[Editor's note: A photo in the original version of this article misidentified Qazi Hussain Ahmad as Qari Hussain Ahmad, a Taliban leader. Qazi Hussain Ahmad is a political leader with no affiliation with the Taliban. The Monitor apologizes to Qazi Hussain Ahmad for our error.]
TANK AND ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN – It's not only the Pakistani military and the occasional US Predator drone that has Pakistan-based Taliban looking over their shoulders these days. As a sharp internal rift emerges over attacks on civilians, some are now turning their guns on each other.
Last month, Qari Hussain Ahmad, a militant leader, launched a series of violent attacks throughout Pakistan's tribal belt that left many innocent civilians dead. On June 1, in retaliation, reigning Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud captured 17 of Mr. Ahmad's men and threatened to kill them.
The incident highlights how the Taliban's ideological frontiers have changed as Pakistani militants have regrouped and realigned their allegiances, leading to internecine violence throughout the tribal belt.
The Taliban's central leadership in Pakistan is weakening, experts say, and some factions have proven themselves all too willing to dispense with the ancient Pashtun codes of mercy and restraint – the kind that saw guests, women, and children as off-limits in war.
Even Mullah Omar, the spiritual founder of the original Taliban movement, lamented this ruthless shift in a letter to field commanders last December, imploring them to do more to avoid civilian deaths.
"In Pakistan, [the Taliban] are not as organized as in Afghanistan. There are too many small groups, and there's no central leadership coming up," says Ijaz Khattak, a professor of international relations at the University of Peshawar.
In the rugged stretch of land abutting Afghanistan known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Pakistan's modern justice and administrative systems are virtually absent – making it an attractive haven for the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Here, Pashtun customs have for centuries enjoined tribal leaders to represent their tribes before the "political agent," a local government office first promulgated by British authorities to enforce the powers of national courts, police, and the federal government. Until recently, the system of agencies offered the FATA a semblance of federal control in what is otherwise an almost entirely autonomous region.
Now that system is dying as well. Taliban militants have killed roughly 150 tribal elders and targeted political agents throughout FATA in recent years. The purpose, as in Afghanistan, is to clean the slate for the advent of full Islamic law.
In their goals, Pakistan's Taliban seem united, but in method, they sharply disagree.
According to the popular perception among residents in Tank, a town just outside of South Waziristan, Mr. Mehsud and Ahmad represent a new generation of Taliban fighters who conduct their operations in Afghanistan from Pakistan and who are increasingly waging a war of militant Islam on Pakistani soil itself.
In late June, Pakistan's government stepped-up security around three federal ministers after receiving intelligence that Mehsud had ordered their assassinations, according to local press reports.
Recognized as the "Amir," or supreme leader of tribal militants in North and South Waziristan, Mehsud may seem like an unlikely poster child for moderation. Yet, at least in the public imagination, there remain certain lines not even Mehsud would cross – like killing innocent women and children.
Through public acceptance and apparent benevolence, Mehsud has built a power base here.
"[Mehsud wants to] give a positive message to the people that he is capable of delivering good and providing justice," says Muhammad Khan, a resident of Tank. "[Mehsud] is trying to give an impression as if he is moderate among the rest," Mr. Khan adds.
And moderate he may be, if compared to the cruel standards set by Qari Hussain Ahmad, who was Mehsud's close ally until recently. Ahmad is believed to have carried out most of the beheadings and targeted killings of tribal elders. He also launched a series of attacks against police forces in Tank in March that left many civilians dead, including women and children. His extremist views, residents add, are popular among Arabs, Uzbeks, and Afghan fighters.
For a time, Ahmad's assassinations of local leaders worked to Mehsud's advantage by creating a power vacuum that Mehsud has quickly filled.
But Mehsud has increasingly taken Ahmad to task for his indiscriminate killings, residents say. The tension finally reached a boiling point on May 31 when Ahmad's followers attacked the Tank residence of Pir Amiruddin Shah, the political agent of Khyber Agency. The attack was brazen not only because seven guests and six family members were killed – a violation of Pashtun ethics – but because Ahmad never sought Mehsud's permission for the attack.
A power struggle has now ensued to decide both the leadership and the limits of the Taliban's campaign in Pakistan. Although Mehsud's retaliation to the events of May 31 has been swift, tribal elders and residents say Ahmad has effectively undermined Mehsud's rule.
"The rift within the group of Mehsud has damaged his reputation as well as legitimacy to rule the tribe single-handedly," says a tribal elder from the Mehsud tribe, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation. He and others say Ahmad has now formed his own group that many militants are beginning to join.
Whether Mehsud or Ahmad emerges victorious, the hostage incident is likely to determine the tone of the Taliban's activities here, a fact that has important consequences for the international community.
"If the conflict increases, their ability to fight is more affected," says Mr. Khattak, "Of course, united they are more effective."