Taliban Reconciliation in Pakistan: Much Less Than Meets the Eye
News reports in the beginning of January rang alarm bells about a ground-breaking agreement between militant groups in northwest Pakistan initiated by Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Omar, brokered by the Haqqani Network, and encouraged by the Pakistani government. These reports suggested that the Taliban has formed a united front that has pledged to stop fighting amongst itself, desist from attacks on innocents and the practice of kidnapping-for-ransom, end attacks on the Pakistani state and instead focus all its efforts on fighting coalition forces in Afghanistan. The real import of this agreement, however, is far from clear. Despite grand announcements, gestures, and claims of reconciliation among warring Taliban factions, little is likely to change on the ground with respect to Taliban operations in Pakistan, and it is too soon to assess what effect, if any, the agreement will have on U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
The Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was formed in 2007 under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud to coalesce dozens of operationally disparate but ideologically aligned Taliban factions operating throughout Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Baitullah was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2009. After a brief leadership challenge, Hakimullah Mehsud took charge of the group, with Wali-ur-Rehman, his main rival in the succession to Baitullah, accepting the position of TTP deputy leader. The TTP has always been an umbrella group and, while Mehsud heads the group’s governing faction, its constituting blocs have always maintained operational autonomy and have, on occasion, clashed with each other. The al Qaeda-allied TTP’s main objective has always been the overthrow of the Pakistani state and the establishment of its own conception of Sharia law. The Pakistani state and its security forces have, since the group’s formation, been the primary targets of TTP violence. The TTP is the most active militant group operating inside and against the Pakistani state. Major Pakistani military operations in 2009 in Swat and South Waziristan, the TTP’s original center of operations, displaced and weakened the group, though it has since been able to reconstitute itself mainly in North Waziristan and parts of South Waziristan.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir are currently the main Taliban commanders in North and South Waziristan respectively. Although both have previously vacillated between fighting and cooperating with the Pakistani state, both currently adhere to peace deals with the government that give them free rein in their areas of influence, including the ability to launch attacks into Afghanistan, in exchange for not targeting the Pakistani state. Bahadur is of particular importance because he is a close ally of, and host to, the most dangerous remaining insurgent group in Afghanistan, the Haqqani Network. The Pakistani government has refused to conduct operations against Haqqani Network in North Waziristan despite considerable U.S. pressure to do so. According to several accounts, including testimony of retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, Pakistan actively assists the group as a state proxy inside Afghanistan.
The Pakistani military has continued to launch military operations against the elements of the TTP that still attack or threaten to attack the Pakistani state across the FATA throughout 2010 and 2011, although the operations have been of a more limited nature. The government has, in addition, sought to exacerbate fractures within the group by squeezing it financially as well as militarily, and by dividing the group by making peace deals with factions willing to end their campaign against the state and their allegiance to the TTP.
Following a meeting of top militant commanders on January 2, 2012, Taliban militants in North Waziristan distributed pamphlets dated December 31, 2011, announcing the establishment of a new committee known as the Shura-e-Muraqbah. The pamphlet, reportedly issued “after approval by [the] Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar,” described the purpose of the new group as being to “resolve differences among various militant factions, regroup them and investigate killings on spying charges and excesses, if any, committed by the Taliban against local people.” An excerpt from the announcement reads:
- All Mujahideen, local and foreigners, are informed that they should desist from killing and kidnapping for ransom innocent people and cooperate with this committee in curbing crimes. If any Mujahid is found involved in unjustified killings, crimes and other illegal activities he will be answerable to Shura-i-Murakbah and will be punished in accordance with the Shariah law.
According to militant sources, the Shura-e-Muraqbah brings together five major militant groups in Pakistan and is the culmination of a two month-long process seeking to reconcile murderous disputes among certain factions within the TTP. The group also pledged to “stop their fight against their own armed forces and instead focus their attention against the US-led forces in Afghanistan.”
TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud and his chief deputy, Wali-ur-Rehman, have reportedly been “at each other’s throats” recently, so much so that militant sources claim the two have even plotted to assassinate each other. According to reports, “Rehman had ordered his fighters to kill Mehsud because of his increasing closeness with al Qaeda and its Arab contingent.” Rehman is also reportedly involved in peace talks with the Pakistani state, to which Hakimullah is diametrically opposed. The increasingly acerbic relations between the two most important men in the TTP, the heightened indiscriminate activities of Taliban death squads in the tribal areas, the prevalence of unpopular kidnappings for ransom by the TTP and the continued focus of the group against the Pakistani state are apparently what forced high-level militants to stage an intervention.
A series of extraordinary meetings, reportedly at the urging of the Afghan Taliban head Mullah Omar, were first held on November 27 in Azam Warsak, South Waziristan and then repeated on December 11 in Datta Khel, North Waziristan. The conclaves brought together Hakimullah Mehsud, Wali-ur-Rehman, Maulvi Nazir, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, the operational head of the Haqqani Network. The meetings even reportedly received delegations directly from Mullah Omar and top al Qaeda leaders including Abu Yahya al Libi.
According to militant sources, Mullah Omar delivered messages to the congress pleading to those assembled to either “stop the ‘un-Islamic’ activities [such as the kidnappings and death squad killings] or to stop referring to him (Mulla[h] Omar) as their supreme leader.” He also reportedly urged them to “focus on Afghanistan, where their fight against the foreign forces was in a decisive phase.” “Convey my message to the Pakistani Taliban that you have forgotten the real purpose, which is to fight the invading forces in Afghanistan and liberate it from their occupation,” a statement from Omar cautioned the group. Al Qaeda senior leader Abu Yahya al Libi was even more desperate in his pleas: “For God’s sake, forget all your differences and give us fighters to boost the battle against America in Afghanistan,” he is reported as saying.
A Bridge Too Far?
Reports continue of months of “secret talks” between the “local [Pakistani] Taliban” and the Pakistani government, with some news reports, citing Pakistani intelligence officials, saying that the talks have entered a “decisive phase.” The reports were punctuated by claims that certain commanders in the TTP had ordered the cessation of “the training of suicide bombers at several camps in North and South Waziristan.” The fear among some analysts is that while striking a peace deal with the Pakistani government may reduce attacks inside Pakistan, the TTP may instead shift its focus and attacks away from the Pakistani state to forces in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Taliban militants have frequently used the lull in activity brought about by such peace deals to regroup and reorganize, only to break the deal when they find it convenient and strike back against the state with greater ferocity.
The concrete effects of the reported peace deal may, however, be far less momentous than purported. So far, the government only appears to have lines of communication open to two factions: those commanded by TTP deputy Wali-ur-Rehman and former-TTP deputy Faqir Muhammad. Rehman, as noted above, is already at loggerheads with the TTP chief over his dialogue with the government, and Faqir Muhammad is no longer the TTP’s main leader in Bajaur, although he is often erroneously identified as such (that position has, for some time now, belonged to a Mullah Dadullah, who is recognized by the TTP’s central command as being the group’s leader in Bajaur agency).
Even if the government manages to secure a peace deal with those two factions (although it denies that it is even talking to them), it will not mean that the rest of the TTP will follow suit. The TTP has undergone significant splintering in recent months, with some reports claiming that the group is now split into more than 100 different factions. Mehsud continues to stick to a policy of not negotiating with the Pakistani state. Raqeebullah, a militant commander claiming knowledge of the ongoing negotiations, said Mehsud was not apprised of Rehman’s talks with the government. “He [Hakimullah] is out,” says Raqeebullah. While Mehsud may not have strong centralized control over the umbrella group, enough cells still act in concert with his vision as to constrain the effect a peace deal with two factions would have on the state of the war in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Declarations of peace deals made during the winter period are generally less convincing than those made in the spring when the “fighting season” begins, moreover. During the winter, militant activity slows down, hampered by the weather’s effects on logistics and human performance. In such conditions, peace agreements are easier for militants to offer because they do not require much change in already-low levels of militant activity. In Swat, for example, the government agreed to negotiate a peace deal with the TTP’s chapter there in February of 2009. The comprehensive peace deal included an agreement to implement shari'a law in Swat district. In April of the same year, however, TTP militants, sensing government weakness, torpedoed their own deal by invading neighboring Buner district. The true litmus test of whether or not any kind of peace deal among militants, or between militants and the government, will hold is whether or not the declarations of peace continue to be heeded into and through the new fighting season.
Roadblocks To Change
While the new Shura-e-Muraqbah, which includes the TTP, announced that it would refrain from attacks against the Pakistani state and would instead focus its attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan, the Mehsud-led faction of the TTP disputed that announcement. Hakimullah Mehsud’s group issued a statement clarifying that while it had “signed an accord with three other major Taliban groups of Maulvi Nazir, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and an Afghan Taliban faction to avoid killing of innocent people and kidnapping for ransom, [it had not agreed] to stop suicide attacks and [its] fight against Pakistani security forces.” TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan clarified that the group had “not announced any ceasefire and had no plans to do so in the near future.”
The Haqqani Network and the militant groups loyal to Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir are Afghan-focused and not targeting the Pakistani state to begin with, and Wali-ur-Rehman’s faction has been in extended negotiations with the Pakistani government for months now. If Hakimullah’s TTP, the only faction in the shura still actively targeting the Pakistani government, has said “no deal” on that front, then operationally speaking very little is likely to be different on the ground.
Fighting the state is the TTP’s raison d’être, after all; it has defined itself in opposition to the state and is unlikely to surrender its mission of overthrowing the state while Hakimullah, acting in the tradition of the TTP’s ruthless founder Baitullah Mehsud, continues to lead the movement. As if to make the point abundantly clear, on January 5, the TTP executed 15 members of a Pakistani paramilitary force who had been captured by the TTP during an attack on a military outpost on December 23. Ehsan called the executions an “act of revenge” for the death of TTP affiliates and a senior commander in Khyber agency during a military operation on December 31.
A propaganda video released by the TTP on December 15 demonstrates firsthand the TTP’s stubborn opposition to the state. The video shows TTP fighters attacking Pakistani military positions, dead and executed Pakistani soldiers, the interrogation of captured soldiers and fighters declaring their continuation of their jihad against the state. Hakimullah Mehsud gives a statement in the video, saying “Our jihad will continue until we root out this un-Islamic system and implement Shariah. We are aware of the consequences: our country will be destroyed, our villages will be destroyed, our tribes will be destroyed, and the government will attempt to extirpate the movement and kill the mujahideen and Islamic scholars, and our youth and women will be killed. Regardless, until the existing system is replaced with Shariah, our jihad in Pakistan will continue.”
The TTP’s intransigence continues to be problematic for all the groups involved: its refusal to stop targeting the state will probably continue to invite military retaliation and, as a result, disrupt the operational environment for other groups as well (to mention nothing of shattering any notions of ideological and operational consistency among the different movements).
As for the other stipulations of the reconciliation agreement, the TTP is unlikely to implement them fully, even if it had the power to enforce the required restrictions upon its adherents. In the first case of kidnappings-for-ransom, the TTP joined the other Shura members in promising to put an end to the activity. But the kidnapping of wealthy locals (and some foreigners) and holding them hostage for large ransoms is a critical source of liquidity for the now cash-strapped organization. Government efforts at cutting off TTP funding streams, a decline in donations from Gulf countries, and a decrease in the amount of money coming from sources in Afghanistan have all contributed to the hit. The TTP has reportedly been severely squeezed financially over the past several months to the point where its fighters have started deserting because “it no longer earns them money.” Kidnapping for ransom remains one of the primary ways the TTP is able to secure large amounts of cash relatively easily, and is especially important for TTP franchises in other parts of the FATA that are required to pay a tithe to the group’s central leadership. Even if Hakimullah agreed with the need to end such activities, he would have a difficult time enforcing his will upon increasingly autonomous TTP partner groups across the FATA that still see kidnapping for ransom as a cash cow. It is questionable whether the TTP will pay anything more than lip service to such a pledge, at least in the long term, when it is facing so lean a bottom line.
The concern regarding TTP control over its affiliates also applies in the second case regarding the activities of death squads and the “killing of innocent people.” The TTP’s centralized control structure has been significantly impacted, and the group’s leadership is no longer able to exert strict control over all of the affiliated groups that utilize the TTP moniker. Given Hakimullah’s own bloody-mindedness, he is unlikely to start excommunicating groups that are engaged in the same sort of violence as his own, especially if it further highlights his weakening control.
The TTP is not the only Pakistani Taliban faction suffering issues of control over its affiliates. Hafiz Gul Bahadur and the Haqqani Network have themselves suffered the disobedience of some of their one-time subordinates. Several reports have profiled the Ittehad Mujahideen Khurasan, a special unit set up by several militant groups including Bahadur and the Haqqanis in North Waziristan to root out locals believed to be assisting U.S. drone activity through spying on the Taliban. The group specializes in abducting, torturing “confessions” out of, and then executing, local (usually innocent) tribesmen. So violent was the group’s zeal that eventually Bahadur was forced to circulate pamphlets in North Waziristan disavowing them and denouncing their activities. To-date the Ittehad Mujahideen Khurasan continues to pursue its murderous inquisition unobstructed.
This Is Not The Reconciliation You Are Looking For
Given that none of the main provisos in the Shura’s announcement are likely to see any serious, long-term implementation, concerns that the Pakistani Taliban are undergoing some dramatic rapprochement, and expectations of a precipitous change in ground realities, are probably premature. This new Shura-e-Muraqbah is unlikely to accomplish its primary purpose: to cause the governing faction within the TTP to abandon its fight against the Pakistani state in lieu of taking up the campaign in Afghanistan. Hakimullah’s bloc has resoundingly rejected the idea of abandoning its fight against the Pakistani state.
The Pakistani government is likely to continue attempting to divide and conquer the TTP and peel off as many factions as it can. As far as the Pakistani government is concerned, this strategy makes eminent sense: it allows them to decrease the number of groups actively targeting the state and helps to insulate itself from any blame or backlash if militant fighters and leaders are killed during clashes between converted groups and their more stubborn counterparts. The primary objective of this strategy is to end militant violence against the Pakistani state and its citizens in the FATA and in metropolitan Pakistan. Pakistan’s TTP strategy is not aimed at damaging militant groups fighting against the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan. If Hakimullah Mehsud did, indeed, join his fellow militants in re-orienting his efforts toward Afghanistan, it might be harmful for the U.S. efforts there. The prospects of any such reorientation in the near term, however, seem poor. The government managed to ply Fazal Saeed’s faction in Kurram agency away from the TTP in the spring of 2011, and is reportedly making some headway with Wali-ur-Rehman and the formerly-TTP Faqir Muhammad (though all parties involved deny the existence of such proceedings). Yet, enough militant groups under the TTP umbrella either remain loyal to Hakimullah or continue to at least hold and act upon aligning objectives and ideologies, that the Pakistani military’s fight in the northwest is unlikely to come to an abrupt end.
Add to this the inability or unwillingness of the Shura members to bring to heel the out-of-control “killing of innocents” by militant death squads, and the unlikelihood that groups that depend so heavily on kidnapping-for-ransom to fill their coffers and finance their activities will give up the practice, and it becomes difficult to fathom how any of the Shura’s main declarations will be practically implemented.
Perhaps of greater interest are the questions the reconciliation efforts raise regarding the unity of different militant organizations in the region. While the TTP might be straining under centrifugal forces, the fact that Mullah Omar’s Taliban movement is able to call upon the assistance of al Qaeda to aid it in its mediation efforts, and that al Qaeda seems to be committed to assisting the Taliban in its fight against coalition forces in Afghanistan, belies the notion that the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda are cloven from each other. If the two remain close, it raises serious concerns about ongoing reconciliation efforts between the U.S. government and the Afghan Taliban, and raises the stakes of, and the bar for, any sort of settlement between the two (to say nothing of the fact that it drastically increases the burden of proof on the Taliban to demonstrate it has parted ways with al Qaeda).
While Mullah Omar may enjoy the verbal obedience of many Pakistani Taliban groups such as Nazir’s and Bahadur’s, it is difficult to ascertain how much active support such groups are lending to the fight in Afghanistan. This new Shura could be an attempt by Mullah Omar to secure promises of greater physical cooperation in Afghanistan during a critical phase in the fighting/negotiations there. Ending the feuding within the TTP, and gaining the cooperation of Mehsud’s partisans, remains, however, one of the main unattained objectives. If Mullah Omar was expecting this latest intervention to successfully bring about the TTP ship, he is likely to be disappointed. The Taliban, Afghan and Pakistani, may yet come together meaningfully, and the Pakistani government may, at some point, succeed in reaching a deal with the most salient sections of the TTP, but this is not that moment. Until the start of the next fighting season it will be difficult to tell how effective or long-lasting any peace deals or declarations of cooperation made now will prove to be. For the moment, developments in the FATA appear to be more "flash" than "bang."
Reza Jan, “The King is Dead, Long Live the King: Hakimullah Mehsud Takes Power in the TTP,” Critical Threats Project, September 8, 2009. Available at http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/king-dead-long-live-king-hakimullah-mehsud-takes-power-ttp
Frederick W. Kagan, Reza Jan and Charlie Szrom, “The War in Waziristan: Operation Rah-e-Nijat – Phase 1 Analysis,” Critical Threats Project, November 18, 2009. Available at http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/war-waziristan-operation-rah-e-nijat-phase-1-analysis
Reza Jan, “Trickling Home to South Waziristan,” Foreign Policy, December 10, 2010. Available at http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/trickling-home-south-waziristan-December-10-2010
Chris Harnisch, “Question Mark of South Waziristan: Biography and Analysis of Maulvi Nazir Ahmad,” Critical Threats Project, July 17, 2009. Available at http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/question-mark-south-waziristan-biography-and-analysis-maulvi-nazir-ahmad
Zia Khan, “Twilight of the Taliban: TTP buckles under internal fissures, external pressure,” Express Tribune, December 19, 2011. Available at http://tribune.com.pk/story/308623/twilight-of-the-taliban-ttp-buckles-under-internal-fissures-external-pressure/