Is Pakistan's Taliban movement on the way out?

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 23, 2009 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's extremist Taliban movement is badly divided over who should be its new leader, and analysts and local tribesmen say the al Qaida-linked group may be in danger of crumbling.

A wave of defections, surrenders, arrests and bloody infighting has severely weakened the movement since its founder, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed Aug. 5 in a U.S. missile strike. The announcement this weekend that Hakimullah Mehsud, a 28-year-old with a reputation as a hothead, would succeed him is likely to further widen the split.

Hakimullah has support from Taliban groups in Orakzai, where he is based, and Bajaur, both parts of the wild Pakistan tribal zone that borders Afghanistan. But the heart of the Pakistani Taliban movement lies in the Waziristan portion of the tribal area, where the warlike Mehsud and Wazir clans live and where a commander named Waliur Rehman is backed as the next chief. Rehman was very close to Baitullah Mehsud.

"There's no way that the Mehsuds and the Wazirs are going to accept Hakimullah as chief. During his lifetime, Baitullah had given every indication that when he's no more, Waliur Rehman is the next guy," said Saifullah Mahsud, an analyst at the FATA Research Centre, an independent think tank in Islamabad. "Waliur Rehman is a cool, calm, calculated guy, a very good listener... That's why the Taliban had liked Baituallah so much, he was a very cool guy, a very calm guy."

Any breakdown in the Pakistan Taliban is likely to have impact on both U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and al Qaida and its leader Osama bin Laden, who is believed to have taken refuge in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Baitullah Mehsud had turned the focus of his movement from sending fighters into Afghanistan to fight U.S. and NATO forces to launching attacks within his own country. A new head of the Pakistan Taliban could reverse that, once again sending hundreds of fighters into Afghanistan. A weakened Taliban would be less able to provide protection for bin Laden.

Analysts said that the fact that Hakimullah was announced as leader in Orakzai and not in Waziristan was evidence of his weakness, suggesting that he cannot operate in the Taliban's heartland. But this could still herald fresh danger for Pakistan.

"Hakimullah is going to show his leadership by launching more suicide attacks," said Khalid Aziz, chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research and Training, an independent consultancy in Peshawar. "The (Pakistan) army has done a good job, it's broken the Taliban's system. It (the Taliban) is already factionalized. These schisms could become wider and they break up into fiefdoms."

Baitullah Mehsud had turned the Pakistan Taliban into a formidable military force in 2007 by joining together 13 disparate groups under an umbrella organization known as Tehreek-i-Taliban. Without his presence, the groups could devolve into disparate actors.

A series of setbacks last week could further debilitate the movement.

Pakistan authorities arrested the Taliban's high-profile spokesman, Maulvi Umer, in the tribal areas, while a key interlocutor between the Taliban and al Qaida, commander Saifullah, was also detained at a house in Islamabad where he was receiving medical treatment.

Separately, 60 Taliban fighters gave themselves up in the Swat valley in Pakistan's northwest. Many Taliban in Waziristan have defected since Baitullah Mehsud's death.

In a further sign of internal discord, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik claimed Sunday that militants had killed Baitullah Mehsud's in-laws, including his father-in-law, on suspicion of giving away his location. The former Taliban leader had been staying at his father-in-law's house in Waziristan when he was killed by a missile fired from a U.S. drone.

The Taliban's vulnerabilities were showing even before Baitullah Mehsud's death.

The Pakistani army's operation against the Swat Taliban, which started in May, did not see other Taliban factions come to their aid, and the threatened response to the military offensive in terrorist attacks across the country was much less ferocious than feared.

Over the last year, and especially over the last few months, tribesmen from areas where the Taliban are present have started their own traditional militias, known as a "lashkar", to battle the extremists themselves.

"There are so many lashkars now operating against them (the Taliban) in different areas. That has changed the equation. It's not possible for the Taliban to confront the lashkars everywhere. The lashkars are really coming up very strongly," said Rahimullah Yousafzai, a veteran Pakistani journalist and expert on the Taliban.

Hakimullah is dreaded even within the Taliban ranks, with a reputation for killing first and asking questions later.

He made his name by attacking convoys of NATO supplies going through Pakistan's famous Khyber Pass on their way to troops in Afghanistan. Sporting a scraggly beard and the long hair that is typical of the Pakistani Taliban style, Hakimullah craves the limelight. In November last year, he invited local journalists to his base in Pakistan's tribal area, where he drove around in an American Humvee that his men had looted from a NATO convoy.

Hakimullah has personally called journalists to claim responsibility for extremist attacks inside Pakistan, including the assault on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team earlier this year and the bombing of a luxury hotel used by Westerners in north western city of Peshawar.

But even such a high-profile figure is something of a mystery. Pakistani intelligence agents and others asserted over the weekend that Hakimullah in fact was dead and that he was being impersonated by a relative.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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