Al Qaida-allied Afghan fighters seek new Pakistan haven

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 24, 2010 

PARACHINAR, Pakistan_ The Haqqani network, an extremist group close to Al Qaida that has mounted devastating attacks in Afghanistan, is attempting to move into a new safe haven in Pakistan's tribal region as a base for attacks on U.S.-led forces across the border, according to leaders of a Pakistani tribe based here.

The Haqqanis, who have a history of close ties to the Pakistani military and its Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, have undertaken negotiations with the main tribe here, the Turi, that the Turi say would open the way for the move from their current base at Miramshah, North Waziristan, into the adjacent Kurram Agency, 80 miles to the north.

The Turi say they have repeatedly rebuffed the Haqqanis, most recently in a meeting earlier this month in Islamabad between tribal elders and the brother of the founder of the Haqqani network.

The Turi, who live in and around Parachinar, capital of Kurram, on the western tip of the district, bordering Afghanistan, say they don't want extremists on their lands or for their area to be used against NATO or the government of Pakistan. They complain bitterly that the Pakistani government has given them neither support nor protection in an inter-tribal struggle that has pitted them against the Pakistani Taliban, who seek the overthrow of the state.

"We don't differentiate between (Pakistani) Taliban, Haqqani and Al Qaida. They are all the same to us," Sajid Hussain Turi, a member of the federal parliament for Kurram, told a McClatchy reporter who visited Kurram in late December.

Kurram is one of seven agencies in Pakistan's tribal belt, a lawless buffer zone between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it's been in a state of internal conflict for at least six years. An old sectarian rivalry between the Turi, who are from the minority Shiite sect of Islam, and their local competitors, the Mangals, who are Sunnis, has turned into a titanic struggle after the Pakistani Taliban entered in 2007 and threw their big guns behind the Mangals. Now the Haqqani network is involved as well.

Both the Pakistani Taliban — the TTP, for Tehrik-I-Taliban Pakistan (Taliban Movement of Pakistan) — and Haqqani follow an extreme version of Sunni Islam. The Turi say they're now engaged in an existential struggle against the Pakistani Taliban, who along with the Mangals have cut their lands off from Pakistan proper. The conflict has cost the lives of more than 1,200 Turi over the last four years, Turi elders said.

The Haqqanis' apparent attempt to move into Kurram almost certainly is the result of U.S. drone attacks against the sanctuary they inhabit in North Waziristan and the threat of a future offensive by the Pakistani army. The U.S. government, attempting to disrupt the Afghan insurgency, has repeatedly demanded that Pakistan launch an offensive to clear extremists out of North Waziristan. The Haqqani network fights alongside the Afghan Taliban but has no permanent base inside Afghanistan.

The Haqqanis claim not to be part of the conflict in Kurram and have pursued their quest for a base here by offering to mediate between the Mangals and the Turi. Recent media reports suggest that Siraj, son of Haqqani's group's founder, Jalaluddin, and now the leader of the group, moved to Kurram in the autumn.

While most of the tribal area is a wild, illiterate place, run under tribal custom, Kurram, unusually, is predominantly Shiite Muslim, with the Turi tribe comprising about 300,000 of the 500,000 people of the agency. Almost uniquely in the tribal area, education is widespread, and the area is relatively well developed, with some wide valleys of flat fertile agricultural land and functioning schools. The Turi oasis in the tribal area, around Parachinar, feels more like the rest of Pakistan, rather than the primitive conditions and gun culture of most of the tribal area.

The Turi are blockaded into the westernmost part of Kurram, around Parachinar. Together, the Mangals and the Pakistani Taliban control the main road that connects Parachinar to the east to the "settled" parts of Pakistan under normal rule. Two years ago, assailants, using chainsaws, beheaded and dismembered eight Turi men, while they were still alive, as they attempted to use the road to reach the rest of Pakistan. Their body parts were left in sacks along the main road, Turi elders said, showing gruesome photographic evidence.

The Turi have suffered brutal attacks, been killed by landmines laid by the Taliban, and faced a shortage of food and other supplies, price of which have skyrocketed as a result of the blockade, while education and other services have deteriorated. In September, an attack on Khaiwas village, just outside Parachinar, left 89 Turi dead, according to a tally of victims kept by Haidri Blood Bank, a local non-governmental organization.

Since 2007, the Turi have been forced to take a risky 230-mile trip through Afghanistan, via Gardez, Kabul and Jalalabad, just to enter Pakistan, at Peshawar, but the Pakistani military closed the border in October, citing the risk of Afghan incursions, which further isolated the tribe. They now rely on travelling in a weekly or biweekly convoy guarded by the Pakistani military, to reach the rest of Pakistan, or a tiny air service that runs an expensive six-seat plane from Peshawar to Parachinar.

"Pakistan should be ashamed. We are the most loyal tribe in Pakistan but for four years we've got nothing, while other areas get help with floods and earthquakes," said Hamid Hussain, a Turi elder in Parachinar. "Our only sin is that we are Shia (Shiite)."

The Turi have managed to force the Pakistani Taliban and their Mangal tribal allies out of the upper Kurram area, but the extremists are still present in lower Kurram, which connects to Pakistan, and in the mountains of central Kurram, tribal elders said.

Enter the Haqqani network, which offered this month to guarantee a peace deal between the Turi and Mangal tribes and to open the road from Parachinar to the rest of Pakistan.

In return, the Turi believe that the Haqqanis want use of Kurram in order to attack Afghanistan. Six Turi tribal elders who were party to negotiations with the Mangals and Haqqani, emphatically denied rumors that they had already agreed to give Haqqani safe passage through their area, saying they could never allow it after suffering so many deaths of Turi civilians.

The Turi met Ibrahim Haqqani twice, according to several Turi who attended. The first meeting was in Peshawar in September and the second in Islamabad in the first week of December, at a house in the Barakau suburb of the provincial capital. At the Peshawar meeting, the Turi sought help to free six members of their tribe who had been kidnapped by the TTP, and Haqqani subsequently got them freed.

Turi elders travelled to Islamabad this month for what they thought would be a meeting with their rival Mangal tribe. However, they were shocked to find that the Mangals were apparently being directed by Ibrahim Haqqani from behind the scenes. Ibrahim Haqqani eventually met directly with them, according to Hamid Hussain, Niaz Muhammad and Iqbal Hussain Turi, three Turi elders who were present.

"We told them (Ibrahim Haqqani and associates) that we don't recognize Al Qaida and Taliban. They said they wanted to mediate our dispute (with the Mangal tribe). But who are they to be part of these talks? Our people will never accept them," said Niaz Muhammad, speaking in his village in upper Kurram.

Muhammad said that, had they agreed to Haqqani as a mediator, it would have given the militant group the entry to Kurram they were seeking.

"We won't let our area be used against anyone, not NATO, not Pakistan," said Muhammad.

The government administration in Kurram declined to comment, and Pakistan's chief military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, did not return calls seeking a comment.

While Pakistan has been widely accused of aligning itself with the Haqqanis, who seek to topple the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan, it is fighting the TTP, which seeks to topple the Pakistani government. But the Haqqanis, while abjuring any attacks on the Pakistani state, seem to be working closely with the TTP, first in North Waziristan and now in Kurram. Pakistan denies supporting any Afghan insurgent groups.

"We don't want to be sacrificed to some strategic ends," said Iqbal Hussain Turi, a tribal elder who attended the meeting with Ibrahim Haqqani. "We have spoilt Pakistan's plans for Haqqani."

The Turi say the Haqqani network wants access to their area because of its strategic position. Kurram juts into Afghanistan, providing access to three eastern provinces, Paktia, Khost and Nangarhar, and its border is just 55 miles from Kabul. Osama bin Laden is said to have escaped Afghanistan in 2001 via Tora Bora, which lies just across the hills from Parachinar, to Pakistan through Kurram.

Jeffrey Dressler, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, an independent research organization based in Washington, said the Haqqanis' previous ability to carry out terror strikes in Kabul, from their base in North Waziristan, had been restricted by NATO's operations across the border, so the group could be looking for another route to the Afghan capital.

"For Haqqani, Kurram could, at least in part, be about finding another way to get to Kabul. It's in Kabul where Haqqani is really serving the interests of his masters in the ISI and the army, which is striking Indian targets," Dressler said.

In September, U.S. helicopters based in Afghanistan crossed the border into Kurram chasing insurgents, including an incident around the village of Teri Mangal village in which the helicopters mistakenly fired on a Pakistani border post, killing two soldiers. Local residents say that the militants, possibly the Haqqani group, have a camp at Teri Mangal. U.S. missile strikes in the tribal area this year have targeted North Waziristan almost exclusively, focused on suspected Haqqani members and their local allies.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent)

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