The Impact of Pashtun Tribal Differences on the Pakistani Taliban

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 3

Baitullah Mehsud

Though members of militant Islamic groups such as the Pakistani Taliban and other jihadis have almost the same anti-United States and pro-al-Qaeda worldview, they are not especially disciplined when it comes to organizational matters. Difficulty in this area explains the existence of so many extremist factions operating under different leaders and commanders who sometimes express conflicting opinions on domestic and international issues.

The formation of an umbrella organization, Tehrek-e-Taliban-Pakistan (Movement of Pakistani Taliban, or TTP) on December 14, 2007, was meant to bring the different Taliban groups operating in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) into one formation and improve their coordination (The News International [Islamabad], December 15, 2007). Its spokesman, Maulvi Omar, a shadowy figure using a fake name, claimed that 27 Taliban factions operating in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) were part of the movement. Nobody was surprised when Baitullah Mehsud, amir of the Taliban in the territory populated by the Mehsud Pashtun tribe in South Waziristan, was named as leader of the TTP. He was the most powerful among the Pakistani Taliban commanders and it was natural that he would lead the organization.

Tribal Nature of the Pakistani Taliban

The tribal nature of some of the Taliban groups soon became evident when militants in North Waziristan warned the Mehsud-led Taliban in neighboring South Waziristan not to launch attacks against the Pakistan Army in their part of the tribal region (The News International, January 30). The warning came from Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the amir of the Taliban in North Waziristan, despite the fact that he was earlier named deputy to Mehsud in the Tehrek-e-Taliban-Pakistan. Association with the TTP and being its deputy leader did not mean much when it came to the territorial and tribal limits of each Taliban group and commander. Hafiz Gul Bahadur was particularly furious when Mehsud’s men started firing rockets into the army’s camp at Razmak, a town in North Waziristan, during the recent fighting between the military and the Mehsud-commanded militants.

It was also evident that Hafiz Gul Bahadur and his Taliban fighters failed to abide by one of the major decisions of the TTP by refusing to coordinate attacks on the security forces in North Waziristan to help ease pressure on the Taliban fighting under Mehsud’s command in South Waziristan. This failure defied a Taliban decision that every Taliban group was required to come to the assistance of others in its area of operation that were under attack from the Pakistan Army. As part of that policy, a Taliban group in the semi-tribal area of Darra Adamkhel seized five military trucks packed with ammunition and supplies for the troops in South Waziristan. The attack triggered fighting in the gun-manufacturing town in a bid to overstretch the resources of the Pakistan Army (Dawn [Islamabad], January 26). Taliban factions in Mohmand, Bajaur and Orakzai tribal regions and also in the Swat district of the NWFP launched attacks against the security forces during this period as part of a strategy to ease military pressure on Mehsud and his men. But instead of launching attacks on the military, the Taliban fighters in North Waziristan announced an extension of their unilateral ceasefire with the government and even issued a warning to Mehsud to stay out of their territory. One reason the North Waziristan militants stayed out of the conflict in South Waziristan was the fact that they belonged to different Pashtun tribes; Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud belongs to the Mehsud tribe, while Hafiz Gul Bahadur and others in his group belong to the Torikhel Wazir and Daur tribes.

Command Structure in the Pakistani Taliban

The lack of coordination between the Taliban factions in South Waziristan and North Waziristan also showed that the TTP had yet to attain unity in the ranks of the militants operating in different tribal regions and districts. On paper, the TTP looks impressive, with powerful components in all seven tribal agencies and in most of the six semi-tribal Frontier Regions and several settled districts of the NWFP. Its command structure also appears strong, with representatives from tribal regions and districts where the militants had fought the army to a standstill or forced the government to deploy large numbers of troops to secure the area. Led by Mehsud from South Waziristan, the TTP’s deputy leader Hafiz Gul Bahadur belongs to North Waziristan and the second deputy head, Maulana Faqir Muhammad, is from Bajaur. Taliban groups in Swat and elsewhere are also represented on the TTP’s 40-member decision-making shura (consultative council). However, these groups also have regional and local political agendas and are, therefore, under pressure from their tribes and communities not to become involved in wider conflicts that could transform their areas into battlegrounds and contribute to their suffering.

A case study of Baitullah Mehsud’s leadership in South Waziristan would be instructive in understanding the tribal influences that impede unity among Taliban factions in FATA. As a Mehsud tribesman, he cannot freely operate in the Wana area, which is inhabited by the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe, even though both the tribes live side by side in South Waziristan and are almost equally affected by Talibanization. Past rivalries have kept the Ahmadzai Wazir and Mehsud tribes apart, and their relations to this day are uneasy and uncertain. As a consequence, Taliban members belonging to the two tribes maintained separate command structures to avoid friction and prevent tribal animosities from poisoning their relations. The Taliban among the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe thus functioned independently of commander Mehsud, first under the command of the late Nek Muhammad and then Haji Omar, Noor Islam, Maulvi Muhammad Abbas, Javed Karmazkhel and Maulvi Aziz. Last April, a split occurred among these Taliban commanders, with Maulvi Muhammad Nazir and Haji Hannan ousting Haji Omar and his allies for offering protection to foreign militants from Uzbekistan and other countries and accepting arms and money from the Pakistan Army. The Taliban in Wana have thus parted ways on the issue of supporting or opposing the presence in their area of Uzbek militants aligned with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) (The News International, January 26). In fact, tribal animosities have also influenced the decision of some Taliban fighters to join one or the other side on this issue. Haji Omar and Maulvi Nazir belong to different sub-tribes of the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe and this was a factor in pushing them into rival Taliban camps.

It would also be wrong to assume that all Mehsud clans and tribesmen support Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud. Many blame him for bringing suffering on the tribe and making their villages a battleground for the military and the militants. However, they cannot speak out against him due to fear of reprisal. The Mehsuds living outside their tribal homes in South Waziristan are relatively free to express their opinion about the Taliban commander, though they must be careful because Mehsud has followers and informants even in places like Tank and Dera Ismail Khan, where Mehsud families have migrated and become largely urbanized. The Shabikhel sub-tribe of the Mehsud is apparently proud of Baitullah because he is one of their own, but other clans do not have that kind of bond with the Taliban leader. Tribal affinities are fairly strong in Waziristan and it is common for members of a tribe to become closer in the event of a dispute with other tribes.

Factionalism in Waziristan and Bajaur

On occasion, there are reports that Taliban commanders and the rank and file in North Waziristan have developed differences on certain issues and split into factions comprising members from the Torikhel Wazir and Daur tribes. There are also signs that the local Taliban have evolved into Miramshah and Mir Ali factions, named after the two major towns in North Waziristan. The Mir Ali group often complains that their area has suffered greater damage as a result of militants’ attacks and retaliatory military strikes than Miramshah, which is the headquarters of North Waziristan and is better defended by government security forces.

In the Bajaur tribal region, the Taliban militants are mainly concentrated in the Mamond area, which is on the border of Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province. The top Taliban commander in Bajaur, Maulana Faqir Muhammad, also belonged to Mamond, as did his deputy Maulana Liaquat Ali, who was killed in a U.S. missile strike on an Islamic school in Chingai village on October 30, 2006 (The Nation [Pakistan], October 31, 2006). The Taliban influence has only marginally spread to other parts of Bajaur.

There is no denying the fact that tribal affiliations play a major role in the formation of Taliban groups and the choice of commanders. The Taliban and other jihad advocates often claim that they believe in the concept of a common Muslim ummah (community) and reject the division of their religion into groups based on ethnicity, language, geographical borders and tribes. In practice this is easier said than done. In tribal societies such as that of the Pashtuns inhabiting Pakistan and Afghanistan, even ideologically-driven radical Taliban and jihadist fighters gravitate toward their own tribe and local commander whether fighting U.S.-led Coalition forces or the armed forces of Pakistan.