The South Asia Channel

Taliban Turf Wars Block Peace

Pakistan's efforts to achieve a peace deal with the outlawed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have exposed fissures in the militant network, which uses the country's North Waziristan tribal district as its headquarters. 

Speaking to reporters in Peshawar on February 25, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province police chief Nasir Khan Durrani named nine TTP groups operational in the province. Earlier, Pakistan Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan had estimated the number of militant groups at 37.

While the Pakistani government has started negotiations with TTP ‘proper,' many other militant groups carrying out operations in the name of Taliban are not happy with talks for numerous reasons such as group and individual interests, tribal affiliations, sectarian views, affiliation with foreign militants such as al-Qaeda and of course the sources of finance, which include extortion, kidnappings for ransom, and profits from smuggling routes.

Pakistan's largest city of Karachi is one such example.  In Karachi, four TTP factions are fighting a turf war over extortion and protection money in different neighborhoods of the city. They include Taliban from Mohmand loyal to Abdul Wali alias Omar Khalid, militants from Swat supporting the current Taliban chief Fazlullah, and the two factions of Waziristan Taliban of Hakimullah Mehsud and Wali Rahman Mehsud groups.

The fighting between the Hakimullah and Wali Rahman groups is serious and has claimed several lives from both sides over the collection of protection money in different areas of the city.

Apart from their disputes over monetary issues, some groups that have close links with foreign militants such as al-Qaeda, want to topple the Pakistani government. The killing of the 23 paramilitary personnel in mid-February at a time when the Pakistani authorities were expecting a ceasefire with the North Waziristan-based TTP leaders is considered an effort by one such group led by Omar Khalid Khorasani, whose real name is Abdul Wali, to derail the peace talks.

The journalist-turned militant leader, Khurasani, heads the Taliban in Mohmand tribal district and has been a vocal supporter of al-Qaeda and its founder Osama bin Ladin. Though apparently affiliated with the TTP, Khorasani continues to engage in activities independent of TTP in Mohmand tribal district and adjacent border areas of Afghanistan.

In 2013, Khorasani categorically stated his position about peace talks with the government by warning that "if any Taliban commander strikes a deal with the government, they will not back it, and the commander will have to bear the cost." 

As recently as February 9, a new militant group by the name of Ahrar-ul-Hind circulated an Urdu-language statement showing its opposition to the peace talks with Pakistani government. The statement said the group was supporting the TTP for "its struggle for sharia," but now that the TTP has started peace talks with the government, they will independently continue their armed struggle.

The same group claimed responsibility for the March 3 attack on Islamabad session courts that killed a court judge among 11 and injured dozens more, including several lawyers.

Well-placed sources told this writer that the current TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah, who is believed to be hiding on the Afghanistan side of the Pak-Afghan border, is averse to peace talks with the Pakistani government. The source said Fazlullah has adopted a meaningful silence while using Omar Khalid Khorasani as his mouthpiece.

Another source said the TTP commanders for Kurram, Orakzai and Mohmand tribal agencies and the cities of Peshawar, Swat, and Hangu are against peace talks with the government while those commanders responsible for the cities of Rawalpindi, Kohat, Mardan, Swabi, and the South Waziristan tribal district are in favor of the dialogue and ceasefire.

As the Taliban and government negotiators were busy working out a peace deal, a little known militant group in the name of ‘Major Mast Gul brigade' claimed several attacks in the cities of Peshawar and Kohat. A caller introducing himself as the spokesman for the group told reporters in Peshawar that they will continue to carry out attacks even if the government and TTP achieve a peace deal.

The turf war, among different Taliban factions and sub-groups is even fiercer in North Waziristan, the headquarters of the militant network. The group led by Khan Said, alias Sajna, favors talks with the government while loyalists of late Hakimullah Mehsud mostly oppose a peace deal.

"The Mehsud Taliban are also not happy with the appointment of Mullah Fazlullah, who does not belong to Waziritan, as the TTP chief after the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud," said local journalist Sailab Mehsud, who  is from the same Mehsud tribe but not related to any of the TTP commanders.

Sailab said divisions among the two major groups have left many mid-level commanders in a quandary to decide who is leading the real TTP. Over the past two months, several incidents of firing and killing of Taliban members from one group or another have also been reported from North Waziristan.

In one such incident, unidentified armed men, driving a double cab vehicle with tinted glass killed the top ranking TTP commander Asmatullah Shaheen on February 24 near Miranshah, headquarters of North Waziristan. No one claimed responsibility for the killing, but the TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid accused the Pakistani intelligence agencies of killing Shaheen.

Shaheen was elevated as interim chief of the TTP after the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud in a drone strike last year. He was chief of the Taliban advisory body (Shura) that decided Mullah Fazlullah, a non-Mehsud commander, as Hakimullah Mehsud's successor. He was also one of the key Taliban commanders who met the two-member delegation who visited North Waziristan in February 2014 to discuss the possibility of ceasefire with the government and start negotiations.

The Khyber-Agency-based Lashkar-e-Islam (LI), which has never been part of the TTP, also remains outside the peace dialogue. The LI has been pushed back from its stronghold of Bara, located a few kilometers from Pesahwar, but retaining safe havens in the remote and strategic Tirah Valley and launching attacks on their opponents from time to time.  

In the past, LI and the TTP Tariq Afridi faction have been attacking each other. In one such attack, the Tariq Afridi faction claimed killing the LI chief Mangal Bagh. However, the report was rejected by LI. Since then, both Mangal Bagh and Tariq Afridi are out of the news headlines in Pakistan.

Other sectarian groups such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba and its armed wing Lashkar-e-Jhangvi did not show opposition to peace talks with the TTP, yet it is unlikely that they will cease attacks on Shia minorities even if the Pakistani government and Taliban achieve a peace deal. Similarly, the Kashmir-focused jihadi groups and the groups fighting in Afghanistan such as the Haqqani Network will not dismantle their networks even if the government and the TTP achieve a peace deal.

The March 3 attack on the Islamabad session court just two days after the TTP announcement of an unconditional cease-fire with the Pakistani government gives credence to the notion that the Taliban is a loose network of splinters and sub-groups many of whom do not abide by the decisions of the central command.

While such divisions among militant groups may be a reason for the Pakistani authorities to rejoice when combating them militarily, the large number of distinct and competing armed actors shows that putting an end to violent jihadist and religious extremism through dialogue will remain a distant dream even if the government and TTP agree on a peace deal.


Daud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist currently working as a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. He has worked with Pakistan's English dailies The News and Daily Times, Afghanistan's Pajhwok Afghan News, and has written for the Christian Science Monitor and London Sunday Times.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.