The Pakistani military killed 45 civilians and extremists during airstrikes that targeted a meeting, or jirga, in the Tirah Valley in Khyber. The jirga was organized by a local tribe and was attended by members of the Lashkar-e-Islam, a Taliban-like group that operates in Khyber.
“They first hit a house where our people were present and minutes later, when people got there to remove bodies from the rubble, jets attacked again,” a Lashkar-e-Islam fighter told Dawn. The Pakistani military confirmed it carried out the strike but said it targeted terrorists, not civilians.
Today’s strike took place just one day after Pakistani strike aircraft hit a “private prison” in the Tirah Valley which was also operated by Lashkar-e-Islam. Ten of the prisoners, who were being held for ransom, and two Lashkar-e-Islam fighters were killed in the airstrike.
The Taliban have been active in Khyber, attacking both Pakistani security outposts and NATO supply columns moving through the region. On March 31, the Taliban killed six Frontier Corps troops during an assault on a military outpost in the Bara region. The Frontier Corps repelled the attack and claimed to have killed 20 Taliban fighters.
Attacks on NATO supply convoys moving through Khyber have also increased lately. On April 5, the Taliban torched eight NATO fuel tankers in Khyber. Two days later, the Taliban bombed another fuel tanker.
The Khyber Pass is NATO’s main conduit for supplies into Afghanistan; an estimated 70 percent of NATO’s supplies move through this strategic crossing point. The Taliban forced the Khyber Pass to be shut down seven times between September 2007 and April 2008 due to attacks.
The Lashkar-e-Islam and other groups, such as Hakeemullah Mehsud’s branch of the Pakistani Taliban, have gained power in Khyber despite a series of military operations that began in the summer of 2007 which were supposedly designed to relieve Taliban pressure on neighboring Peshawar. A total of five military offensives have failed to dislodge the terror groups.
The leader of Lashkar-e-Islam, Mangal Bagh, claims that he does not support the Taliban. But Bagh has carved out a Taliban-like state in his territory in Khyber, and sends forces across the border to attack US and Afghan troops in Nangarhar province. In November 2008, the US military attacked Taliban forces in the Tirah Valley after they retreated across the border from Nangarhar in Afghanistan. US strike aircraft and artillery killed seven Taliban fighters during the hot pursuit.
Both the Lashkar-e-Islam and the Taliban are known to operate bases and training camps in the Tirah Valley, as well as in the Bara and Jamrud regions in Khyber. These safe havens enable these terror groups to launch attacks inside Pakistan as well across the border in Afghanistan.
Khyber has become a hub of Taliban and al Qaeda activity since the Pakistani military launched an operation in the Mehsud tribal areas in South Waziristan in October 2009. Taliban forces have also relocated to the Bara region and the Tirah Valley in the Khyber [see LWJ report, “Taliban escape South Waziristan operation”]. Tariq Afridi, a powerful Taliban commander based in Darra Adam Khel, has taken control of Taliban operations in Khyber.