Clashes between rival militant groups in the tribal region next to the Afghanistan border has reportedly claimed more than 70 lives since fighting broke out last week. The area lies near the Khyber Pass, a main route for NATO supply trucks to Afghanistan, making it pivotal to the US war effort there and to Pakistan's revenues.
Fighting flared after a third militant group – the Pakistani Taliban – moved into an area already being fought over by two other outfits and the Pakistani military. On the run from its traditional strongholds in another part of the tribal belt, the Pakistani Taliban recently pushed into key parts of the Khyber Agency in a bid to control lucrative trading routes and establish a firmer base of operations.
The fighting now pits the Pakistani Taliban and a local militant group against a pro-government militant outfit and the Pakistani military. The military has tried since 2009 to gain full control over such a sensitive area, but has had to settle for a divide-and-conquer strategy of pitting one set of militants against another. The arrival of the Pakistani Taliban, an implacable foe of the government, complicates this already delicate balancing act.
“The government cannot let the area go into [Pakistani Taliban] control so it is trying to militarily deal with the situation and also by making sure militants continue to fight with each other, and no groups gets too strong enough to use the NATO routes as a pressure tactic on Pakistan and the international community,” says Nizam Dawar, a development specialist who has an office in Khyber Agency.
The military is playing off a turf war that dates back directly to the mid-2000s when Lashkar-e-Islam, a banned militant group that has now joined hands with the Pakistani Taliban, tried to establish its control over the trade routes in the area. Locals claim that the pro-government group Ansar-ul-Islam sprouted, with support of the government, to stop this from happening. While these specific groups are relatively new, such skirmishes have been recorded since at least British times, with rival tribal groups vying to control the same routes of trade through the mountains between the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia.
Speaking on the phone from an undisclosed location, Sadat Afridi, the spokesperson of pro-government Ansar-ul-Islam, said that the Pakistani Taliban had recently pushed into the area to also gain a foothold there.
“The fresh offense is because they are trying again to take over this area. But we will fight with them and not let that happen,” Mr. Afridi says. He denies that his group gets government support, but says they do operate rather freely in Khyber Agency since they "do not challenge the writ of the Pakistani state."
There are a number of reasons why the Pakistani Taliban have joined the fray now.
“The Pakistani Taliban are giving full support to Lashkar-e-Islam and together they want to take control of these trade routes now more than ever with 2014 approaching,” says Mr. Dawar, referencing the date for the pullout of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan.
The region also gives the Pakistani Taliban easier access to the settled areas around one of Pakistan's major cities, Peshawar – and from there, targets inside Pakistan's heartland. In the past couple of months, they have attacked the Peshawar airport and killed a provincial minister in a suicide bombing. Earlier, they took responsibility for the attempted killing of 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, a girls' education activist.
On the up side for the Pakistani government, their Taliban foe may also have been forced to seek new territory. The tribal areas of North and South Waziristan, where the Pakistani Taliban were once thought to have the strongest hold, have become hostile in recent months for them because they are creating trouble for the Afghan Taliban based there. The two groups are allies, but separate. The Afghan Taliban are focused on fighting NATO and the Afghan government, and allegedly enjoy support from elements in the Pakistani security establishment. The Pakistani Taliban, meanwhile, are bent on attacking the Pakistani state, prompting military pursuit.
“There was a jirga [council of elders] backed by the 'good' [Afghan] Taliban in the South Waziristan area a few months ago, which asked the [supporters of the] Pakistani Taliban to vacate their area,” says Safdar Dawar Hayat, who reports from the tribal belt.
Mr. Hayat adds that this had the effect of forcing the Pakistani Taliban leadership out of the region. They found refuge in North Waziristan, but now local elders there want to expel them too, and may get the backing of the Afghan Taliban.
As a refuge, Khyber offers an attractive space, says Hayat. “It is all a jungle out there. The topography of this region in Khyber Agency makes a great place for Pakistani Taliban to hide and yet continue their fight against the Pakistani state.”