Pakistan’s tribal belt has been the center of global attention for several years because of widespread speculation regarding the presence of al-Qaeda fugitives and Taliban leaders. Since the start of military operations in late 2003, violence and bloodshed has become a routine matter, particularly in the South and North Waziristan tribal agencies along the Afghan border. Besides Waziristan, Taliban militants have also developed a strong presence in the Bajaur and Mohmand agencies. Recently, however, the Khyber Tribal Agency has also been in the news—but not just for al-Qaeda- or Taliban-related violence. The strategically located Khyber Agency—an erstwhile peaceful and relatively prosperous and urbanized tribal agency compared to the rest of the six mountain agencies—is inhabited by the Afridi and Shinwari tribes. It is named after the famous Khyber Pass, a vital and important route leading to Central Asia from the Indo-Pakistan sub-continent via Afghanistan. For centuries it has been the key trade route between Central Asia and South Asia. In a not too distant past, visiting the Khyber Pass was almost a must for foreign tourists, but that is no longer the case. An Islamic warlord, Mangal Bagh Afridi, now holds sway in the Khyber Agency just half an hour’s drive from Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). Though he denies links with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, he openly defends the Taliban’s insurgency against U.S.-led Coalition forces in Afghanistan. If this Afghan jihad veteran is to be believed, he has thousands of fighters under his command who are ready to lay down their lives on his order (The News [Islamabad], May 11).
Militancy in the Shadow of Sectarianism
Unlike many troubled parts of Pakistan’s tribal region, the history of militancy in the Khyber Agency is very brief. There was no organized militant group until late 2003, when a local tribesman, Haji Namdar, returned from Saudi Arabia and established an organization named Amr bil maroof wa nahi anil munkir, borrowing the name from the Afghan Taliban’s “Suppression of Vice and Promotion of Virtue” organization. He placed a ban on music and in some places worshippers had to sign the mosque’s register to verify they had offered prayers. His organization sent threatening letters to music and CD shops in Landi Kotal, a town on the main Peshawar-Torkham highway (Dawn [Karachi], August 15, 2007). Haji Namdar even established his own private jails with names such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib to punish those who defied his orders (BBC, August 26, 2004). He was the first to establish pirate FM radio stations in the Khyber Agency—a phenomenon which quickly gained currency in the whole region. Tribal officials issued directives for the closure of these radio stations, but these fell on deaf ears (Dawn, December 2, 2004). Namdar hired a firebrand religious scholar as the on-air preacher: Mufti Munir Shakir, a controversial mullah who was expelled from his hometown in the Kurram Tribal Agency due to his extreme views against Shiite Muslims. In his FM broadcasts, Mufti, as he is commonly known, rarely targeted any other religious sect with his inflammatory sermons.
The town of Bara soon became a battleground between two sectarian groups: Lashkar-e-Islam, led by Mufti Munir Shakir, and Ansar-ul-Islam, led by Afghanistan-born Pir Saif ur-Rahman. The radicalizing effect of illegal radio stations can be seen in this small Khyber Agency town where these two radical clerics, dubbed “FM Mullahs” by the local press, waged a turf war through their private stations. Both non-local Sunni clerics—Rahman an Afghan national and Shakir from the Kurram Agency—attempted to dominate the area through recruiting followers by propagating their own interpretation of Islam. Rahman was following the Barelvi Sufi tradition, while Shakir was a disciple of the more austere Deobandi form of Islam. Fierce clashes erupted in early 2006 between the rival groups in which heavy weapons were used, resulting in the killing of scores of people (The News, October 25, 2006). A number of new armed sectarian groups emerged in the area due to the silence of law enforcement agencies over the sectarian strife (The News, December 16, 2006). In a belated response as the bloodshed between the two groups increased, authorities stepped in by beefing up security in the area and arresting some of the mullahs’ supporters. After a hectic series of jirgas held by Afridi tribesmen, both radical clerics were expelled from the area in February 2006.
The Rise of Mangal Bagh and his Lashkar-e-Islam
With the departure of two controversial radical clerics from the region there was hope that the situation would now stabilize and the mayhem would come to an end. The problem, however, persisted even after the expulsion of both leaders as the number of religious outfits continued to grow and their supporters continued kidnapping and killing members of rival groups. The Mufti group went a step further and organized Lashkar-e-Islam under the leadership of Mangal Bagh Afridi, a 35-year-old local tribesman. Known as “amir” (leader) among his followers, Bagh is illiterate and formerly drove a bus. His leadership provided a new momentum to Lashkar-e-Islam and it soon grew more powerful and more militant. Mangal Bagh wants the implementation of religious laws, by force if necessary. The stoning and shooting of two men and a woman on charges of alleged adultery last year in March by the Lashkar-e-Islam was a grim alarm of this worsening situation. A huge crowd assembled to watch the executions after Lashkar-e-Islam announced it through the mosque’s loudspeakers (The News, March 16, 2007). Mangal Bagh’s militants also tried to occupy land belonging to the head of their rival group in Bara, which led to fierce fighting between them and paramilitary troops which resulted in the killing of five tribesmen, including three children (Pakistan Times, April 24, 2007).
Since then Mangal Bagh and his Lashkar-e-Islam have run a parallel administration in the Bara subdivision. The group operates its own illegal FM radio despite the official ban as part of its effort to gain the sympathies of the local tribesmen, recruit new fighters and terrorize their opponents. The political administration has completely lost its writ in the area. Members of rival groups even accuse Lashkar-e-Islam activists of extorting money from truckers moving between Afghanistan and Pakistan (Dawn, May 20, 2007; The Nation, March 4). Mangal Bagh’s rising influence can be gauged from the fact that he issues his own “code of conduct” to candidates contesting elections in the Bara subdivision of Khyber Agency. For example, candidates were warned against holding public meetings; each candidate must use only one vehicle and candidates were not allowed to hoist flags of any political party on their cars and buildings (Daily Times, November 27, 2007). In a bid to expand their influence across the Khyber region, his fighters fought with Kokikhel tribesmen in Jamrud and Landikotal, which led to the recent closure of the Peshawar-Torkham highway between Pakistan and Afghanistan for four days (The News, April 19). This highway is a main supply route for Coalition forces in Afghanistan. After establishing his stronghold in parts of Khyber Agency, dozens of Lashkar-e-Islam activists with rockets and other heavy weapons attacked Shaikhan village in the suburbs of Peshawar, killing 10 people (The News, March 4). Moving a step forward, Mangal Bagh openly offered his services to the people of Peshawar and other settled parts of the NWFP by saying: “I stand by the oppressed against the oppressors. Irrespective of where anyone or both the opponents hail from, I’ll help those subjugated, if I can” (The News, April 21).
The Taliban Factor
Unlike the situation prevailing in the other tribal agencies, Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)—the umbrella group of Taliban factions in various parts of the Tribal belt and NWFP led by militant commander Baitullah Mahsud—has not yet established a strong presence in the Khyber Agency. Even Mangal Bagh has clearly denied any kind of link with the Taliban despite Baitullah Mahsud’s insistence that he join the TTP (The News, April 21). Similarly, Haji Namdar—founder of the Amr bil maroof wa nahi anil munkir—is said to have betrayed the Taliban for the handsome sum of $150,000 (Asia Times, April 26). However, the response for this betrayal was swift when Namdar narrowly survived a suicide bombing. Namdar blamed Baitullah Mahsud and his group for the attack, something quickly admitted to by the Hakimullah group—a local faction loyal to Baitullah—which took responsibility for the bombing. This group is led by one of Mahsud’s close aides, Hakimullah Mahsud.
Many believe that the Taliban in the Khyber Agency are getting stronger and stronger. Hakimullah’s claim of responsibility for the suicide attack is used as evidence for this growth by those opposed to the Taliban (Daily Times [Lahore], May 3). A month ago, more than 1,000 militants with heavy weapons mounted on trucks besieged a village in Mohmand agency and started house-to-house searches for alleged criminals which led to fierce fighting, killing 13 people. It is said that many of the Taliban from Khyber Agency took part in the operation against what they called “anti-social elements” (Dawn, April 28). Similarly, militants seem to have adopted a new policy of kidnapping members of key government and international organizations. In doing so, they exert great pressure on the government to force acceptance of their demands—usually an exchange of prisoners. It seems that militants have chosen the Khyber Agency for most of the kidnappings because of its strategic road link with Afghanistan. Recently, Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Tariq Azizuddin, was kidnapped from the Khyber Agency while on his way to Afghanistan. Similarly, paramilitary forces foiled an attempt to kidnap two World Food Program officials last month (Daily Times, April 23).
At a time when local militants of the Pakistan Taliban are making a strong comeback after months of ceasefire by staging new attacks and even suicide attempts against security forces, the Khyber Agency now poses a unique challenge to the government of Pakistan quite apart from what is already happening in the troubled spots of South and North Waziristan. As most parts of the tribal region have witnessed the rising tide of Talibanization since 9/11, the Khyber Agency has tried to avoid such a reality despite its strategic importance and its border with Afghanistan’s Nangargar province. However, some recent events seem to have confirmed the government’s worst fears. This mountain-ringed tribal agency with a vital road link connecting Pakistan with Afghanistan has become an increasingly brazen hub of Islamist militancy. The government exists in name only and has little control over what is happening there. Those who believe that Pakistan may be playing a double game with the West in the war on terror often cite as evidence Pakistan’s failure to contain the formation of dangerous groups like Mangal Bagh’s Lashkar-e-Islam, which has become a symbol of terror and horror not only in the Khyber agency but also in Peshawar and other settled parts of the NWFP (The Nation [Lahore], May 23). When considering the grim situation in the Khyber Agency, it is not difficult to believe that the rising influence of Lashkar-e-Islam and other such organizations represents only the opening moves of the militants in what may prove to be a very long struggle for dominance.