The Status of Taliban Insurgency in Khyber Agency



In a series of articles, PoliTact is examining the status of Taliban insurgency in each one of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. Any realistic assessment of this region has to rely on objective and first hand access to the facts on the ground, to draw any meaningful conclusions or projections. In previous studies, we have examined the dynamics of Orakzai, Mohmand and Kurram and this article looks at Khyber Agency. 



 The Khyber tribal territory of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Agency (FATA) has since ancient times served as a doorway to invaders of India and traders from Central Asia and Afghanistan.

The total area of this tribal land is 2,756 Square Kilometers with a total population of 546,730. According to Statistics Department of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, the literacy rate for males is 57.2% while for females it runs around 10.1%, with a total of 34.2% for the Khyber agency.

A prerequisite to understand the dynamics of Taliban insurgency in Khyber is to grasp the occurring of the surrounding tribal areas. Khyber is bordered by Kurram Agency towards the South West; Orakzai lies to the South while Mohmand is situated towards the north. One of the most strategically vital supply routes for NATO forces passes through the border down of Torkham in the West, leading into Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. To the East, lies Peshawar, the provincial capital of KP province of Pakistan.

Administrative Composition and Tribal Affiliations

Khyber Agency is composed of three subdivisions (Tehsils); Bara, Landi Kotal and Jamrud, and four main tribes of Afridi, Shinwari, Mullagori and Shimani inhabit Khyber. With the exception of Shinwari tribe that is situated in few areas of Landi Kotal subdivision, Afridi tribe and sub-tribes predominantly occupy all other areas of Khyber Agency.

Afridi tribe in Khyber Agency is subdivided into eight branches or sub-tribes: Adamkhel, Akakhel, Kamarkhel, Qamberkhel, Malikdikhel, Kukikhel, Zakakhel, and Sipah.

Militants belonging to extremist groups such as Lashkar-e-Islam and (LI) and Ansar-ul-Islam, including Pakistani Taliban groups (TTP) started to become active in Khyber around 2004. The makeup and orientation of LI is quite similar to Taliban.  LI is based in Afridi areas and most prominent in Bara sub-division of Khyber Agency. LI chief, Mangal Bagh, belong to Sipah sub-tribe, which is the least influential amongst Afridi clans. Recently the Tirah Valley has emerged as the emerging flash point in Khyber.

In order to understand the political and strategic significance of Khyber, one has to consider it from the perspective of:

  • Khyber Agency for Pakistan
  • The value of the tribal territory for Afghanistan and NATO forces there
  • The criticality of Khyber for Afghan Taliban, TTP, and Al Qaeda strategy

Khyber Agency for Pakistan

For Pakistan, there is perhaps no other tribal area as valuable as Khyber, where it would want to maintain its influence. It can also be thought of as the heart of FATA, due to its proximity to Peshawar. It is also the tribal region that is most closely assimilated with Pakistan, brought about by not only its location but also the trade route which passes through it and connects Pakistan to Afghanistan. Additionally, running north to south, it is nearly the midsection, where Mohmand and Bajaur tribal territories lies to the north, and Orakzai, Kurram, North and South Waziristan, lying to the south of Khyber Agency.

Peshawar is exposed and is surrounded by tribal territories on three sides: north, west, and south. The mountain ranges provide some natural immunity to Peshawar. However, It’s connection with mainland Pakistan run towards the East. Therefore, Pakistan’s strategic imperatives in Khyber are twofold:

  •  Build and maintain a buffer around Peshawar and keep Khyber relatively free of Taliban, and from any single group to dominate.
  • To keep a key trade link between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and supply route for NATO forces, open, and to preserve this leverage over NATO.

Due to the current geopolitical realities of the region and history, Pakistan has traditionally considered the tribal area as a buffer zone and is sensitive to not alienate its people.

Like many other parts of Pakistan, the tribal territory, including Khyber, is also engulfed in a complex web of religious and ethnic tensions. Some of this is connected with the tussles of Deobandi and Barelvi schools of thought. Although LI is closer to Taliban, as they both subscribe to Deobandi orientation, however, this commonality has still prevented LI from forming an alliance with Pakistani Taliban (TTP). Nonetheless, it is widely believed that TTP is making steady inroads in Khyber despite inter-factional differences. In 2009, Khyber Agency encountered the highest number of terrorist attacks, including death and injuries, in all of FATA (see chart below).

It could be hypothesized that from Pakistan’s point of view, the center piece of its counter insurgency strategy in FATA, is to prevent Khyber from becoming fully embroiled in insurgency. Operations in Swat and South Waziristan and US drone attacks have had the effect of moving the extremists close to Khyber, such as in Orakzai and Kurram Agency, including Tirah Valley of Khyber. The two principal trade routes between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Chaman and Torkham, are likely to be impacted adversely if Pakistan does take on the much demanded North Waziristan Operation. Particularly, if it is combined with US pressure around Kandahar and other flash points along the border. Furthermore, it is also likely that terrorist activities and insurgency in Bajaur, Mohmand, and Swat in the north, would once again increase.

Khyber Agency for NATO and Afghan Forces

The NATO forces and Afghanistan share a common interest in Khyber Agency, which they share with Pakistan. For an example:

  • To prevent militants and Pakistani Taliban from disrupting supply lines for military operations in Afghanistan.
  • Avert any firm partnership to develop between Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban and other militants, which could be against US and Indian interests in the region.

However, the interest of US, Afghanistan, and India diverge markedly, on which groups should have influence in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and in turn project their power in Afghanistan. Recent overtures from US towards a negotiated peace have also emboldened Karzai government to bring Afghan Taliban on board. Now the matter appears to be stuck on which faction of Afghan Taliban. However, US has mostly focused its attention on North and South Waziristan and this is where most of the drone attacks have taken place. If Pakistan conducts an operation in North Waziristan, the militants and terrorist there are likely to disperse and cause further problems for the state of Pakistan.

In the past, military pressure in Afghanistan has resulted in extremists moving to FATA. Similarly, facing operations in tribal areas of Pakistan, the militants either move to less active tribal regions or to Afghanistan.

In the long run, it would seem to be in Indian, US, and Afghan interests to develop a strategic leverage and influence in Khyber Agency and other tribal areas, to counter the traditional influence of Pakistan.

Khyber Agency for Al Qeada, Afghan, and Pakistani Taliban Strategy

The Al Qaeda grand strategy for the region is to keep the focus of Pakistani authorities divided so that it is unable to muster it’s forces at one point, as NATO and US would want. The Mumbai incident almost resulted in a war between Pakistan and India. Warnings have once again emerged from Western capitals, on the likelihood of another Mumbai style happening in India. The goal of any such incident would be to avert any operation in North Waziristan.

However, Al Qaeda strategy is not limited to Pakistan and the tribal areas. It also wants to divert the attention of NATO, US, and its allies in the region to many different fronts. Thus, Yemen and Somalia are increasingly becoming a focal point of global threats related to terrorism. Furthermore, like witnessed in Iraq, AQ would want to use local militant and extremist groups, to promote ethnic and religious upheaval in the rest of Middle East and South Asia.

The new US strategy envisions using local allies, and to build there capability to take on a majority of the combat role against extremists. On the other hand, AQ is relying on local extremists groups to target the local allies of US, and to turn the war against terror in to a war against Islam. Pakistani Taliban has repeatedly targeted lashkars created against extremists in tribal areas. For example, the suicide attack in Darra Adam Khel on November 5 claimed the lives of 60 people.

As far as the Khyber Agency is concerned, Pakistani Taliban would like to become a serious player there and be able to control the supply line for NATO forces in Afghanistan. Although Afghan Taliban would also want to damage the supply lines, it has attempted to keep its focus limited to Afghanistan and has not attempted to damage Pakistan’s interests.

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