Haji Turkistan Bhittani.
A Taliban leader being propped up by the Pakistani government as an alternative to the existing leadership has vowed to continue attacks against US and Coalition forces in Helmand province in Afghanistan.
Haji Turkistan Bhittani, a leader in the Abdullah Mehsud Group based in the South Waziristan region, said he would take on NATO forces in southern Afghanistan after defeating his Taliban enemies in South Waziristan. Bhittani claimed to have 5,000 fighters under his command.
“After dealing with my opponents in South Waziristan, I will go to Helmand to reorganize my leader Abdullah Mehsud’s group against foreign forces,” Bhittani told Pajhwok Afghan News. Bhittani reaffirmed his loyalty to overall Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
Bhittani and the Abdullah Mehsud Group are being backed by the Pakistani army and government as an alternative to Baitullah Mehsud’s Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.
Bhittani said he would reinitiate the fight in Helmand after defeating Hakeemullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman, two senior Taliban lieutenants loyal to Baitullah.
“They are neither Taliban nor Muslims, but earning Islam a bad name,” Bhittani said, referring to Hakeemullah and Waliur. “I am also a Talib, but unlike Baitullah, Hakeemullah and others who only kill Muslims and do nothing for Islam.”
Although Bhittani denies it, the Pakistani government has provided weapons and money to the Abdullah Mehsud Group to battle Baitullah’s forces. Pakistani security forces provided security at recruiting centers and during the funeral of former leader Zainuddin Mehsud, who was killed by one of Baitullah’s assassins.
The military has also provided air and artillery support to the Abdullah Mehsud Group during engagements with Baitullah’s fighters.
Elements within Pakistan’s government, military, and intelligence establishment view Taliban fighters like Bhittani as ‘good Taliban’ as they do not seek to overthrow the Pakistani state but instead direct activities against Coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Bhittani the source of Taliban discord rumors
Since the Aug. 5 US airstrike in South Waziristan that is purported to have killed Baitullah, his wife, and seven Taliban fighters, Bhittani has been floating rumors about internal discord within the Taliban.
The Pakistani government and US officials, including General Jim Jones and special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, have insisted Baitullah was killed in the strike, but no evidence has been presented to prove it. The Taliban have denied Baitullah is dead and said a video would be released to prove he is alive.
Bhittani claimed that Qari Hussain Mehsud, another senior Taliban commander, and 40 of his followers were killed during the strike. Qair Hussain later spoke to the media and dispelled the claim that he was killed.
Bhittani has insisted Baitullah is dead and floated a story about a gunfight at a Taliban shura meeting between Hakeemullah and Waliur. Bhittani insisted both men were dead but they later spoke to the media and denied a meeting to choose Baitulllah’s successor even took place.
Bhittani also claimed that his fighters repelled a Taliban assault on his territory in South Waziristan. He claimed his fighters killed more than 90 of Baitullah’s followers, but independent reports put the number killed at 14, most of them his own fighters.
And just yesterday, Bhittani floated a rumor that South Waziristan Taliban commander Mullah Nazir was killed in an ambush that also killed 17 of his followers. Baitullah’s forces are said to have conducted the attack, but the group denied carrying out the ambush. Mullah Nazir’s spokesman said that the group is reserving judgment on who may have carried out the attack.
Bhittani’s attempts to sow discord in Baitullah’s ranks is an effort to grab power, US intelligence officials told The Long War Journal.
“Frankly, it is the only way he [Bhittani] can rise in the ranks,” a senior US military intelligence official said. “He’s on the outside looking in; the Mehsud tribal leaders see him as a sellout to the Pakistani government as their tribesmen are under attack from the state.”
“Bhittani has no real support in South Waziristan,” another intelligence official said. “His claim that he has 5,000 fighters under arms is ludicrous. Many are skeptical of Bhittani and the rest of the Abdullah Mehsud Group for working with the same government that killed their former leader.”
Abdullah Mehsud was a senior South Waziristan Taliban leader who served time at the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba before being released in 2003. Abdullah immediately returned to lead Taliban forces in battle in Afghanistan. He was killed by Pakistani security forces during a shootout in the Zhob district in Baluchistan province in 2007.