Against the backdrop of controversial negotiations on the possible ceasefire and establishment of peace the Federal Government of Pakistan has been holding with the representatives of the Pakistani Taliban, an internecine feud broke out inside the latter. This resulted in armed clashes between a group led by Khan Said Sajna Mehsud and and the one led by Shehryar Mehsud in South Waziristan region, a part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), just on the border with Afghanistan.
The feud between the factions began a while ago, but now it has grown particularly acute. In recent weeks the clashes between the parties have resulted in dozens of casualties and destruction of the war infrastructure – training camps and hiding places. Among the possible reasons of this phenomenon: personal animosity, struggle for power, not excluding the difference of opinions over the peace talks with the government.
Names of the leaders of the both groups imply that they belong to a large Pashtun tribe Mahsud, that resides in South Waziristan. In late 2001, first groups that fought the American and British special forces in the framework of the anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan to support the Afghan rebels were formed by young men of this tribe. First militant groups of the Pakistani Taliban were assembled in South Waziristan, and the first three leaders were also of Mahsud origin. The first commander of this organization Nek Muhammad died in 2004. He was replaced by his fellow tribesman Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in August 2009 in South Waziristan. His position was taken by Hakimullah Masud, who like his predecessors fell (November 1, 2013) in a result of a US unmanned air strike. Later on Pakistani Taliban Shura considered three candidates for the position of a leader: Maulana Fazlullah, Hafiz Saeed Khan and Maulana Gul Zaman. On November 7, 2013 Maulana Fazlullah acquired the reins of power, previously was in command of Swat Taliban. Fazlullah is an ethnic Pashtun, but he’s not from the Mahsud tribe. Thus, for the first the tribal principle of succession of power in the Pakistani Taliban was broken.
Different Pakistani sources publish contradictory information on the size of the Pakistani Taliban. The estimates are that it is composed of about 100 militant group and governed by a united Shura (council). Over the years the Mahsud tribe has always been a chief supplier of new militants in the ranks of the movement, that fact alone, in the opinion of the members of the tribe, justifies its leading position among the other tribes of South Waziristan.
A chain of deaths of the Mahsud leaders provoked a struggle for power within the small militant groups of the Pakistani Taliban. Khan Said Sajna Mehsud sought to replace Hakimullah Masud after his death. For a long time he had been refusing to recognize Maulvi Fazalullah as the real ameer of the militant organisation. He’s still in his thirties be he has manged to acquire a tremendous influence among the militants, for example, he’s in controls of all the Taliban members in the country’s largest metropolis of Karachi. According to Pakistani press he’s mainly engaged in extortion. But Khan Said supports the peace process, and accordingly, the negotiations with the government.
His opponent, Shehryar Mehsud just like the former leader of the Pakistani Taliban Hakimullah Masud, is against any forms of negotiations. He supports the continuation of the armed struggle against the government forces and states that his forces will “continue fighting even after the signing of a peace agreement”. He has recently returned from Afghanistan, where he has been fighting for years together with Afghan militants against the International Security Assistance Force. But he was not alone on his trip back to South Waziristan, he brought along a military unit, the so-called Sheheryar group. He has repeatedly stated that he is entitled to leadership in the Pakistani Taliban, since he’s a member of the Mahsud tribe.
The members of the Shura in South Waziristan attempted to bring to reason the parties of the conflict, but their efforts are hopeless. Gunfight cease for a short while only to break out again. Analysts believe that the the internecine feuding in the Pakistani Taliban will grow more violent due to a number of reasons . One of them is that the armed groups are returning from Afghanistan and they will attempt conquesting “their” land in Pakistan.
The split in the Taliban movement is reducing the threat it poses to the government and the army. As a result – we are witnessing a steady decline in the number of Taliban attacks all across the country. The “divide and rule” principle had been previously applied by General Musharraf back in 2001 — 2002 when he succeeded in reaching an agreement with a number of groups of militants who fought against the army. Similar tactics was partially put in place in the spring of 2009, which also brought a certain degree of confusion in the terrorist ranks.
Currently, civil administration of Pakistan seeks ways to create conditions that would leave no other choice for the Taliban leaders other than participating in the process of peace negotiations. Authorities, primarily the military ones, are taking full advantage of the bloodshed among the militant groups. Special forces are fighting the organized Taliban units no more, instead the are hunting for scattered groups in different areas.
The Federal Government during the talks with the Taliban made certain concessions to Shura. On April 1, 2014 it decided to release 16 rebels. All the prisoners belonged to the tribe of Mahsud.
In the meantime armed clashes are sweeping South Waziristan region.
Natalia Zamarayeva, PhD, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Pakistan Institute of Oriental Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.