ISLAMABAD - Tirah witnessed targeted airstrikes on 24th June, adding to the Tirah operation led by the Pakistan army. Secluded, mountainous, and just south of the Khyber Pass, Tirah valley is a prime location for any militant organisation. The valley is the birthplace of one such organization, the Lashkar-e-Islam group led by Mangal Bagh Afridi. Due to its geography and location, the army’s operation in Tirah is vital for the expulsion of both local and foreign militants from the area.
Because of the topography of FATA and its border with Afghanistan, there are many passes that connect the two regions together. “Among these passes, the most difficult route to secure is the Khyber Pass,” a military official stated.
The Tirah Valley lies south of the infamous pass that has been used by invaders such as Darius I, and Genghis Khan.
Commenting on the resilience of the tribesmen, the official stated, “Even Alexander himself avoided the pass due to the insecurity felt moving through it and took the Nawa Pass to enter the sub-continent.”
Little development has taken place around the Pass, making it a prime route for militants marching in from Afghanistan and Central Asia. Securing Khyber Pass is thus essential in our war against militancy. However, it has proven to be a difficult task for the Pakistan army.
This proximity with the Pass results in Tirah acting as a prime hub for militants entering into Pakistan, pointed out the army official. “The area itself is a victim of underdevelopment,” stated the military official. Lacking schools, quality hospitals and infrastructure, militants have been able to take advantage of this hideout.
Following the September 11 attacks in New York, rumors pertaining to the presence of Osama Bin Laden in Tirah were spread, and 2001 marked the first Pakistani military operation in Tirah. With hardly any development in the area at that time, it was easy for Afghan militants to convince the tribesmen of the need to battle America and all its allies in their Jihad. Three years later, Lashkar-e-Islam was formed, and ten years after its formation, it is still active.
“Tirah is located near the centre of the tribal areas,” explained the military official. The valley is shared by 3 agencies (Khyber, Kurram and Orakzai), of which two share a border with Afghanistan. Each of FATA’s seven agencies holds at least one militant faction, all of which are allied together in a war against the Pakistan government. Tirah’s importance for the militants is thus multiplied.
Another strategic standpoint for Tirah is the proximity it shares with Peshawar. According to the military official, the valley is too close to the settled areas of Pakistan, and the Khyber Pass even closer. By gaining Tirah, the securing of the Pass is a greater reality.
The geography of the valley is an added bonus for Lashkar-e-Islam. The valley is overlooked by the Spin Ghar mountain range, with tall alpine trees below. This combination makes the valley difficult for any enemy to search through, creating the safe haven a militant organization needs to thrive.
Such reasons create no surprise as to why Lashkar-e-Islam was so easily formed. The group has an “unholy alliance” with the Tehrik-e-Taliban says the military official. Expanding on his statement, the official states that every time peace is established in the tribal region, a leadership struggle ensues between the two militant groups. However, the two groups have a shared hatred for Pakistan’s government, and thus form an alliance in order to enforce a skewed version of Shariah law in Pakistan.
The recent military action in Tirah is not the first of its kind. In 1897, when Afridis in Tirah rose in revolt against the British, a yearlong Tirah Campaign ensued. The favored result of the campaign was the punishment and subjugation of the tribesmen. The brute force in such campaigns resulted in the area being left centuries behind in development of which the effects are still being felt today. The militancy in the area adds to this lack of development. It has been reported that Mangal Bagh has warned parents to send at least one son to Lashkar-e-Islam madrassas, or to pay a large fine.
The army has expressed their goals to not be the same as the British. Their military action is to purge the area of Mangal Bagh and allow for development in the area to finally take place.
“Most of the Lashkar-e-Islam militants have been expelled from the area,” said the military official, and there are reports of IDPs finally moving back to their villages in the valley. However, Mangal Bagh is still at large and carrying out his operations in Khyber Agency, where military airstrikes were carried out on Tuesday in the Jamrud Tehsil, with the army claiming 20 militants killed, and 12 hideouts destroyed. The military source also states that some Lashkar-e-Islam militants still inhabit the Tirah Valley.
“There is a lack of development in the area, hardly any quality schools, hospitals or infrastructure is present,” said the army official, identifying the social issues of the area.
By securing Tirah, the army can eventually secure the Khyber Pass, blocking the route made for foreign militants entering Pakistan, pointed out the army official.