Taliban-allied group widens influence in Pakistan

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One of the most lethal militant groups in Afghanistan is expanding its influence: The Taliban-allied Haqqani network, which targets NATO troops in Afghanistan from its base in Pakistan in the tribal area of North Waziristan, has begun to flex its muscle in another of Pakistan's strategic border areas: Kurram.

Members of the Haqqani clan have just resolved one of the thorniest issues in Pakistan's Kurram Agency: the abduction in July of a group of Shiites by Sunni militants. They were kidnapped in July as their convoy of vehicles rolled through the treacherous militant-controlled roads of Lower Kurram. This past week, all six were freed, and a Shiite elder proclaimed that "it boosted the image of the Haqqanis."

Two members of the Afghan fighting family, Ibrahim and Khalil Haqqani, are being hailed as peacemakers in Kurram, which has been long troubled by clashes between Sunnis and Shiites.

Upper Kurram, which is predominantly Shiite, juts into Afghanistan like a thumb. Snow-covered mountains form the natural border. Small prop planes are the only way in as Sunni militants have blocked the land routes.

A bumpy journey to the border passes through orchards and fresh pine forests. But the sectarian strife in Kurram has soaked the land in blood.

From his home near the border, Shiite elder Aun Ali Turi says battles between the Shiites and the Sunnis killed several thousand people and displaced many more. He says the Pakistani Taliban fought alongside the Sunnis, and when the militants failed to take control of Upper Kurram, they sealed all roads leading in and out.

"It was the Taliban that fomented hatred and sectarian violence," he says. "We Shiites asked the authorities to stop them, but they didn't. So, there were clashes, killings and burned villages."

Effects of the feud and the subsequent blockade can be seen in Upper Kurram's schools, where there is no furniture. Veiled and bright-eyed young girls sit on freezing floors in neat rows. Hospitals report shortages of medicine. Shops display empty shelves. Scarcities worsened when Pakistan closed several border crossings last month into Afghanistan where residents routinely stopped.

In recent weeks, Sunni and Shiite elders convened a series of jirgas, or tribal gatherings, in a bid to reach a truce. Jirga members confirm that the two Haqqani brothers instrumental in freeing the Shiite hostages last week not only attended, but exerted powerful influence over the jirgas, which were quietly held in Pakistan's capital and other cities.

Analyst Rahimullah Yusufzai says if the Haqqanis mediate an end to the blockade of Upper Kurram, they would be peace-brokers in a strategically situated district.

"If the Haqqanis can prevail upon the Sunni tribes and the Pakistani militants to lift this blockade, both sides the Shiites more than the Sunnis would be obliged," he said. "And that I think will give the Haqqanis even more influence in this area."

Many in violence-wracked Kurram express apprehension about why the Haqqanis have waded into their affairs. But as U.S. drone missiles target the Haqqani base in neighboring North Waziristan, and Pakistan's army considers an offensive there, the militant network may be desperate to secure a new sanctuary. Sources with knowledge of the recent jirgas say the Haqqanis are already establishing a foothold in Kurram.

"I think the Haqqanis know if there is a military operation, they could be harmed," Yusufzai said. "So why not try to find a secure place before the action begins? If they can't move into Afghanistan, they'll try to find some place in Pakistan, some other place."

The Haqqani network's center of activity in Afghanistan lies just across the border from Kurram. One prominent Shiite, who is in close contact with members of the jirgas, said the Haqqanis have demanded a safe corridor to Afghanistan. But, he says, no member of the jirgas dares acknowledge that out of fear of retribution.

Jirga member Sajid Hussain Turi says that the Haqqanis made no such request yet. But if they do, the Shiite parliamentarian says, they will be rebuffed.

"Only local Shiite and Sunni should have free movement, no nonlocals," Turi says. "And we will never accept any demand for free passage."

He added: "We can give life and take life as well, and we will not accept any pressure be it Haqqani ... or the [Pakistani Taliban]."

It may be that the Haqqani efforts at peacemaking ignite another conflict.