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Pakistani Taliban’s internal disputes call peace deal into question

Mourners moved the coffin of a victim of a bombing in Pakistan earlier this month. The attack killed at least 17 people.

AFP/Getty Images/file

Mourners moved the coffin of a victim of a bombing in Pakistan earlier this month. The attack killed at least 17 people.

LONDON — When the Pakistani Taliban said they were willing to make peace, many Pakistanis were skeptical that the militants had truly abandoned their dream of transforming the country into an Islamic caliphate.

But since talks with government negotiators officially started last month, the question is not just whether the militants wish to deliver a deal, but whether they even can.

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An eruption of violent rivalries and internal disputes in the past month has strained the militants’ cohesion, cast doubt on their ability to make peace, and raised the prospect of a militant surge into Afghanistan.

Most immediately, an eruption of infighting between rival Taliban commanders in the hills of Waziristan left at least 40 militants dead and exposed a violent factional rift in the movement’s operational heartland, according to Taliban members and locals.

A leadership crisis that began after a U.S. drone strike killed the group’s commander in November inflamed internal arguments — including a debate about whether to prioritize the fight against Pakistan’s army, or to send more fighters into Afghanistan as U.S. troops are leaving. And a series of bomb attacks during a supposed six-week cease-fire has raised the possibility that the very idea of making peace has divided the Taliban, with militant cells splintering off rather than speaking with the government.

“We will know where the Taliban stand when they put their demands on the table, but I’m not hopeful,” said Asad Munir, a retired army brigadier and former head of the Peshawar office of Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence. “There are so many complications. Ultimately, I don’t think these talks can succeed.”

Despite their ferocity, the Pakistani Taliban, formally known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, have never been a very united fighting force.

Since its formal emergence in 2007, it has been an umbrella organization for Islamist militants — estimates run from 15-30 organizations — scattered across the tribal belt along the Afghan border. The unruly coalition was held together by the steely grip of leaders from the Mehsud tribe and anchored in the jihadi havens of North and South Waziristan where a wide variety of Pakistani and international militant groups hold sway.

But the U.S. drone campaign loosened the Mehsud dominance, with missile strikes that killed Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban founder, in 2009; his deputy, Wali ur-Rehman, in May of last year; and the second leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, in November. Now the Taliban is led by a lame-duck figure, Maulana Fazlullah, who has struggled to keep his commanders in line.

“Fazlullah is not a strong leader because he was defeated, he left Pakistan and he remains across the border,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a veteran journalist who helped the government make initial peace overtures to the Taliban.

Many believe the Taliban chose Fazlullah to quell feuding between rival factions of the Mehsud tribe. But the violence hardly abated after Fazlullah’s nomination, and it began looking like an all-out turf war in Waziristan this month.

Taliban fighters ambushed each other’s camps, bombed convoys, and took prisoners during six days of tit-for-tat bloodletting in the same remote, forested valleys where CIA drones have attacked militant compounds. By the time tribal elders brokered a hasty truce at the weekend, 40-60 people had been killed, according to most estimates.

Ostensibly the fighting stemmed from a simmering rivalry between two hotheaded commanders — Khan Sayed Sajna, a onetime contender for the Taliban leadership, and Shehryar Mehsud — who are battling for dominance of the Mehsud wing of the Taliban. Sajna, considered the stronger of the two, sent a message to his rival that “there cannot be two swords in a single sheath,” according to a senior Taliban commander.

But the fight was about more than clashing egos. According to militant and western officials, the Sajna group is partly funded by the Haqqani network, a notorious militant group that uses its base in the Pakistani tribal areas to mount audacious attacks on civilian and military targets in Afghanistan. The funding is part of a drive by the network’s leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, to draw more Mehsud fighters into his fight against the Afghan government across the border.

As ever in tribal politics, money is a deciding factor: The Haqqani network draws on the proceeds of a vast criminal and fundraising empire that spans Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Persian Gulf states. The Haqqanis also enjoy a close relationship with the ISI intelligence agency, which has cultivated ties for decades, although the extent of the Pakistani influence remains an open question.

The Haqqanis are pushing the Taliban to make peace, said Yusufzai, the journalist. So are Mehsud tribal elders. Weary of years of war, including Pakistani military bombardment and the displacement of tens of thousands of villagers, community leaders are pressing the Taliban to talk to the government, said government officials and Waziristan residents.

But the Taliban’s fractious nature leaves the group vulnerable to other influences. Foreign jihadists from al-Qaida and Uzbekistan, who live among its members in North and South Waziristan, offer money and a fanatical ideology. And recently, Afghan intelligence has gotten in on the act, hoping to steer the Taliban away from Afghanistan.

In Kabul, former and serving government officials described a policy of sanctuary and limited financial assistance to Taliban factions that wish to resume fighting inside Pakistan.

“It is about convincing these guys about who they should be bothering,” said one former official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “If they want to cause problems in Pakistan, that is something that is not going to be discouraged.”

The Afghan spy agency, the National Directorate of Security, has penetrated the Taliban most successfully at the eastern end of the border with Pakistan, where Fazlullah and his supporters are hiding. Afghan officials said Fazlullah has received sanctuary and some money; one of his spokesmen is frequently found outside nearby Jalalabad.

Another Pakistan Taliban operative lives under the spy agency’s protection in Asadabad, the capital of Kunar province, where he produces militant propaganda videos.

The embryonic Afghan attempt to cultivate proxies within the Pakistani Taliban is a response to a widespread perception that the ISI intelligence agency is trying to push the war from Waziristan into southern Afghanistan as U.S. troops withdraw.

“They want to move all the vipers and snakes on to the Afghan side and let them fight it out here,” said a former Afghan official.

Equally, though, Afghan officials recognize that Taliban factions are highly unreliable allies. And a Western analyst cautioned that it would be a mistake to see the Taliban purely as puppets of the various spy agencies in the region.

“They’ll take money from whoever is handing it out, as long as it suits them, “ the analyst said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But they’ve very much got their own mind.”

As ever, though, militant alliances are constantly shifting and reliable information is hard to obtain. Ascertaining the exact motivation of competing factions can be akin to Soviet-era Kremlinology.

Fazlullah’s weakness is just one factor in decision-making. Unlike the rigidly hierarchical Afghan Taliban, Pakistan’s insurgency has a decentralized, almost acephalous quality in which most power rests with the ruling shura, or leadership council.

And the tribal strife comes against a background of unprecedented Taliban expansion in the rest of Pakistan. In the past year, the movement has expanded its reach in Karachi, strengthened ties to like-minded militant groups, and increased fundraising through extortion and kidnapping.

That complexity is what makes striking a peace deal such a challenge for the Pakistani government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

His government has staked much hope on the peace talks, betting that the Taliban can be persuaded to lay down their arms. Officials said they saw the Taliban’s announcement of the cease-fire’s end on Wednesday as a negotiating ploy, not the collapse of the whole process. The Taliban, too, insist that talks will continue.

To win the Taliban’s confidence, the government has agreed to free at least 12 low-level Taliban prisoners, and is considering demands for several hundred more. But the crunch will come when the Taliban make a formal list of demands. The omens are not promising. Already, one hard-line commander with links to al-Qaida, Omar Khalid Khorasani, has announced that he will not settle for anything less than the imposition of Shariah law across Pakistan.

Such statements greatly worry Pakistanis who say that the Sharif government has already conceded too much to Taliban militants who may be using the talks to build legitimacy among ordinary Pakistanis — all the while priming their weapons for the next round of fighting.

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