ANALYSIS: Misleading comments on Orakzai jirga —Farhat Taj - Saturday, December 11, 2010

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All the editorials, comments and reports failed to ask the most important question of the military authorities: why is the full Taliban leadership in Orakzai still intact despite the painful military operation that displaced around 80 percent of the agency’s population?

Reportedly, the Sunni and Shia Orakzai tribes agreed to open the roads that had been closed for each other since 2006 in a ‘peace jirga’ sponsored by the Pakistan Army. Leading English newspapers of Pakistan wrote editorials, comments and reports about this event on December 7, 2010. These supported the ‘peace jirga’. But they seem to have presented a distorted picture of Orakzai. More importantly, they failed to mention some of the important aspects of the sectarian tension in Orakzai.

There is no tension between the Sunni and Shia at the larger tribal level. The two have been putting up a united front against the Taliban. Just because the Pakistani media does not report this aspect of tribal society does not mean it never existed. The Ali Khel tribe, the biggest tribe in Orakzai that is a mix of Shia and Sunni, made a united front and clashed with the Taliban. No state support, even appreciation, was extended and the state just allowed the Taliban to overrun the Ali Khel tribe. Consequently, the Ali Khels lost their entire Shia-Sunni tribal leadership in a subsequent suicide attack by the Taliban. The Story Khel, also a mixed Shia-Sunni tribe, stood united in their armed clashes with the Taliban. Other Sunni tribes opposed to the Taliban supported both tribes. When was the last time the Pakistani media covered such remarkable events in Orakzai from a sectarian harmony point of view? Due to the media blackout, probably most people in Pakistan do not even know that Shias and Sunnis in Orakzai jointly clashed with the Taliban and their united anti-Taliban front was destroyed by a meaningful state ‘abstinence’ from interfering with the two clashing sides. The tribes were no match for the well-armed and well-financed Taliban and resultantly they lost to the Taliban, including the Punjabi Taliban.

One of the editorials referred to an Orakzai shrine revered by Shias and built on land disputed between some of the local Shia and Sunni tribesmen as a cause of sectarian tension between the two Orakzai sects. The editorial, however, never referred to two important aspects of the shrine issue. One, this is also a land dispute amongst some tribes. In the tribal context, land disputes may lead to clashes. Two, and most importantly, the shrine presents a remarkable example of how the Orakzai tribes neither have the will nor the power to challenge the writ of the state, if the writ is imposed on them for the greater public good in the Agency. There have been some clashes between some Shia and Sunni groups over the ownership of the shrine in 2006. The state intervened and put the shrine in the custody of the Frontier Constabulary (FC). Neither Sunnis nor Shias are allowed to go to the shrine. There has never been any Shia-Sunni clash over the shrine since the FC’s deployment at the holy site.

All the editorials, comments and reports failed to ask the most important question of the military authorities: why is the full Taliban leadership in Orakzai still intact despite the painful military operation that displaced around 80 percent of the Agency’s population? How can there be peace in Orakzai without the elimination of commanders like Hakimullah, Mullah Toofan, Aslam Farooqi, Tariq Afridi, Gul Zaman Mullah, Salam Mullah, Zia-ur-Rehman, Nabi Mullah, Hafiz Saeed and Saif-ur-Rehman. The military authorities have given no explanation how could they secure Orakzai without the elimination of these commanders. The people of Orakzai emptied the Agency for the military to battle it out with the Taliban and look what the military has achieved — no elimination of the Taliban leadership, huge damage to public and private infrastructure and on top of it a stage-managed ‘peace jirga’ to give good feelings to the armchair analysts of Pakistan who would then mislead the world by writing about the military’s ‘success’ in Orakzai.

Both Sunni and Shia tribes want no conflicts that kill innocent people on both sides, including women and children, which is a complete violation of the tribal norm that forbids harm to women and children. In the past tribal leaders from both sides have been making pledges in grand tribal jirgas to live in peace. But suddenly a sectarian war used to erupt killing innocent people on both sides. The question is who is responsible for that. It is the third party, the Taliban. The people in Orakzai insist that most Taliban in their area are not locals. They are militants from other Pakhtun areas, Punjab and also foreigners, Arabs and Uzbeks, etc. While the tribes can control the militant elements among themselves, they have no control over the outsiders. The editorials never asked whose responsibility is it to rid the tribes of the terror-making outsiders.

The editorials, comments and reports were irresponsible from the perspective of the tribesmen. But what is done is done. I would, however, expect the newspapers to present an insightful picture of Orakzai in future. The opportunity for that may come soon. I am afraid the recently made ‘peace deal ’ is not going to hold for too long. The Taliban are still active in parts of Lower and Upper Orakzai and attacking the army, FC and returning displaced people. Even aid organisations are refusing to reach out to some of the areas due to security concerns. Only a couple of days after the deal, the Shias were attacked by what seemed like a suicide bombing in a vehicle terminal mostly used by the Orakzai Shias in Kohat. The attack killed and injured Shia tribesmen and as well as Sunni residents of Kohat. I am afraid violence may erupt again. There may be more human displacement. Above all, the tribes may be closing roads on each other once again. Like the past, in future too the tribes would be mindful that the roads closure would cause suffering to innocent people on the other side. But they would do so, as they did in the past, because this is the only option to ensure some security in their respective areas. Should that happen, I would expect the media to be mindful of the pathetic conditions of the tribes, and avoid shifting the responsibility of sectarian violence to the ‘rival tribes’ and, above all, ask the authorities tough questions regarding their responsibility to restore the writ of the state.

The writer is a PhD Research Fellow with the University of Oslo and currently writing a book, Taliban and Anti-Taliban

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