A Thorn in the Side of the Taliban: Turkistan Bhittani Biography and Analysis
On August 13 2009, hundreds of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) fighters descended upon the village of Sur Ghar, in Sara Rogha area of South Waziristan, and engaged fighters loyal to Hajji Turkistan Bhittani, a rival, ‘pro-government’ militant commander in South Waziristan. The firefight continued on into the next day, and by the end of the battle over a dozen people had been killed. In retaliation, Turkistan’s men attacked Beitullah Mehsud supporters capturing fourteen of them. The clash is the second of its kind since the death of Beitullah Mehsud and the latest in a series of back-and-forth killings between supporters of the late Beitullah Mehsud and those of Turkistan Bhittani. Beitullah’s death appears to have significantly bolstered Turkistan’s position in the continuing Waziristan power struggle and Turkistan seems well-poised to take advantage of this period of instability.
In this year alone well over thirty militants and commanders loyal to Beitullah Mehsud have been killed in and around Jandola, Tank and Dera Ismail Khan—areas essentially controlled, until recently, by Beitullah Mehsud’s men. Turkistan Bhittani leads the group responsible for ridding Jandola and Tank of TTP influence and he is beginning to play an increasingly important role in the conflict in Waziristan. For over a year, now, Turkistan has been attempting to increase his power and influence in South Waziristan Agency of the FATA. From his initial cooperation with the Pakistani government to his formation of an anti-Beitullah militia and his alliance with Beitullah’s rival, Qari Zainuddin Mehsud, Turkistan has taken every opportunity to augment his relative strength and to bring himself to the center of the conflict in Waziristan. According to reports in the Pakistani media, Turkistan has been coordinating closely with the Pakistani military in its operations against Beitullah, especially in securing Beitullah territory cleared by the army.
An ardent opportunist, Turkistan has made effective use of the media; he has taken advantage of every appearance to make statements aimed at causing dissent and confusion within the TTP camp and at increasing his own support at the expense of Beitullah’s network. Turkistan and Zainuddin did not declare open war on Beitullah until the army demonstrated it was serious about tackling the TTP and it became clear they would receive military support in their struggle against Beitullah. Turkistan has utilized the de-facto control the government has granted him over certain regions to drive off Beitullah supporters as well as to fill his own coffers. Despite the apparent disarray of TTP forces following Beitullah’s death, Beitullah’s men launched two large-scale assaults Turkistan’s forces in the space of a single week. These attacks demonstrate that Turkistan still represents a significant threat to the TTP and so is likely to be an important player in the post-Beitullah environment.
Little is known about Turkistan’s early life but he was reportedly born in 1968 or 1969. A fighter by profession, Turkistan fought in the Afghan war against the Soviets during the 1980s, most likely while he was in his late teens. Sometime after the war, he joined Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) and served as a soldier in the South Waziristan Scouts, a unit based in his native South Waziristan agency. He retired from the Scouts in 1998 and joined the Taliban fighting in the Afghan civil war. Turkistan stayed on to fight for the Taliban after the U.S. invasion in 2001. It is unclear when he stopped fighting the Americans and returned to Pakistan.
Turkistan has turned his attention recently to an enemy much closer to home: namely, Beitullah Mehsud and the TTP. Turkistan’s men patrol the neighborhoods and bazaars of Jandola and Tank and, according to local residents, “[conduct] raids in the city and outskirts” in search of Mehsud’s fighters, supporters and kinsmen. Since early 2008, the region has been the scene of tit-for-tat killings between the Mehsud- and Turkistan -led groups. For example, in March, a suicide bombing at a restaurant in Tank killed over a dozen of Turkistan’s men. A TTP spokesman, Maulvi Omar, claimed responsibility for the attack on Beitullah’s behalf, saying “Turkistan’s fighters killed 35 of our people last year, and we killed his people today in a suicide attack.” Turkistan, the desired target, had left shortly before the attack took place. Beitullah’s men have reportedly attempted to assassinate Turkistan on at least five other occasions since 2008. In August of last year, Turkistan narrowly escaped a bomb attack on his car in Karai village of Jandola, South Waziristan. Meanwhile, in June 2009, Beitullah’s men attempted to assassinate Turkistan in Mal Mandi, Tank, but armed Turkistan supporters foiled the effort.
EARLY RELATIONSHIP WITH BEITULLAH
Beitullah Mehsud and Hajji Turkistan Bhittani have not always been sworn enemies. According to multiple accounts, the two met and befriended each other while fighting coalition troops in Afghanistan. Turkistan himself has admitted that he and Beitullah “fought together in Afghanistan” and that they were “quite close to each other” at one point in time. This friendship appears unusual, given that the Bhittani and Mehsud tribes are said to be “hereditary enemies.” In order to reach the settled areas of the North West Frontier Province, Mehsud raiders historically had to move east across the Bhittani tribal areas in and around Jandola, which they did successfully, since the Mehsud tribe is larger and stronger than the Bhittani tribe. It appears that Turkistan briefly became a follower of Beitullah’s Taliban movement despite the traditional tribal rivalry. In a televised interview in June 2009, Turkistan claimed “Beitullah Mehsud was our spiritual leader in Mehsud Agency [South Waziristan] and quite a reasonable person in those days [prior to their split in 2007].”
Based on his statements and actions, Turkistan’s views regarding the U.S. coincided with those of Beitullah’s. Turkistan decries the presence of foreign forces in Muslim lands and sees violent struggle against ‘occupation’ as justified; he himself has fought against both the Soviet and American presences in Afghanistan. He strongly disagreed with Beitullah’s policy of conducting attacks inside Pakistan, however. In July 2009 said “Jihad in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Palestine is right but jihad in Pakistan is wrong. There are no foreign troops here.” According to his statements, Turkistan was not prepared to conduct violence against the Pakistani state and would certainly not condone such actions towards his old outfit, the Frontier Corps. When Turkistan challenged Beitullah on his methods, the TTP leader warned him to “[not] poke [his] nose in this.”
It was not long before this divergence in views, among other differences, caused the two to part ways. In the aftermath of the July 2007 Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) siege, Beitullah increased his attacks on the Pakistani state and, in August of that year, Mehsud tribesmen kidnapped sixteen Bhittanis, eight of whom were FC soldiers. According to statements attributed to Turkistan, “The slaughter of some FC jawans (soldiers)”  and Beitullah’s use of “suicide bombing as a tool to terrorize his opponents inside Pakistan” finally caused Turkistan to abandon his allegiances to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan chief.
TURKISTAN VERSUS BEITULLAH
The prospect of government funding and sponsorship in exchange for defecting likely influenced Bhittani’s decision as well, as he has always looked for opportunities to maximize his relative power. By the end of 2007 the government, having achieved embarrassingly little military success against Beitullah, was encouraging local tribes to form their own militias or ‘peace committees’ in order to maintain local security and hopefully chip away at Mehsud’s support base. In October 2007, two months before the formation of the TTP, Turkistan formed the Niamatkhel Peace Committee. Whether Turkistan’s primary motivation was ideological opposition to Beitullah, government enticement, or revenge, the stated purpose of his committee was to consolidate control and put an end to “criminal gangs engaged in kidnapping looting and theft.” The Pakistani government paid, armed and supported such groups. The government also allowed the tribal militias to use official buildings as recruiting stations, set-up and run parallel administrations in their areas of influence, and turned a blind eye to their less-than-legal enterprises so long as part of those enterprises were directed against Mehsud.
Beitullah considered Turkistan’s decision to start a ‘pro-government militia’ an act of betrayal: in particular, the Turkistan group’s decision to man checkpoints and conduct armed searches of cars along the Wana-Jandola road—previously a thoroughfare for Mehsud fighters—incensed Beitullah. Beitullah made Turkistan pay dearly for his decision. Turkistan has reportedly lost over seventy-three relatives at the hands of Beitullah Mehsud, eight of whom belonged to his immediate family.
On June 23, 2008, Beitullah’s men launched a major assault upon Turkistan’s strongholds in Jandola and Kariwam, driving out his forces and compelling Turkistan himself to flee and seek shelter in an FC fort. Fifteen people died in the fighting, including Turkistan’s son Hindustan Khan, and the Taliban captured twenty-eight of Turkistan’s men. According to TTP spokesman Maulvi Omar, the Taliban later tried and executed the captives. While the Taliban only held control of Jandola briefly, their attack demonstrated a blatant challenge to the government’s policy of delegating responsibility for security to local tribes, and also signified the beginning of a cycle of reciprocal violence between the Turkistan and Beitullah groups.
A harsh war of words between the groups accompanied the physical fighting. After the assault on Turkistan’s house in Jandola, the TTP claimed to have recovered hundreds of kilograms of hashish, opium and heroin. At a public event held to destroy the contraband, Taliban spokespeople accused Turkistan of being little more than a petty extortionist and drug runner hiding in the garb of a Taliban in order to engage in “un-Islamic activities” for “ulterior motives.” The TTP, in a move to discredit Turkistan, accused him of operating at the behest of the government.
In response, Turkistan accused Beitullah of being responsible for the vast majority of suicide attacks in Pakistan, as well as the assassination of former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto—a charge that the Pakistani government has also leveled against Beitullah. In a televised interview in June of this year, Turkistan told the media with great confidence:
Turkistan also leveled the fanciful charge that Beitullah Mehsud operated as an agent of the U.S., Israel and India. Turkistan claimed Beitullah had an agenda against Pakistan and “[pursued] enmity toward Islam….He used to attack security forces in the past, but now he attacks mosques.” More seriously, Turkistan tried to undercut Beitullah’s support by calling into question the TTP chief’s relationship with Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Afghan Taliban to whom Beitullah (and most of the Pakistani Taliban) purportedly swore fealty. Turkistan, in the same interview in June, claimed that Beitullah blatantly refused the instructions of Mullah Omar; he said: “Mullah Omar had asked him to move to Afghanistan, but he refused. Now Mullah Omar intends to teach him a lesson once he is done with the United States in Afghanistan”. Turkistan criticized Beitullah’s policy of conducting “a suicide attack in Afghanistan and 10 in Pakistan” as a deception and “a mockery.” He assailed Beitullah for having run not a jihad, but “a criminal enterprise.” Turkistan alleged:
While perhaps not the primary motivation for Turkistan’s actions, his personal losses at the hands of Beitullah coupled with the strong retributive character of Pashtun culture suggest that revenge may also be a strong incentive for fighting the TTP chief. Joining Turkistan in seeking revenge against Beitullah was Qari Zainuddin Mehsud. Zainuddin, of the same tribe as Beitullah, accused the TTP leader of orchestrating the assassination of his relative, the late Taliban commander Abdullah Mehsud, whose followers formed an anti-Beitullah faction of militants under Zainuddin’s command. When Beitullah’s men chased Zainuddin from his hometown, Turkistan Bhittani provided him with shelter in Khaisura area of Jandola. During that time, according to Pakistani media sources, Turkistan and Qari Zainuddin worked fairly successfully to rid Jandola, Tank and Dera Ismail Khan of Beitullah Mehsud influence. Between them their fighters killed over thirty Beitullah supporters, including, reportedly, Beitullah’s brother, and made it very difficult for Baitullah’s men “to move around in the strategically important areas of Tank and Dera Ismail Khan.” The two commanders both supported the government when it made public its post-Swat operation against Beitullah in June and promised to join in the government’s efforts; however, soon after the announcement, Mehsud’s men assassinated Qari Zainuddin. A spokesman for Turkistan, speaking soon after the assassination, said the commander vowed to continue the struggle and avenge Zainuddin’s murder.
ASSESSING TURKISTAN’S CAPABILITIES
Turkistan’s prospects for success against Beitullah, barring outside assistance, were always dubious at best. While claiming to command “thousands of fighters,” one intelligence estimate caps his support at 1,500 men, a paltry number in comparison to the late Beitullah’s estimated 10,000-20,000 hardened Taliban. In the hopes of isolating Beitullah, Turkistan convened a number of jirgas to solicit the support of the Waziristani tribes, but this tactic achieved only modest success. Turkistan has claimed to have the support of Mullah Omar as well as two other key commanders, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir, with whom he hoped to form an anti-Beitullah alliance. However, these claims have proven to be wholly unfounded.
Turkistan eagerly targeted suspected Beitullah supporters in his own strongholds; however, he never launched his much touted offensive against Beitullah, claiming to be waiting for the government to “give [him] the green light.” While allied with the charismatic Zainuddin and receiving copious government support, he may have fared better, but following Zainuddin’s death, Turkistan likely balked at the prospect of confronting Beitullah in the TTP chief’s own territory without significant additional support from Pakistani security forces. When Turkistan did finally make his advance into TTP areas, it was closely coordinated with the Pakistani military and for the expressed purpose of securing areas that the military had already cleared of Beitullah’s forces.
However, Beitullah’s death appears to have emboldened Turkistan and he seems ready to assume an increasingly important role in the struggle following the TTP chief’s death. Turkistan stated in a recent interview that he was prepared to continue supporting the Pakistan army on into the future. At the very least, he has no intentions of lying low in the post-Beitullah atmosphere; when news emerged of a shootout at a TTP shura (meeting) convened to pick Beitullah’s successor, Turkistan quickly issued his own version of events. He claimed that disagreements over who should succeed Beitullah led to a firefight between the main candidates, Hakimullah Mehsud and Wali-ur-Rehman, and furthermore that both were killed in the ensuing engagement, along with Taliban deputy Qari Hussain and forty other Taliban militants. Turkistan also “reiterated his allegation that Beitullah was working as an agent of India, Israel and others and was involved in anti-Islam activities.” Some of those declared ‘dead’ by Turkistan have since made contact with media, debunking Turkistan’s claims.
THE CONTINUING STRUGGLE AGAINST THE TTP
Turkistan’s statements may be indication that he still hopes to undercut the support of Beitullah’s group, possibly in a bid to strengthen his own position in the changing Waziristan power balance. He will likely need to utilize every opportunity to strengthen himself against the TTP because, whether or not Turkistan had planned on confronting the Pakistani Taliban, the TTP’s actions following Beitullah’s death make it exceptionally clear that they still see Turkistan’s group as a central target of their operations. The actions of the Pakistani military have put Turkistan’s group directly in the TTP’s crosshairs: The Pakistani military, in its June operations, pushed Beitullah’s men out of the Sara Rogha area causing TTP fighters to flee back to Makin and Ladha; the military asked Turkistan to take control of the villages in Sara Rogha in order to deny their use to Beitullah’s forces. Beitullah’s men see the areas under Turkistan’s control as strategically vital: the villages in question link Beitullah’s areas with Jandola and other parts of the Agency and appear to be the most important location for them to attempt to break the military’s siege.
As Turkistan’s forces are located in an area of strategic importance to the TTP, Turkistan can expect to face more attacks like those launched by the TTP on August 7, two days after Beitullah’s death, and again on August 12. Each of those attacks involved hundreds of TTP fighters under the command of Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani, a top TTP deputy and one of Beitullah’s potential successors, and the use of heavy weapons on both sides. Several houses under the control of Turkistan’s forces were torched and Pakistani security forces and gunships were scrambled to help Turkistan’s men fend-off the TTP onslaught. In a retaliatory attack Turkistan’s men reportedly captured fifteen TTP fighters. Commander Asmatullah is rumored to be amongst those captured—a major triumph for both Turkistan and the Pakistani military if the reports are accurate.
The recent fighting diminishes doubts held by certain members of the security apparatus regarding Turkistan’s importance and usefulness. A former brigadier and ex-FATA security chief was skeptical about Turkistan’s usefulness and described Turkistan Bhittani’s group as being a better force multiplier than a force replacement. Another analyst described Turkistan and his following as more promising for their human intelligence value rather than for their capacity for kinetic operations. However, the recent battles, and the degree of cooperation witnessed between Turkistan’s forces and the Pakistani military, highlight Turkistan’s ability to operate effectively outside of his native territory in support of the military’s offensive. He also appears willing and able to take on the role of holding towns seized by the army in enemy territory; this releases the army from a task it would likely prefer to avoid and allows them the freedom to apportion forces for operations elsewhere in the Agency or the region.
Whether or not the Pakistani military chooses to confront what may arise from the ashes of the Beitullah’s TTP, Turkistan and his cadre will look to play an increasingly important role in the struggle. Beitullah’s death, and the disarray it has caused within the TTP, appears to have emboldened Turkistan. Repulsing two major TTP attacks and capturing a major enemy commander will likely only increase his confidence. Turkistan probably sees the ensuing confusion and dissent within TTP ranks as an opportunity to increase his stock in the Waziristan power struggle. In addition, the potential profitability of bringing new areas in the region into his sphere of control is likely to be another major incentive for his continued involvement.
If a unified leadership soon emerges from within the TTP, Turkistan will be on the front lines of the new conflict and will be first-in-line to receive any government support directed against the Taliban. If the feuding within the TTP continues unabated, the fractionalization within the Taliban presents Turkistan with a weakened, directionless opponent whose forces and territory he might be able to engage and exploit. The Pakistani military’s coordination with Turkistan demonstrates that it sees value in Turkistan’s cooperation and assistance and will likely make use of his abilities to the fullest extent possible so far as it reduces the operational burden on regular forces. In a time of great flux for the Taliban and Waziristan, Turkistan Bhittani appears well-poised to benefit from the outcome.
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