Small Wars Journal

Factionalism of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan: Can the Pakistani Government Correct Past Deficiencies

Sun, 07/20/2014 - 12:30am

Factionalism of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan: Can the Pakistani Government Correct Past Deficiencies

Brian Perkins

Over the past year, the vitality of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s insurgency has waxed and waned but the group has still managed to define Pakistan’s security landscape. In the midst of a TTP split, the government will face emerging threats to national security and a new set of challenges in regards to establishing peace.

This report examines how the TTPs insurgency flourished as a result of government policies and the ways in which the group has managed to influence the country’s efforts to counter domestic militancy. It will also examine the origins of the TTP factionalism and the effects it will have on the country’s security landscape


Since the TTPs inception in 2007, the group has conducted countless attacks against government, civilian, military, and religious targets throughout the country, claiming an intangible number of lives. They have waged a violent war on the country from their stronghold in the remote regions of the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) for nearly a decade, with the primary objective of establishing Sharia Law.

The semiautonomous FATA region, along the border of Afghanistan, is Pakistan’s most lawless and volatile zone and is the stronghold for both foreign and domestic terrorist organizations including: al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the TTP. The Pakistani constitution governs the region with the same draconian legal framework that was established by the British in 1901. This framework, known as the Frontier Crimes Regulation, has contributed to the region’s volatility in an unprecedented way. The seven administrative agencies that comprise the FATA – Kyhber, Orakzai, Mohmand, Bajaur, North Waziristan, and South Waziristan – are widely considered to be ungoverned territory, outside of the control of the country’s central  government, thus making it easy for militants to hold territory, exert their influence, and maintain operational capabilities. There is no police force to maintain law and order in the FATA and other than sporadic drone strikes and military operations; the militants in this region have had little to contend with, other than each other.

Insurgencies by nature have a tendency to fracture due to ideological differences and leadership struggles. Scenarios such as this often present an opportunity for government forces to intervene at a time when domestic militants are weakened by internal rifts; however, they can also multiply the threat and make it difficult to determine viable counterinsurgency operations, particularly for countries such as Pakistan, that have historically taken a muddled approach to countering internal threats.

Government’s Historical Mishandling

The Pakistani government and Directorate of Inter Service Intelligence’s tacit approval of certain militant groups such as the Haqqani Network, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Lashkar-e-Taiba have promoted an environment where terrorism can thrive, not only in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas but in the country’s larger urban centers.  Their use of these groups as a tool for foreign and domestic policy has emboldened terrorist organizations that are outside of the control of government handlers. Additionally, this policy has made it difficult to carry out targeted military operations as the aforementioned “good Taliban” organizations have been known to shelter TTP members.

The government has launched several military offensives in the FATA; however, there have been very few sustained operations and the army and Frontier Corps have demonstrated an inept ability to clear and hold territory. In 2009, when the military launched a full scale operation in South Waziristan, Hakimullah Mehsud moved the majority of his network to neighboring North Waziristan, knowing that the military would be reluctant to launch attacks where the Haqqani Network maintains their operations. Recent military operations against TTP militants have primarily been two to three day offensives consisting of airstrikes and minimal ground operations. On almost every occasion, the TTP has countered these offensives with equally deadly attacks on government and security assets.

Also, the government’s sole focus on Army capabilities has caused the Pakistani police forces to languish, making it easy for militants to infiltrate and occupy the country’s larger cities. Most accounts of successful counterinsurgency operations have suggested that police operations are more effective in the long term than those conducted solely by the military. There are no police forces within the FATA but strategic police operations in major urban centers could significantly reduce the threat of mass casualty attacks in the country’s key economic hubs.

Pakistan did not have an official counterterrorism or counterinsurgency doctrine until February 26, 2014. The establishment of this doctrine may seem like a crowning achievement for a nation that has been battling indigenous insurgencies for over a decade; however, since its creation, peace dialogue between the TTP and government negotiators has largely caused it to fall by the wayside.

Origin of Current TTP Factionalism

In August 2009, the TTP’s founder and emir Baitullah Mehsud was killed by a US drone strike while receiving medical attention at a farmhouse in South Waziristan. While the TTP shura deliberated on who would replace Baitullah, a power struggle developed between Hakimullah Mehsud and Baitullah’s deputy and chief of South Waziristan, Wailur Rehman, who was widely expected to be his successor.  The TTP shura eventually appointed Hakimullah Mehsud as the new emir with Rehman retaining his position as deputy commander. The two leaders were compelled to reconcile and maintain a working relationship; however, a tangible divide was created within the Mehsud tribe as each side established a faction of loyal comrades.

During the next four years, Rehman developed a reputation for being a proficient strategist and charismatic leader. His faction established cells in Karachi in order to draw funds from extortion schemes and bhattas, or illegal taxes. Rehman also engaged in dialogue with the government in regards to potentially negotiating a peace accord, which deepened the tension with the Hakimullah faction.

On May 29, 2013 Rehman was killed by a US drone strike in North Waziristan, leaving another massive void in the group’s top leadership. His faction’s four-man shura announced, without consulting with Hakimullah or the central shura, that his deputy Khan Said, commonly known as Sajna, would be their new chief and the TTPs second in command.  Sajna took control of the Rehman faction and all of his predecessor’s dealings, including the operations in Karachi which later led to bloody infighting with the Hakimullah faction’s Karachi cell.

In September 2013, Hakimullah replaced Sajna with Latif Mehsud due to mounting differences, primarily Sajna’s interest in engaging in peace dialogue with the government. After being replaced, Sajna stepped up his efforts to strengthen his faction in South Waziristan while cultivating the support of Mehsud Tribal Chiefs in North Waziristan. He also bolstered his ties with Asmatullah Muavi, the leader of the Punjabi Taliban, and Hafiz Gul Buhadar, the leader of his own militant group that loosely falls under the TTP umbrella but is considered by the government to be “good Taliban.” Latif Mehsud’s reign as deputy commander was cut short after he was captured by US forces in Khost Province, Afghanistan.   Hakimullah then elevated Abdullah Bahar as his second in command.

Hakimullah met the same fate as his predecessor on November 1, 2013 when a hellfire missile from a US drone struck his vehicle in the small town of Dande Darpa Khel in North Waziristan. Shortly after his death, Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani was named the interim leader while the TTP shura deliberated on a permanent successor. The frontrunners were Sajna; Shehryar Mehsud, a commander of the Hakimullah faction; Umar Khalid Khorasani, the chief of Mohmand agency; and Maulana Fazlullah, the Afghanistan-based chief of swat district who was responsible for the infamous attack on teenage activist Malala Yousafzai. On November 7, 2013 the TTP shura shockingly selected Fazlullah as the new leader and Sheikh Khalid Haqqani as the deputy commander to fill the position held by Abdullah Bahar, who was also killed during the strike. The move was highly controversial as Fazlullah is not from the Mehsud tribe from which the TTP draws the majority of its strength. Since Fazlullah was not a part of the Mehsud tribe, leadership of the Hakimullah faction was passed on to Shehryar Mehsud. The rivalry between the Hakimullah and Rehman factions continued to deepen under the leadership of Shehryar as the two factions continued to vie for control of Karachi and South Waziristan.

Peace Dialogue

In January, more than 110 individuals were killed in attacks across Pakistan, prompting Prime Minister Sharif to extend the offer of peace talks. While Sharif may have initiated the talks, the TTP seemingly maintained power over the negotiations. Whenever the peace talks faltered, the TTP used indirect violence and firebrand rhetoric to exert their power and gain leverage in the negotiations. When this tactic failed and military operations began, the TTP announced a ceasefire and Prime Minister Sharif promptly ordered the military to abort their operations, allowing the TTP to regroup. This was the case after the Mohmand Faction executed 23 members of the Frontier Corps, causing the Pakistani air force to launch several targeted airstrikes in the FATA; as a result the TTP agreed to observe a month-long ceasefire beginning on March 1. Towards the end of the ceasefire the conflict deepened between the Hakimullah and Rehman factions over whether or not to extend the ceasefire and continue the talks. The ceasefire expired on April 1 without any signs of progress on either side, but the mere threat of renewed violence caused the government to release at least two dozen noncombatant TTP prisoners as a gesture of goodwill. This gesture bought the government a six day ceasefire extension.

During the extension, the rivalry between the Hakimullah and Rehman factions came to a head, resulting in the death of several dozen members of each faction and causing the peace talks to stall. While the TTP attempted to work out their internal differences, the government took little action to further the dialogue or address the TTPs three key demands; the establishment of a ‘peace zone’ in South Waziristan, release of noncombatant prisoners, and an end to the targeting of TTP members. Many analysts have drawn the conclusion that the government remained silent in hopes that the infighting would illuminate the factions that were truly open to peace dialogue; however, the veracity of this conclusion cannot be determined.

The TTP announced on April 15 that they would not be extending the ceasefire but insisted that they were still open to future dialogue. The announcement was likely made in an attempt to ease tensions with the anti-dialogue Hakimullah faction, buy additional time to regroup, and attempt to quell the infighting. Maulana Fazlullah repeatedly called for the two sides to reconcile; however, neither side heeded his calls for peace, likely due to his lack of clout with the Mehsud tribe. The infighting became so intense that Maulana Fazlullah dismissed Sajna as the chief of South Waziristan on May 8, causing Sajna to further distance himself and his faction from the core TTP.

In a rare video appearance released on May 18 by the group’s media wing, Umar Media, Fazlullah stated that the government must accept the writ of Allah and called on his fighters to unite against the government. He went on to state that TTP members should be prepared to fight against army troops, tanks, and artillery. This call to arms solidified the TTP leader’s stance on future dialogue and offered a glimpse of what the future may hold.

On May 21, the Pakistani military launched targeted strikes against militant strongholds in the North Waziristan towns of Mir Ali and Miran Shah that lasted several days, killing at least 40 suspected militants. When asked if the operations signaled the end of the peace dialogue, Federal Minister of Information Pervez Rashid stated “We will talk with those who are ready for it and the operation is being launched against those who are not ready to come to the negotiating table.”

On May 28, spokesman for the Rehman faction, Azad Tariq, announced that the group had split from the TTP and would continue to be led by Khan “Sajna” Said. Tariq cited ideological differences as the catalyst for the group’s defection, stating that the core TTP had engaged in “un-Islamic” activities such as attacks on public venues.

Government and Militant Realignment

The next six months will be defined by geographical and ideological divides between the militant factions that occupy the FATA. Fazlullah-led groups, including the Mohmand faction led by hardliner Umar Khalid Khorasani, will violently attempt to refute the notion that the group has been weakened by the departure of Sajna’s faction. Pakistani government officials will continue to be at odds with their military counterparts as they seek to establish a semblance of peace within the country’s borders.

With so called “pro-government” and “anti-government” factions occupying the same locations within the FATA it may become increasingly difficult for the military to launch operations against the TTP for fear of destroying the prospect of peace talks with the pro-government sides. This concern was highlighted when Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the leader of his own North Waziristan-based “good Taliban” organization, threatened to revoke his group’s peace agreement with the government due to the May 21 airstrikes in Mir Ali and Miran Shah.

Another likely scenario is that Fazlullah will be forced to relocate his organization’s powerbase to avoid sustaining further losses at the hands of rival pro-government factions that now hold sway over the southern portions of the FATA. Also, as the Army gears up for a full-scale military operation in the FATA, Fazlullah may shift his group’s headquarters across the Durand Line to Afghanistan, where he has led the group since he first came to power.

Local authorities initially believed that the departure of Sajna’s Mehsud faction had left the TTP weakened and vulnerable to military intervention; however, the brazen attack on the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi on June 9, which killed at least 28 individuals, illuminated the strength and reach of the TTP as well as their coordination with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. While Pakistani intelligence failures can also be faulted for the attack, the TTP conveyed their ability to strike critical installations in the country’s largest city. The attack raised concerns that the Fazlullah led TTP group may shift their tactics from primarily targeting government and security assets to targeting key public infrastructure. The country may see a sharp rise in civilian casualties over the next several months as the more moderate voices of the Rehman faction will no longer influence the scope of the organization’s targets.

Pakistan’s civil and military authorities drastically need to increase their coordination and make a concerted effort to curb the TTP threat in the FATA and the country’s larger urban centers. A full-scale military operation in the FATA will not be effective without simultaneous police operations against TTP cells that operate in the country’s larger cities.

If government authorities can successfully bring the Rehman faction into the “good Taliban” fold, the group may prove to be a valuable asset in regards to weeding out militants from their operational bases in Karachi, North Waziristan, and South Waziristan. However, the government must navigate the peace process with care as failing to broker a peace accord with the Rehman faction could multiply the militant threat.

About the Author(s)

Brian Perkins is a former United States Navy signals intelligence analyst with extensive experience reporting on terrorist movements in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Brian currently works as a Crisis Support Analyst/Intelligence Analyst focusing on threat forecasting and mitigating risks faced by clients that operate throughout South and Central Asia.