Taliban debunk claim of battle at shura meeting in South Waziristan
Hakeemullah Mehsud, left. AFP photo.
The Pakistani government's claim that two Taliban commanders said to be vying for control of the Taliban killed each other during a meeting has fallen apart after both commanders spoke to the media over the past two days.
Last Friday, Rehman Malik, Pakistan's Interior Minister, claimed that Hakeemullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman Mehsud, both said to be the front runners to take control of the Taliban in the event of Baitullah Mehsud's death, were killed during a shootout at the Pakistani Taliban's shura meeting in South Waziristan.
Since Malik's claim, Hakeemullah has spoken to the media two times, including today. Waliur spoke to the media yesterday, and Noor Sayed, another senior Taliban deputy, told the media the shootout never happened.
Hakeemullah spoke to Geo News today and confirmed he was "safe, hale, and hearty". He also denied that Baitullah Mehsud was killed during the Aug. 5 airstrike that killed his wife, and challenged Malik to prove that Baitullah had been killed.
Hakeemullah claimed Baitullah would release a videotape sometime today.
Waliur spoke to Reuters on Sunday and also denied that a succession meeting had taken place.
"There are no differences," Waliur told Reuters. "There was no fighting. We both are alive, and there was no special shura meeting."
Waliur also said both Baitullah and Hakeemullah were alive, and that Hakeemullah would call the media to confirm. "He definitely will call you and tell you everything," Waliur said.
Maulana Noor Sayed, a Taliban senior deputy, told the media on Sunday that the supposed gunfight between Hakeemullah and Waliur never occurred.
"As Baitullah's deputy and in his absence, I called and presided the shura meeting," Sayed told the media. "No firing took place there."
Sayed maintained that the meeting had been held to discuss the Taliban's strategy to fight the Pakistani military, and said Baitullah could not attend because of his illness.
"Our area is under attack," Sayed told the military. "There is a siege of the Mehsud territory from four sides. Bombing by jetfighters is being carried out and the US drones are attacking our homes. We need to prepare a strategy for defending our land."
Baitullah is known to have diabetes and seeks medical treat for his condition. In the fall of 2008, rumors abounded that Baitullah had died of complications from diabetes. He later appeared at a celebration announcing his marriage to his second wife, who was killed in last week's airstrike.
Other Taliban leaders, such as military commander Qari Hussain Mehsud, aide Qari Hidayatullah, and spokesman Maulvi Omar, as well as Mehsud tribal leader Malik Hassanuddin and Islamist politician Maulana Merajuddin, all said that Baitullah survived the strike.
"He has not received even a scratch on his body," Hassanuddin told the media on Saturday.
Pakistani government, Baitullah's rivals insist shoot occurred and Baitullah is dead
Despite Hakeemullah and Waliur's surfacing in the media, Malik and a few Taliban rivals to Baitullah continue to claim that the two Taliban leaders clashed and that the Taliban leadership is in turmoil. Malik challenged Hakeemullah, Waliur, and Baitullah to provide evidence they are alive, but Malik also ignored the former two leaders' statements to the press.
Turkistan Bhittani, a leader within the Abdullah Mehsud Group, an anti-Baitullah Taliban group, maintains that the Taliban shura meeting ended in bloodshed and that Qari Hussain and 40 Taliban fighters were killed in the airstrike that killed Baitullah. Bhittani made the statement after Qari Hussain had spoken to the media.
The Abdullah Mehsud Group has allied with the Pakistani government to battle Baitullah for control of South Waziristan. Baitullah had its former leader, Zainuddin, murdered by his own bodyguard in late June. The Abdullah Mehsud Group has been in disarray since that incident. On Aug. 7, Baitullah's Taliban forces killed 18 members of the Abdullah Mehsud Group after hundreds of Taliban fighters descended on the group's offices in Tank.
Abdullah Mehsud Group likely source of gunfight-at-the-shura rumor
A US intelligence official who closely follows the situation in Pakistan's tribal areas believes the Pakistani government is being fed bad intelligence from the Abdullah Mehsud Group.
"If you track Malik's statements, they nearly mirror what Bhittani and other leaders in the [Abdullah Mehsud] group have said," the official told The Long War Journal. "Right now, given who has spoken out, the Pakistani government's case for the shootout and Baitullah's death looks real bad."
"The Abdullah Mehsud Group and the Pakistani government have a vested interest in sowing discord in the Taliban ranks at the moment," the official said. "Perhaps they are trying to flush leaders out in the open. Maybe it will work, though I doubt it."
The Pakistani government has a poor track record in reporting on the deaths of senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders. The government has wrongly reported the deaths of 10 senior al Qaeda and 8 senior Taliban leaders since 2006. Some have been reported dead several times [see LWJ report, Analysis: Pakistani claims regarding Baitullah's death, shura clash, are suspect for the full list].