Parachinar has bled again – eighth time in 2017. What has happened will probably continue to happen until the area is seen for Pakistani citizens residing there rather than for its purported strategic value, which is used for internal politics as well as regional geo-politics. Notwithstanding the well-meaning warning of the Army chief that the twin blasts in Parachinar should not just be seen with the lens of sectarian conflict, lest this encourages more violence and bloodshed – can we possibly detach the acclaimed perpetrators of attacks in Parachinar from the belief system that has been encouraging targeting of people of certain faiths even before 2017?
The popularised divide among militants in categories like state-unfriendly Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan; sectarian groups; Afghanistan-focused Taliban; or groups fighting in Kashmir is just imaginary and serves to hide ideological commonalities amongst these various groups engaged at different fronts.
One of the common ideas pertains to suspicion of Shias. This has grown consistently with the evolution of jihadism in the Islamic world. Despite the fact that the internally differentiated Muslim community of Pakistan has existed far more peacefully in relative terms, the sectarian tension has, nonetheless, existed and it has sharpened especially after the 1980s when various foreign states invested in groups with particular ideological bent to further their designs in the war in Afghanistan.
The militants’ ideological framework that bred on religious differences has grown and penetrated not just the population but also state institutions. The ideological push within Pakistan increased as Taliban spread their tentacles in Afghanistan during the 1990s, partly under the umbrella of our state. Despite the end of their government in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, the area where Parachinar is located has been critical to Taliban activities, subjecting it to violence and strife.
While the Shia population in Baluchistan and Gilgit-Baltistan were attacked in the past, Parachinar continues to be a critical target as it is the capital of upper Kurram agency where Shia population dominates as opposed to lower Kurram where Sunnis are in larger number. Although Shias have lived in lower Kurram as well but during the Zia period, like in Gilgit-Baltistan, population displacement was engineered in Kurram to reduce influence of Shia population then considered to be under Iranian influence.
Indeed, a number of analysts known for their association with the security establishment have either questioned the loyalty of Shia populace of Parachinar or labeled the past killings in Gilgit-Baltistan as well as the recent attacks in upper Kurram as reaction against increasing Iranian influence. One hopes that these are just instances of poor assessment on the part of a few individuals, and not an institutional bias because such an evaluation is likely to increase violence and result in more bloodshed. Faced with incessant insecurity, the people in upper Kurram, which in this case means the Shia population, will either be forced to migrate from the area – certainly not a good signal – or put up resistance by seeking help from outside and taking recourse to fighting their own battles. Naturally, such a situation will be even more beneficial for the enemies of the state about whom General Qamar Bajwa has talked about.
It is difficult to deny the fact that the Kurram agency is critical in relation to Afghanistan as it is linked to three Afghan provinces – Nangirhar, Khost and Paktia. The Sunni or Taliban inflow during the Zia years had been to facilitate the then mujahideen operations. This facilitated the demographic shift and set the stage for continued influence of militants whose ideology was antithetical to Shiism. As part of fighting the tough war that Pakistan is confronted with, it is essential to not let Taliban and their various friends use the Kurram agency. While every major stakeholder in the Af-Pak region supports their favoured militia, it is the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan who remain the most affected. Cleaning its territory is also necessary for Pakistan to emerge as more than a spoiler in the area. We should also not ignore the threat of a brutal sectarian war that may start in case the victimised population is not protected by the state and has to fall back on providing for its own security. The COAS has indeed done the right thing by removing the suspicious official, Col. Umer, accused of aggrandising the situation further by firing on protestors. The people of Parachinar need sympathy of the state, rather than its anger. Meanwhile, deaths in Parachinar attacks should also not be used for internal realpolitiking.
It is time for exhibiting greater magnanimity and ensuring provision of security for everyone who wants to come and offer their shoulder to the Parachinar people – rather than just a handful of politicians or activists who enjoy confidence of the state.
Note: This article originally published here.