This report from The Express Tribune claims that Hakeemullah Mehsud, the leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, is “isolated” and “losing control” of the terror group. The reasons given are as follows:
- Fazal Saeed Utezai (also known as Fazal Saeed Haqqani), a commander in Kurram, defected from the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.
- Shakirullah Shakir, a commander and spokesman of the Fedayeen-e-Islam, the Taliban’s suicide teams, was murdered in Miramshah.
- Pakistani intelligence officials said so.
While it is tempting to fall for such an optimistic report, if the recent past is any indication, then the report is wrong. First, there are some factual errors and problems with the report. As noted here, Fazal Saeed Utezai is not the overall leader of the Taliban in Kurram. Maulvi Noor Jamal, who is also known as Maulvi Toofan, leads the Taliban in Kurram. Fazal’s influence is clearly being inflated (by Fazal and his brother, who appear to be the primary drivers of the story). A week ago, Fazal commanded a couple of hundred fighters. Now, today, he commands more than a thousand.
Second, infighting between Taliban groups and the assassination of leaders is not at all uncommon. The fighting between the groups in Khyber and Arakzai mentioned in the article is commonplace in the tribal areas. With little effort, you can find instances of infighting within the Pakistani Taliban, even when it was at its height in power during the Swat takeover in 2008-2009. Hakeemullah’s forces have butted heads with Mullah Nazir’s troops in the past, but both still work together (Nazir shelters Hakeemullah’s forces as well as al Qaeda’s). The same goes for intra-Taliban assassinations. These actions are the outcome of the Taliban’s version of power politics.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, defections by Taliban groups from the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan are also nothing new. For the perfect example of this, look no further than the now-defunct Abdullah Mehsud Group. This Taliban subgroup, which was based in Dera Ismail Khan and Tank, was part of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan (which at the time was led by Baitullah Mehsud) before it defected during the summer of 2009 and sought the support of the Pakistani military. The media gleefully held up the Abdullah Mehsud Group as a viable alternative to the Taliban; it was portrayed as a tribal resistance force akin to Iraq’s Awakening movement. And the power, influence, and size of the Abdullah Mehsud Group was also exaggerated (at one point, the media claimed the group had 3,000 fighters, when in fact it had several hundred).
But it was all downhill from there. On June 23, 2009, Zainuddin Mehsud, the leader of the Abdullah Mehsud Group, was assassinated. His brother Misabhuddin took control but was quickly ousted by Ikhlas Khan Mehsud, who was then replaced by Turkistan Bhittani. Bhittani’s forces were routed in large clashes with Baitullah, even though Bhittani received artillery and other support from the Pakistani military. In September 2009, Bhittani was disarmed by the military and went into hiding. The Abdullah Mehsud Group quickly faded from the scene.
Ironically enough, the Abdullah Mehsud Group was held up by the media as an “anti-Taliban” group, when it was anything but. This notion was supported by the Pakistani military, despite the fact that the leaders of the Abdullah Mehsud Group vowed to conduct attacks in Afghanistan and swore fealty to Mullah Omar, the leader of the overall Taliban movement. So, in fact, the Pakistani military attempted to bring the Abdullah Mehsud Group back into its fold, by making it “good Taliban.”
And that is very likely what is happening with Fazal Saeed Utezai’s faction in Kurram (note that Fazal said he still wants to kill NATO forces in Afghanistan and impose Sharia there and in Pakistan, he just opposes suicide attacks against Pakistani civilians and the military). Now Fazal’s group may not meet the same fate as the Abdullah Mehsud Group, and his defection from the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan may weaken it, but it won’t weaken the overall Taliban movement.
What you are witnessing is a very cynical game by the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment to get wayward Taliban groups back into the fold.
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