Khalid Mehsud, alias Sajna, who has been prised away from the TTP by Pakistan's ISI
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 4th June 14
Tension is rising across Pakistan’s embattled Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), a swathe of autonomous territory along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that is a haven for the world’s most feared Islamist extremists. These include jihadi groups promoted by Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) such as the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban; as well as viscerally anti-Pakistan groupings like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or the Pakistani Taliban.
Pakistani generals, irked by years of fruitless negotiations, short-lived peace agreements and a spiralling casualty count, want to crack down on the TTP. With the US pulling out of Afghanistan, the Pakistan army is gearing up to support the Afghan Taliban as it confronts the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF). The generals know they cannot project power into Afghanistan while a hostile Pakistani Taliban controls the tribal agencies on the border, especially South and North Waziristan.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif fears that a crackdown strikes would trigger retaliation in Pakistan’s political heartland of Punjab, with waves of suicide bombers wreaking havoc in densely populated areas. Persuaded so by religious parties like the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), and by cricketer-politician Imran Khan, Nawaz has held back the army for a year while pursuing a fruitless dialogue with the TTP.
Last fortnight, the Pakistan Army signalled it had lost patience. In a wave of ground and air strikes the Pakistani military killed 80 militants in North Waziristan, the most rebellious of seven tribal agencies (sub-districts) in FATA.
Reuters reports that on May 20, the day before the military strikes, Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, bluntly told Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that the military was taking matters into its own hands.
On May 27, the army chief talked tough again, telling a military audience in Quetta that the military would “deter and defeat any aggression across the entire threat spectrum”.
This show of force has yielded results, with a jihadi faction led by Khalid Mehsud (alias Sajna) from the influential Mehsud tribe breaking ranks with the TTP. Rustam Shah Mohmand, one of Islamabad’s interlocuters with the TTP, claims that Sajna’s departure has seriously damaged the TTP. That is wishful thinking more than reality, since the TTP retains a solid Mehsud core in the form of the Hakimullah Mehsud faction, which has been battling Sajna’s fighters since April.
The ISI has also sought to weaken Mehsud support for the TTP by highlighting the fact that TTP chief, Mullah Fazlullah (alias Radio Mullah), hails from Swat. Yet most Mehsuds remain with the TTP, except for Sajna who resents that the TTP chose Fazalullah over him to succeed Hakimullah Mehsud, after the former TTP leader was killed in a US drone strike.
Playing jihadi groups against each other is the central tactic in the ISI’s playbook. In the endless struggle between competing factions, the Pakistan Army’s support is often decisive. Increasingly, however, the army’s and ISI’s hardball tactics anger jihadi allies who resent being manipulated.
That was evident on May 27, when Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a longstanding ally of the Pakistan Army, turned against the generals. Gul complained that the army strikes had violated the peace agreement the military had signed with him in 2008. He has ordered his supporters to shelter in Afghanistan against an impending army crackdown on June 10, and to fight the army for “the honour of Waziristan”.
There is little certainty the Pakistan army can subdue the TTP anytime soon in the rugged North Waziristan mountains. More than just combat capability, success would depend upon how effectively the ISI exploits faultlines within the TTP, stripping away support of malcontents like Sajna. Central to this subversion will be the Haqqani network, a long-serving ISI conduit to a range of jihadis.
Several local factors make the Haqqanis extremely influential along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Mehsud territory is not contiguous with Afghanistan, and the TTP relies on the Haqqanis for access to the Afghan battlefields, without which the TTP would struggle to recruit and train fighters.
Haqqani territory extends from Waziristan deep into Afghanistan, where their own Zadran clan are influential powerbrokers in the Loya Paktika region --- which includes the provinces of Khost, Paktiya and Paktika that extend almost to Kabul. The Haqqani network, therefore, is ideally poised for operations in and around Kabul such as the two bombings of the Indian embassy and a range of operations against NATO and the Afghan government.
Finally, as pointed out by Vahid Brown and Don Rassler, who have studied the Haqqani network for years, it provides “diplomatic good offices” to connect the ISI with jihadi entities like Al Qaeda, the TTP and the most radical groups in the Pakistani Taliban. This range of contacts will give the Haqqanis a key role in helping the Pakistan army shape the environment for the coming endgame in Afghanistan.