Hafiz Gul Bahadur: A Profile of the Leader of the North Waziristan Taliban

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 9

Militants of the Waziristan Taliban

Perhaps no one has greater stature or importance in the Pakistani Taliban leadership than Hafiz Gul Bahadur, supreme commander of the North Waziristani Taliban. A direct descendant of Mirza Ali Khan, a legendary Waziristani freedom fighter who fought against the British Indian government and later against the newly established Pakistani State, Bahadur is known for hosting foreign militants, mainly al-Qaeda and other Arab groups, as well as Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani of the cross-border Haqqani network.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur is 48 years old and belongs to the Madda Khel clan of the Uthmanzai Wazir. He is a resident of Lwara, a region bordering Afghanistan and is reported to have received his religious education from a Deobandi madrassa (seminary) in Multan (The Post [Lahore], August 19).  Bahadur subscribes to the Deobandi Islamic revivalist ideology and maintains a political affiliation with the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F), a Deobandi political party. Bahadur fought in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s and again during Taliban rule.
The militant leader rose to fame in 2005, when the Pakistani government initiated military operations in North Waziristan Agency (NWA) to evict foreign militants, especially al-Qaeda, from the Tochi river valley. The operations began as fleeing al-Qaeda militants arrived from the adjoining South Waziristan Agency (SWA), where the military conducted incessant operations from October 2003 to February 2005, first against Ahmadzai Wazir (October 2003-April 2004) and later against the Mahsud tribe (April 2004-February 2005). [1] During the course of military operations, Bahadur directed the course of the war against the Pakistani government with two other militant commanders, Maulana Sadiq Noor and Maulana Abdul Khaliq Haqqani.
In June 2006, the NWA Taliban entered into a ceasefire with the Pakistani government that culminated in the infamous September 2006 North Waziristan Peace Agreement. The ceasefire and the agreement were largely made possible due to the involvement of Afghan Taliban leaders such as Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani and the late Mullah Dadullah. According to reports, a letter signed by Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar asked “all local and foreign fighters [in North Waziristan] … not to fight against Pakistan, since this is in the interest of the U.S.” [2] The peace agreement also called for the eviction of foreign militants from North Waziristan, to which Bahadur agreed. This created tension between the foreign militants and Bahadur and also created rifts between the NWA Taliban commanders, some of whom wanted the foreigners to stay. Most of these dissenting Taliban commanders belonged to the Mirali area. Bahadur’s decision was, however, supported by his fellow commanders, Noor and Haqqani. The foreign militants, particularly non-al-Qaeda Arab militants and Central Asian militants (Uzbeks, Tajiks, etc) of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), accused Bahadur and Noor of betraying them by jumping into the government camp to demand their eviction from the tribal territory  (The News [Islamabad], November 12, 2006).

Before the signing of the September 2006 Peace Agreement, the Central Asian militants expressed their disapproval with the June ceasefire agreement and refused to comply with Bahadur’s directives, saying that they never consented to the agreement. This led Bahadur to assemble a five-member jirga comprised of senior NWA Taliban commanders to negotiate with the Central Asian fighters. According to reports, the jirga sent a clear message to the Central Asians that they had no other choice but to honor the truce (Daily Times [Lahore], August 4, 2006).

The conflict between Bahadur and the Central Asian militants arose due to the latter’s interference in the local affairs of the region. However, the Central Asian militants were able to stay in the Mirali area of the Tochi River valley due to support from local Taliban leaders such as Manzoor Daur, who openly opposed Bahadur’s decision to expel the foreign militants. However, Bahadur distinguishes between various militant groups operating in the region and greatly values his relationship with al-Qaeda militants, who have never interfered in local affairs. The eviction decision was, therefore, not intended for al-Qaeda.

After the signing of the peace agreement, Bahadur became the overall head of the NWA Taliban. Unlike South Waziristan, where Taliban groups are divided on a tribal basis – Ahmadzai Wazir and Mahsuds – the NWA Taliban remain united. Taliban from both the Uthmanzai Wazir and Daur Tribes have strengthened Bahadur’s position by accepting him as their supreme commander. Bahadur has established a parallel Taliban government in the region since the peace agreement. In October 2006, the NWA took a major step towards Talibanization when the NWA shura headed by Bahadur issued a pamphlet in which they outlined the levy of new taxes and prescribed harsh penalties for various offenses (Dawn [Karachi], October 23, 2006).

The peace agreement broke down in July, 2007 amid accusations by both sides. Bahadur announced an end to the peace accord and ordered his fighters to start guerilla attacks against the security forces deployed in NWA. In August 2007, a new peace initiative was launched by both the sides to bring an end to the fighting. A breakthrough was achieved when a tribal jirga from Orakzai Agency was able to convince both sides to agree to a ceasefire (The News, July 17, 2007; August 17, 2007; October 17, 2007).

While the negotiations were going on between the government and Bahadur, the latter joined many other Taliban commanders from various parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) to form the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in December 2007. Baitullah Mahsud was chosen as the head of the TTP while Bahadur was appointed first deputy head of the organization. However, Bahadur quickly distanced himself from the terrorist entity after Mullah Omar opposed the formation of the TTP and asked the Pakistani Taliban to focus their attention and resources on Afghanistan (Asia Times Online, January 24, 2008).
As the peace negotiations between Bahadur and the government drew to a conclusive end, Pakistani security forces initiated a punitive military operation against Baitullah Mahsud in January 2008. To ward off the pincer movement of the security forces attempting to encircle the commander in the Ladah-Makeen area, Baitullah intended to use the Razmak area of NWA to attack Pakistani security forces. Bahadur, however, barred Mahsud from using NWA territory, saying his peace negotiations with the government were in the final stage and would be jeopardized by Mahsud attacks on security forces. On February 18, 2008, the government and tribes of North Waziristan revived the peace agreement, bringing an end to attacks on government installations and forces (Daily Times, February 19, 2008).

Meanwhile, Baitullah Mahsud started expanding his influence in the FATA region after the formation of the TTP and attempted to subdue rival and dissenting Taliban commanders. This alarmed the Ahmadzai Wazir and Uthmanzai Wazir Taliban, who agreed on June 30, 2008 to merge their ranks to form the Muqami Tehrik-e-Taliban (Local Taliban Movement), or the “Waziri alliance.” Hafiz Gul Bahadur assumed the role of the supreme leader, while Mullah Nazir of the Ahmadzai Wazir became his deputy (Dawn, July 1, 2008).  This alliance proved to be a deterrent to Baitullah Mahsud, as he found his Mahsud tribe encircled from the north, west and south by the Waziri coalition.

A breakthrough was achieved on February 22, 2009, when the three leading Taliban commanders – Hafiz Gul Bahadur, Baitullah Mahsud and Mullah Nazir – formed the Shura Ittihad-ul-Mujahideen (Council for United Holy Warriors) (The News, February 23).  The three declared they had overcome all of their differences. The newly created alliance is an effort to coordinate their actions in Afghanistan in the face of a renewed focus on Afghanistan by the international community and the pending deployment of an additional 21,000 U.S. troops and 5,000 NATO soldiers in 2009. The alliance was formed under instructions from Mullah Omar, who asked the Pakistani Taliban to abandon their differences and unite their ranks (Daily Times, February 24).

Unlike Baitullah Mahsud, both Bahadur and Nazir remain pro-government in the sense that they do not conduct attacks on government property and personnel in FATA and elsewhere in Pakistan, nor do they undertake the Talibanization of the NWFP. Both, however, act free of government control while conducting cross-border attacks in Afghanistan and carrying out the Talibanization of their tribal lands. Both Bahadur and Nazir are very careful persons, and unlike Baitullah Mahsud, they follow the policy of lying low while advancing their agenda at the same time. Baitullah, on the other hand, is more inclined towards cheap publicity and intends to become the Mullah Omar of Pakistan. Hence, unlike Baitullah, both Bahadur and Nazir maintain a good reputation within their tribal territories, as well as among their respective tribesmen.

[1] The military operations in South Waziristan Agency resulted in the signing of the April 2004 Shakai peace agreement with the Taliban and the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe, and the February 2005 Sararogha peace agreement with the Taliban and the Mahsud tribe.

[2] Graham Usher, “The Pakistan Taliban,” Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), February 13, 2007, https://www.merip.org/mero/mero021307.html