A senior Taliban commander has challenged Hakeemullah Mehsud’s appointment as the new leader of the Pakistani Taliban.
Waliur Rehman Mehsud, the leader of a powerful faction of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, claimed he has been selected to lead by Baitullah Mehsud, the group’s former leader who is thought to have been killed in an Aug. 5 US Predator airstrike. Waliur made his statements in two interviews with the press over the past several days.
“Baitullah Mehsud has deputed the organization’s affairs to me two months back,” Waliur told Geo News today.
On Saturday, Waliur said that a new leader “would be chosen within five days,” during an interview with the Associated Press. Waliur did not reference the shura meeting that reportedly appointed Hakeemulah as Baitullah’s replacement.
Waliur’s statements are at odds with Faqir Mohammed’s pronouncement on Aug. 21 that Hakeemullah Mehsud was chosen to lead the Taliban after the shura majlis, or executive council, of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan met in Arakzai late last week. Faqir claimed that the decision to appoint Hakeemullah as Baitullah’s successor was unanimous among the 42 shura members present at the meeting.
Taliban leaders vie for control
Although there is disagreement among the Taliban over the appointment of a new leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, US intelligence officials do not believe the Taliban have come to blows.
“While its clear that there is disagreement within the Taliban over who should wear Baitullah’s crown, we have yet to see any evidence of this power struggle resulting in open fighting between the factions,” a US intelligence official told The Long War Journal.
“The reports from Pakistan on infighting between the various groups are exaggerated or taken completely out of context,” another official said.
“Many if not all of the clashes reported have nothing to do with infighting within the TTP, the official said, referring to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan. “These clashes are part of existing rivalries or have nothing to do with the leadership struggle itself.”
A military officer likened the reports of Taliban infighting to the reports of a Taliban turn against al Qaeda in South Waziristan during 2007 and 2008, when Uzbek fighters loyal to the Islamic Jihad Union were ejected from Nazir’s tribal areas after clashes. The Pakistani government touted this as a significant turn and portrayed Nazir as an anti-al Qaeda champion despite his declaring loyalty to Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. In reality, the fighting between Nazir and the Uzbeks was the result of a local turf war between the two groups. The issue was settled when senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, including Mullah Dadullah and Siraj Haqqani, mediated between the two groups.
A look at the events that have been used by the Pakistani and US governments to highlight the Taliban infighting appears to confirm the officials’ observations. Two of the clashes were part of a longtime Taliban rivalry between Baitullah’s forces and the Abdullah Mehsud Group, which is not part of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.
Two of the clashes appear to have been Baitullah’s and Nazir’s forces. But Nazir is not part of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan and has little influence over who will replace Baitullah.
Two of the events – the execution of Baitullah’s purported driver and the unconfirmed execution of Baitullah’s father-in-law – are related to Taliban “housecleaning,” as the Taliban often purge their ranks of suspected spies after Predator strikes.
One clash was between two local Taliban factions that had nothing to do with the leadership succession. Another clash consisted of the Taliban’s attacking a tribal “peace committee.” And the last clash – the purported gunfight between Waliur and Hakeemullah the day after Baitullah was reportedly killed – appears to have never taken place.
“We shouldn’t confuse the natural internal strife that likely occurs after a group’s leader is killed or incapacitated and a new leader must be chosen, with an internal war,” a US military intelligence officer told The Long War Journal.
List of events said to be proof the Taliban is battling over Baitullah’s throne
The ‘battle at the shura meeting’
Immediately after the Aug. 5 Predator airstrike that was thought to have killed Baitullah, the Pakistani government claimed that the Taliban shura, or executive council, met in Ladha in South Waziristan to choose a new leader.
The Pakistani government claimed that Hakeemullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman, the two Taliban commanders said to be vying for control of the Taliban, killed each other during the meeting.
But both Hakeemullah and Waliur spoke to the media several times after the report and confirmed they were alive. Several Taliban leaders said no such clash had taken place as there was no meeting to choose Baitullah’s successor.
The Taliban eventually did hold a shura meeting late last week and chose Hakeemullah as the leader, although Waliur does dispute the outcome. The Taliban are insisting that Baitullah is alive but is suffering from an illness that prevents him from performing his duties at the chief of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan. The Pakistani government is still maintaining, however, that the battle took place and has claimed that Hakeemullah is dead.
Analysis: While it is difficult to know what really happened, the evidence indicates that no such meeting took place, and hence no such shootout took place. Both Waliur and Hakeemullah are alive. It is unlikely the Taliban called a shura so quickly after the airstrike (one day’s notice). And it is equally unlikely the shura meeting was held in South Waziristan, given that Baitullah was targeted there just one day prior.
Baitullah’s ‘driver’ executed for treason
On Aug. 7, the Taliban in the Arakzai tribal agency executed a Taliban fighter named Muhammad Qasim. Reports indicated that Qasim was Baitullah’s driver, but the Taliban denied this. According to a Taliban spokesman in Arakzai, Qasim was tried by a Taliban court in Arakzai for “spying to facilitate the first-ever drone attack in Arakzai Agency on the house of a militant commander Maulvi Gul Nazir.” The attack took place on April 2.
Analysis: The Taliban routinely kill tribesmen whom they believe have provided intelligence to the US or Pakistan. It is unclear if Qasim was indeed Baitullah’s driver (Baitullah had several drivers) and it does not appear he was present in South Waziristan on Aug. 5. The timing of his execution is suspicious. But this is not evidence of an internal feud.
Baitullah vs. Bhittani I
On Aug. 7, just two days after Baitullah was thought to have been killed in a Predator airstrike, forces loyal to him attacked those of Haji Turkistan Bhittani, a leader in the Abdullah Mehsud Group and a rival of Baitullah, in Tank. More than 200 of Baitullah’s fighters attacked offices run by Bhittani’s forces; 18 fighters from both sides were reported killed.
Analysis: The fighting between Baitullah’s forces and the Abdullah Mehsud Group has been ongoing since well before the Aug. 5 Predator strike that is believed to have killed Baitullah. The Abdullah Mehsud Group is not part of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, so this is not an internal battle for succession. Bhittani has been sowing rumors that are designed to incite strife in the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.
Taliban attack a ‘peace committee’ in Mohmand
On Aug. 9, Taliban forces, likely under the command of Mohmand Taliban leader Omar Khalid, attacked a local “peace committee.” The peace committee leader and three others were killed along with 10 Taliban fighters. “Sources said that the dead peace committee chief had given shelter to several defecting members of defunct Tehrik-e-Taliban [Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan],” The News reported.
Analysis: The clash has nothing to do with any internal turmoil within the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan. In fact, the Taliban routinely attack such peace committees, which are designed to foment local opposition to Taliban encroachment.
The Arakzai Taliban turf battle
On Aug. 11, two Taliban sub-commanders loyal to Hakeemullah Mehsud battled in the Arakzai tribal agency. Twenty-one fighters from both sides were killed during the fighting.
The fighting was between two Taliban leaders who sought to control a disputed region. “Independent sources said that both Sakhi Hafiz and Ziaur Rehman wanted to control the Aakhel checkpost, claiming that it was in their territory,” Dawn reported.
Analysis: While the Pakistani government touted this clash as one of the primary examples of strife between feuding factions within the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, the Dawn article makes it quite clear this was a local Taliban turf war. These turf wars are all too common between rival Taliban leaders.
Baitullah vs. Bhittani II
On Aug. 12, Baitullah’s forces attacked forces loyal to Haji Turkistan Bhittani in Tank. Bhittani claimed that 1,000 of Baitullah’s fighters attacked and that nearly 100 of Baitullah’s men were killed after the Pakistani military, allied with Bhittani, launched air and artillery strikes. Bhittani’s claim was later proven to be exaggerated; sources said only 14 Taliban fighters on both sides were killed.
Analysis: Like the Aug. 7 fighting between Baitullah and Bhittani’s forces, the clash has nothing to do with within the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.
Nazir’s convoy ambushed in South Waziristan
On Aug. 16, an unknown group attacked a convoy of Taliban fighters loyal to Mullah Nazir as it traveled through Mehsud territory in the Ladha region. Seventeen of Nazir’s fighters were killed during the ambush, which was described by one of Nazir’s spokesmen as “so sudden and quick that none of our men fired back.”
The blame was immediately placed on forces loyal to Baitullah, but one of Baitullah’s spokesmen denied any involvement. A spokesman for Nazir later said it could not confirm who was behind the attack and would not point fingers at any group.
“We cannot say whether it was Mehsud’s men or the government that was behind this attack,” Abdul Haq, a spokesman for Nazir told AFP.
Analysis: It would be unwise for Baitullah’s fighters to attack Nazir’s forces, given that the military has an operation to blockade South Waziristan and Baitullah’s group is in flux while choosing a new leader. Even if Baitullah’s followers conducted this attack, there is little chance that it is related to any turmoil within the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan. Nazir has no influence on naming Baitullah’s potential successors. Nazir is not a member of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan; he is allied with Baitullah in the United Mujahideen Council along with Hafiz Gul Bahadar.
Taliban tribal leader killed in ambush
On Aug. 23, Malik Sarwar Khan, a senior tribal leader who supports the Taliban, was killed along with four of his relatives when their car was shot up by unknown “gunmen.” Khan is a Mehsud tribesman and his vehicle was ambushed in Wana, a stronghold of Mullah Nazir’s Wazir tribe. No group took credit for the attack. It is unclear if the ambush was a result of enmity between the two Taliban factions or possibly related to an unreported tribal feud. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Analysis: Like the Aug. 16 ambush, fighting between Nazir and Baitullah would have little to do with the choosing of Baitullah’s successor, as Nazir is not a member of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.
Baitullah’s father-in-law reported killed
According to Pakistani intelligence officials, Ikramuddin Mehsud and three close relatives were arrested, interrogated, and executed by the Taliban. This has not been confirmed. Ikramuddin is a senior tribal leader and the father-in-law of Baitullah. His home was struck in the Aug. 5 Predator attack. Ikramuddin is said to facilitate meetings between various Taliban groups as well as between the Taliban and the tribes.
Analysis: Like the execution of Baitullah’s purported driver, the execution of Ikramuddin and relatives, if it did indeed occur, is more of an indicator of Taliban housecleaning, not Taliban strife.
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