for other areas across FATA and KP.
(The writer Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)