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Talibans strike back with suicide bombing and abduction.

After the announcement by the Pakistan Army that neighbouring South Waziristan was cleared of the Taliban and that in Orakzai 85 per cent of the area was likewise cleared, a bloody response from the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the shape of a suicide bombing in Kohat has shaken the country. A boy, with 10 kg of explosives tied to his body, killed 18 and injured 32 persons from among the families going to Orakzai.

Almost at the same time, teachers of a school have been abducted in neighbouring Hangu, also a ‘settled’ district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Earlier, two suicide bombers killed scores of elders gathered at the headquarters of the political agent of Mohmand Agency. The agency abuts on the provincial boundary and was once considered relatively peaceful but subject to inroads from an old Harkatul Mujahideen, Umar Khalid, who was once used as a ‘freedom fighter’ by Pakistan in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Kohat is around 60 kilometres south of Peshawar, accessible by the Kohat Pass. In 1901, the population was 217,865, showing an increase of 11 per cent in the decade. By 1998 (the time Pakistan conducted its most recent census) it had swelled to 1.4 million. It has a Hindko-speaking Paracha community, closely allied to the madrassas of Javed Ibrahim Paracha, the so-called ‘al Qaeda lawyer’ with links to Lal Masjid in Islamabad. He was once a PML-N MNA and a JUI candidate but is now a defender of al Qaeda men arrested in Pakistan and has named his son Osama. Kohat is only nominally under Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s administrative controle, despite the fact that it is an important Pakistan Air Force base. The people there live under the twin administration of the Pakistani state and the Taliban, who are said to rule at night.

The same thing can be said about Hangu, where the Taliban exercise a lot of authority and complicate the city’s sectarian map. The sectarian distribution of Kohat has assisted in the leaning of some fanatics to allegiance to the Taliban who do not hesitate to target the Shia community in the entire region, up to Kurram Agency. The current leader of the Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, earned his notoriety as a killer of the Shia. Kohat city also has a monument to the first batch of al Qaeda prisoners — mostly Chechen — who were brought here as prisoners but were killed in an encounter with the Pakistan Army.

To give a glimpse of how Kohat is left at the mercy of the Taliban and the sectarian divide existing there, one will have to hark back to an interview Javed Ibrahim Paracha gave to a television channel on September 12, 2003. According to him: “After 9/11, Bulgarian and Chechen mujahideen fled from Afghanistan and came down to the Tribal Areas from where they came to Kohat where already 27 Arab mujahideen were in jail. They were the offspring of the Sahaba (companions of the Prophet — pbuh) and were Ahle Bait (from the family of the Prophet — pbuh).”

After the al Qaeda men were killed, according to him, their blood began to smell like perfume and was collected by the people of Kohat in bottles. Paracha then organised a jirga which built a monument to the ‘martyrs’ who had been killed.

It is in this environment that Pakistan has to fight the Taliban. The Kohat-Hangu region is close to Orakzai Agency where the army is in the process of concluding a praiseworthy operation, with the Taliban on the run. The latest attack — as pointed out by the army spokesman — is an indication of the discomfiture the terrorists are experiencing.

In the coming days, more trouble could be in the offing because of Muharram, when the martyrdom of Imam Hussain is remembered and observed. Already the Shia community of Kohat has had to give up the celebration of Nauruz — a traditional festival — and now might be exposed to more suicide bombings by the Taliban on the run in neighbouring tribal agencies. There is no doubt that the problem of terrorism will be tackled in the long run but, at this point in time, Kohat remains vulnerable because the writ of the state there is weak, if not occasionally non-existent.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 10th, 2010.

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