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Why Are Peace Deals So Difficult To Keep In Pakistan's Tribal Areas?

In March, Kurram elders spread carpets on the snow and listened to poetry competitions in which poets rejecting the extreme way to Islam sang odes to peace.
In March, Kurram elders spread carpets on the snow and listened to poetry competitions in which poets rejecting the extreme way to Islam sang odes to peace.
It doesn't take much to undermine a peace accord in Pakistan's tribal area.

The most recent example is the peace deal in Kurram Agency, which has a long history of Shi'ite and Sunni sectarian conflicts now compounded by the presence of extremist Sunni Taliban.

Tribal elders have invested hours of negotiations to bring the agency's warring parties to the peace table and end sectarian clashes that have sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing into camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in other parts of Pakistan.

A key part of the deal has been promises of millions of dollars of compensation for those who have lost their relatives, property, or possessions in the upheavals. The promises have convinced many IDPs to return home and try to make a new start.

In March, the efforts seemed to have finally created a durable peace deal. Many villages celebrated with cultural events that gathered rival leaders peacefully together for the first time in years. Elders spread carpets on the snow and listened to poetry competitions in which poets rejecting the extreme way to Islam sang odes to peace.

"I don't need paradise, [and angels] but I need torches of light to dispel this darkness," said one poet, Yousaf Maranj, refuting Taliban promises to young men that suicide bombing will give them instant entry to paradise.

Broken Peace

But now this carefully crafted accord appears to be in jeopardy over incidents whose small scale only illustrates the enormity of the task of maintaining any peace for long in this volatile region.

Displaced children wait for aid at a distribution center in Sadda in Kurram Agency in July 2010.
Most recently, 12 gunmen opened fire on a caravan of three vehicles carrying members of a Shi'ite tribe from Peshawar to the Kurram Agency city of Parachinar. The ambush, near the city of Bagan, killed eight people on the spot and wounded five others who died later in hospital.

The gunmen locked up the remaining 35 passengers in two of the coaches and disappeared with them. Since then they have released just seven people -- all women and children -- while holding the others hostage in an unknown location.

Shi'ite tribal leaders in Kurram say they know the identity of the attackers and their motives. "Everybody feels sorry, but nobody is telling the truth," says Sajid Hussain Turi, a parliament deputy from the Kurram tribal area.

"The truth is that militants, the Taliban, the groups belonging to Hakimullah Mehsud, Fazal Said Haqqani, and Mullah Noor -- all of them are responsible for the failure of this truce," Turi tells RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. "The government knows them and is in a position to start operations against them, but the security forces are not willing to root them out, and we don't know why."

Exacerbating Divisions

To many, the Taliban is the most likely suspect for two reasons. First, those killed belonged to the Turi tribe in the Kurram region, whose people have blocked Taliban militants from using their territory to cross into Afghanistan. Second, it is the Taliban that currently stands the most to gain from the chronic outbreaks of communal violence in Kurram.

Over recent months, the Taliban has increasingly moved into Kurram to avoid drone attacks in their strongholds of North and South Waziristan. At the same time, Kurram has become a key Taliban corridor for shuttling fighters and material from bases in the central Orakzai district to attack the NATO supply lines that move through the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan.

The Kurram tribal area has sectarian tensions that predate the Taliban but the Taliban has proved particularly effective at stoking them for its own ends.

Decades ago, Sunni and Shi'a lived side-by-side peacefully but this began to break down in the 1980s when former Pakistani dictator Muhammad Zia ul-Haq began allowing ethnic- and sectarian-based political parties. This made it easier for him to control a divided society but resulted in the formation of militant groups that attacked each other and secular figures.

For decades, Kurram Agency seemed generally resistant to such sectarian violence except for security alerts during the annual observance of Ashura, when Shi'ite faithful hold public processions. Instead, the feuding took such forms as sectarian rivalries to build the tallest minarets. But with the arrival of the Taliban after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the rivalries turned lethal.

Central Government Failure

Today, the main cities of Kurram Agency have seen the majority sect chase out the minority one, not only creating IDPs but also a siege mentality on both sides. The Sunnis control the main highway over which supplies move to all parts of Kurram and periodically ambush buses carrying Shi'a. The Shi'a, in turn, divert water that passes through their territories so it does not reach the Sunni areas.

Pakistan's government is responsible for keeping the roads open, such as this bridge over the Kurram River.
By law, the Pakistan government is responsible for keeping roads in the tribal areas open and for assuring that resources are shared. But while Islamabad was able to do so with the support of tribal leaders when tribal society was intact, it finds it hard to do so today, even with military deployments. Since 2006, more than 937 tribal leaders have been targeted and killed both by the Taliban and by Pakistani intelligence agencies across the tribal areas, shattering the region's traditional social structures.

In an effort to push the government to act, the Shi'ite community decided after last month's ambush near Bagan to launch a "social boycott" of Islamabad. The Turi tribe said it would withhold payments on utilities until the attackers were caught and the captives released. "We decided that we will not have any links and business with the government until our hostages are freed," parliament deputy Turi says.

Promises Not Kept

Still, the failure to arrest the attackers is not the only thing people in Kurram see as Islamabad's lack of support for the peace accord.

Equally problematic is the government's slowness to deliver on its promises of financial compensation for victims of past violence in Kurram Agency. Many local leaders were able to argue successfully for peace by convincing more combative followers that there would be clear and immediate economic awards.

The government of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani promised up to 1.5 billion rupees (some $17.5 million) to help the rehabilitation of displaced persons -- both Shi'ite and Sunni. The compensation process was to have begun on March 5.

Weeks later, the money has yet to be delivered. "They need to build their homes and those who lost their loved ones have to be paid, and so do those who have been injured," says Malik Waris Khan Afridi, chief of the Grand Jirga of Peace for Kurram. "Only then will the local people trust the jirga and believe that the truce is working."

Afridi adds that the government has now promised that the money will be paid in the next few days but that it has yet to provide any explanation for its delays.

Meanwhile, the newly appointed governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Masud Kausar, who is also responsible for all of the tribal area, says the roads in Kurram Agency are well secured, despite the recent ambush. He said last week that he would soon drive to Kurram to show the roads were open.

The question now is whether Islamabad can move quickly enough to provide its promised support before further outbreaks of tension undermine its ability to still rescue the peace deal. Prior to the accord, violence in Kurram reached levels that Islamabad was only barely able to rein in.

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