Are Taliban Leaders Fighting Among Themselves?

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(l. to r.): A. Majeed / AFP / Getty; Ishtiaq Mehsud / AP

As far as the U.S. and Pakistan are concerned, there is now "credible evidence" that Baitullah Mehsud, the murderous head of the Pakistani Taliban, was killed in a CIA-operated drone strike last Wednesday, Aug. 5. Conclusive proof, said Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik, could come only from a DNA test on what remains of Mehsud (the drone strike reportedly severed his body in half). However, the remote village in South Waziristan where the attack took place is dominated by the Taliban and other militants, difficult to access.

And that inaccessibility has made the details of the battle to become the successor to Mehsud equally hard to pin down. Through the weekend, speculation has been rife that Hakimullah Mehsud and Wali-ur-Rehman, two Taliban leaders tipped for the top slot, turned their guns on each other as the power struggle within turned bloody. Malik insisted that one of the men was dead. General James Jones, President Barack Obama's National Security Adviser, said that signs of internal dissension were encouraging. But on Sunday, Wali-ur-Rehman called a Reuters reporter familiar with his voice to assert that he was still among the living and to deny any rift, claiming that Baitullah was also alive. On Monday, Hakimullah, also speaking to reporters who said they recognized his voice, made the same assertion.

Baitullah Mehsud, however, has not surfaced to say he is alive, as he has done after previous claims of his death. Many analysts say it is only natural that the Taliban would deny Mehsud's death as they struggle among themselves to decide on a new leader. Replacing Mehsud will not be easy for the Taliban. Under his charismatic and fearsome leadership, at least 13 separate and disparate groups were able to forge a fractious but powerful alliance. If Mehsud is gone, that alliance is likely to fracture. His replacement will determine the new direction of the Pakistani Taliban: it may fall under the greater influence of al-Qaeda, concentrate on fighting in Afghanistan, continue fighting chiefly in Pakistan or break up into small, rival groups.

Interior Minister Malik warned on Monday, Aug. 10, that al-Qaeda is trying to install its own "chief terrorist" as the next leader while the Pakistani Taliban lies in disarray. "It will take some time for [the Pakistani Taliban] to regroup," he said. "The other thing which is a bit worrying is that al-Qaeda is getting grouped in the same place, and now they are trying to find out somebody to install him as the leader ..." Al-Qaeda has long wielded influence over Mehsud and the Pakistani Taliban, using the tribal areas along the Afghan border as a hiding place and trading funds and training for scores of suicide bombers prepared to carry out its attacks.

It is unlikely that al-Qaeda will install one of its own members in the leadership slot. "All Taliban groups have links with al-Qaeda," says Amir Rana, an expert on Islamist militancy. "But at the same time, they want to keep their identity independent. They don't mix in the structure of the Taliban. They want to avoid any confrontation with them. They want to stay there, use their facilities for training while providing ideological leadership." The Pashtun-dominated Taliban are also unlikely to accept an Arab jihadist as their leader.

Another possible direction is for the group's new leadership to concentrate its fire west of the border, in Afghanistan. "Baitullah was the one person who was focusing [most] of his attention on Pakistan and trying to create a disturbance here rather than Afghanistan," says Shaukat Qadir, a retired army brigadier turned analyst. "His followers will probably shift focus back to Afghanistan. This is one of the reasons why he lost support among his own tribesmen."

That shift could come about if rival Waziri militant groups isolate the Taliban's Mehsud group and seize control for themselves. Mehsud had notoriously clashed with Waziri commanders Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan and Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan, who, unlike Mehsud, have focused on mounting crossborder attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. When Mehsud assumed the leadership of the Pakistan Taliban in late 2007, Bahadur had been one of his closest rivals. "This will be an opportunity for the Wazir tribe to take back its position in the Taliban," says Rana.

A focus on Afghanistan may also suit another powerful commander in the region, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has influence with the Pakistani Taliban. As the head of the Haqqani network, the son of mujahedin leader Jalaluddin Haqqani has used his madrassas in Waziristan to mount vicious attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Similarly, Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, may intervene to back one of the men in contention. Aftab Sherpao, Pakistan's former Interior Minister, says Omar's support was crucial to Mehsud's ambitions when the Pakistani Taliban was formed.

A third option is for the Pakistani Taliban's leadership to pass to one of its leaders farther north in the tribal belt. Maulvi Faqir Mohammed, who had been leading the Taliban in the Bajaur tribal agency, has been named as a possible, albeit unlikely, successor. Like Bahadur, he was a contender when Mehsud assumed the leadership of the group. In 2008, after his cohorts faced a steamrolling military offensive, he became the beneficiary of a peace deal with Islamabad.

But for the moment, the apparent death of Mehsud and the infighting among his loyalists has opened a small window of opportunity for Pakistan. "It has to be more proactive and not let the new leader establish himself," says Sherpao, the former Interior Minister. "The government will have to try and win over some of the tribes who were too afraid to challenge the militants." Over the weekend, elders from the Mehsud tribe announced they were prepared to fight the Taliban if they received government backing. That challenge, in the form of a local tribal militia, is already paying off against other Taliban militants to the north of the Swat valley. In Waziristan, it may succeed where previous military operations have failed.