NEW YORK - While divisions among the Taliban factions cast doubts about their ability to deliver a deal in stalled talks with Pakistani government, Afghan intelligence has penetrated the militant group “most successfully” at the eastern end of the border with Pakistan, where Mauala Fazlullah is hiding, according to a dispatch in a leading American newspaper.
The Afghan spy agency, the National Directorate of Security, has “gotten in on the act” recently, hoping to steer the Taliban away from Afghanistan, Declan Walsh, the New York Times correspondent, wrote from London on basis of information received from three correspondents in the region.
In Kabul, Walsh wrote, former and serving Afghan 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,” one former official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, was quoted as saying. “If they want to cause problems in Pakistan, that is something that is not going to be discouraged.”
Afghan officials were cited as saying that Fazlullah has received sanctuary and some money; one of his spokesmen is frequently found outside nearby Jalalabad. The Times said, “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. Mr Fazlullah’s weakness is just one factor in decision making. Unlike the rigidly hierarchical Afghan Taliban, Pakistan’s insurgency has a decentralised, 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 fund-raising 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.” The steep differences among Taliban factions stemmed from a leadership crisis that started with an American drone strike in November that killed the group’s commander and inflamed internal arguments — including a debate over whether to prioritise the fight against Pakistan’s army, or to send more fighters into Afghanistan as American troops are leaving.
“And a series of bomb attacks during a supposed six-week ceasefire 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,” the dispatch said.
“We will know where the Taliban stand when they put their demands on the table, but I’m not hopeful,” Asad Munir, a retired army brigadier and former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency’s Peshawar office, was quoted as saying. “There are so many complications. Ultimately, I don’t think these talks can succeed.”
Walsh wtote, “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, the group has been an umbrella organization for Islamist militants — estimates run from 15 to 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 American 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.
“Mr Fazlullah came to power in November with solid hard-liner credentials — his supporters had flogged criminals and attempted to kill Malala Yousafzai, the teenage activist — but a less impressive military record. He was driven from his native Swat Valley, 200 miles northwest of Waziristan, by a Pakistani military operation in 2009. Now, according to Pakistani and Afghan officials, he is sheltering in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar.”
“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, was quoted as saying.
Correspondent Walsh wrote, “The Taliban chose Mr. Fazlullah, many believe, to quell feuding between rival factions of the Mehsud tribe. But the violence hardly abated after Mr 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 over 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 earlier this month, 40 to 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. Mr. Sajna, considered the stronger of the two, sent a message to his rival that ‘there cannot be two swords in a single sheath.’”
“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 network’s leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, wants to draw more Mehsud fighters into his fight against the Afghan government; as a result, he is pushing the Taliban to make peace in Pakistan.
“As ever in tribal politics, money is a deciding factor: The Haqqani network draws on the proceeds of a vast criminal and fund-raising 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 among experts.
“Mehsud tribal elders also favour negotiations. 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.
“The Taliban’s fractious nature also leaves it vulnerable to other, mutually hostile influences. Foreign jihadists from Al Qaeda 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.