June Issue 2014

By | Newsbeat National | Published 10 years ago

It isn’t surprising that the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has finally split as tribal rivalries, personality clashes and differences on strategy and tactics were pushing this conglomerate of militant factions into opposite directions.

Far more surprising is the fact that the TTP survived for so long. It has existed for six-and-a half years as an umbrella organisation of several groups of militants with diverse agendas and conflicting opinions, and had overcome huge setbacks such as the loss of its top commanders and the retreat from some of its strongholds in the past.

The TTP remained intact as long as it had strong leaders backed by committed fighters. Its founder, Baitullah Mehsud, made it a cohesive platform for militant groups operating not only in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), but also in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. He managed to bring together militants and breakaway factions earlier aligned with the anti-Shia Sipah-i-Sahaba as well as the Jaish-i-Muhammad, Harkatul Ansar and others. Veterans of the Afghan jihad and jihadis from Kashmir, along with various strands of the Punjabi Taliban, also joined the TTP to coordinate their efforts to pursue a range of broader objectives through the use of force.

When Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a US drone strike in August 2009, his successor Hakimullah Mehsud proved to be a powerful emir of the TTP. He kept the TTP intact and even made compromises for the sake of his organisation, by allowing his rival Waliur Rehman Mehsud to head the chapter in the organisation’s South Waziristan stronghold. However, the situation changed when Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in another drone strike on November 1, 2013 and the leadership passed on to a non-Mehsud emir, Maulana Fazlullah. Defeated in the military operation in Swat and the rest of Malakand division in early 2009 and forced to flee to Afghanistan along with his men to save their lives, Fazlullah was handicapped by the fact that he had to lead the Pakistan-based TTP from his sanctuaries located outside Pakistan. He was unable to enforce his command and keep an eye on some of his powerful and head-strong commanders. His absence meant that he was no more than a distant and nominal head of the TTP, as the decision-making process was increasingly and collectively controlled by the central shura and some of the more powerful commanders began defying the emir.

One such commander was Khan Said, alias Sajna, who like other Taliban fighters, has taken an adopted name and prefers to be known as Khalid Mehsud. Having succeeded Waliur Rehman, who was also killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan, Sajna pursued his predecessor’s policy of preferring talks over fighting if such an opportunity arose. As one of his advisers told Newsline, their war is defensive rather than offensive and they consider it haram to take money from kafirs to fight fellow Muslims. His reference was clearly aimed at certain elements in the TTP who are allegedly on the payroll of foreign intelligence agencies, including Afghan and Indian, and have been bombing public places in Pakistan and causing untold bloodshed. It is no wonder then that Sajna’s close aide and spokesman, Azam Tariq, while recently announcing the separation from the TTP, levelled serious allegations against the leaders of the mainstream organisation and accused them of taking money from outsiders, bombing mosques and madrassas, running extortion rings and kidnapping people for ransom.

Though Sajna largely draws his support from the Mehsud tribe belonging to South Waziristan, his base of support is likely to extend to other tribes and factions, which are presently weighing options on whether to join him, or to continue to align with the Fazlullah-led TTP. His aides are confidently claiming that certain TTP factions in different parts of FATA and KP and most splinter groups of the Punjabi Taliban, would eventually flock to the breakaway Sajna-led organisation. They also claimed that Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban as well as the Haqqani network, were close to the Sajna faction, rather than the mainstream TTP because of a host of reasons, including past associations, ideological factors and strength in strategic places such as South Waziristan and North Waziristan. However, it remains to be seen how far the Sajna group’s expectations turn out to be true because the mainstream TTP spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, and Sajna’s rival faction led by Shahryar Mehsud, have been claiming that his decision to quit the TTP won’t make much of a difference.

EFC7240B-D387-4E38-A85C-9FAF6D80FF99_cx0_cy27_cw0_mw1024_s_n-174x300One major reason for Sajna to abandon the TTP seems to be the realisation that his Mehsud tribe had suffered the most in the past decade due to militancy and military operations and it was time that efforts were made to lessen its suffering through independent deal-making with the government. Many Mehsuds felt their interests would be compromised if they remained part of the TTP, as it had a wider anti-Pakistan agenda and its working and alliances had become suspicious. Mehsud tribal elders, clerics and commoners had apparently been urging the militants from their tribe to make wise decisions to protect the interests of the Mehsuds. The Mehsuds were displaced, almost to the last man and woman, in October 2009, as a result of the massive military operation against the militants in their part of South Waziristan. Not many have returned to their abandoned and damaged homes even after more than four-and-a-half years. The Mehsuds are now scattered all over the country, staying in rented houses and with relatives, not only in neighbouring Tank and Dera Ismail Khan districts, but also in Peshawar and in the south in Karachi and Hyderabad. Living a normal life and earning a livelihood has become a challenge as they are suspected of being militants or their sympathisers. Hundreds of Mehsud tribesmen are in the custody of the security, intelligence and law-enforcement agencies and their families are leading miserable lives in absence of bread-winners.

However, Sajna would have to first contend with his fellow Mehsud commander, Shahryar Mehsud, who is reportedly enjoying the support of some TTP factions, to establish his control over the tribe. His men have already eliminated scores of fighters loyal to the smaller Shehryar Mehsud faction during the past two months of fighting and could be on course to establishing supremacy in the Mehsud-populated tribal territory that isn’t in control of the security forces. Sajna would now be vying with the mainstream TTP for attracting support from the militants before he could negotiate a peace deal with the government. It is obvious that Sajna has always been keen to hold peace talks with the government and he would be in a better position to pursue this goal after splitting from the TTP, which was dominated by the anti-talks militant factions. This would fit in with the Nawaz Sharif government’s oft-repeated policy of holding talks with militant factions willing to do so and fighting those which want to continue the fight.

The fast-changing situation in FATA, particularly in the two Waziristans, could delay the resumption of the peace talks between the government and the militants. The talks broke down on March 26,  when the two sides met for the last time in a Taliban-controlled enclave in Orakzai Agency and failed to achieve any breakthrough. In fact, this was the first and last face-to-face meeting between the TTP central shura and the government negotiators because earlier, the two sides were negotiating indirectly through the committees set up by them to facilitate contacts. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has made it clear that the talks haven’t been called off, while the TTP — before it split apart — also didn’t rule out further negotiations, even though it lamented that the government was carrying out military operations against them and had yet to release a single Taliban prisoner or respond positively to its demand for withdrawing troops from Ladha and Makeen in South Waziristan and declaring it a ‘peace zone.’

PAKISTAN-UNREST-TALIBANThe latest development that could affect the overall security situation in North Waziristan and South Waziristan and cause delays in the peace talks is the announcement by the Hafiz Gul Bahadur-led non-TTP militant group to consider breaking its eight-year peace accord with the government in protest against the recent night-time airstrikes in North Waziristan in which a number of civilians, including women and children, were killed in their sleep. It also asked the people in North Waziristan to leave their homes and villages before June 10, as the government had decided to launch a military action, and migrate to Afghanistan instead of taking refuge in relief camps being set up in the neighbouring districts of KP.

The government has made no such announcement, but the airstrikes, troops’ deployment and reinforcement and frequent meetings between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief, General Raheel Sharif, has created an impression that plans for a military operation in North Waziristan are being finalised. The dramatic announcement by Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s shura prompted some families in North Waziristan’s Dattakhel sub-division, situated close to the Afghan border, to immediately cross over to Afghanistan’s Khost province and more could follow suit. This would create new challenges for Pakistan as the militants, too, would cross the border and use sanctuaries in Afghanistan, just like Fazlullah’s men who are based in the Afghan provinces of Nuristan and Kunar and launch attacks in Pakistani territory. Besides, the presence of Pakistani refugees in Afghanistan would be a source of embarrassment for Islamabad, as Pakistan is known as the place of refuge for displaced Afghans.

With so much happening on Pakistan’s volatile western border with Afghanistan, one isn’t sure what will happen next and whether talks will continue to take precedence over fighting.

This story was published in Newsline’s June 2014 issue.


Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.