The defection of a top Taliban militant commander in the troubled Kurrum tribal belt bordering Afghanistan is the first major sign of a split within the Pakistani Taliban. The split could benefit both Pakistan and the US, say analysts.
The notorious militant commander, Fazal Saeed Haqqani, announced his decision to quit the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) along with hundreds of militants and form his own group, Tehrik-e-Taliban Islami.
“I repeatedly told the leadership of the TTP that they should stop suicide attacks against mosques, markets, and other civilian targets,” the commander, who is in his late 30s, told reporters in Kurrum Agency on Monday.
“The TTP is doing in Pakistan what Americans are doing in Afghanistan, killing innocent civilians,” said the commander, adding that he would continue his fight against the Americans.
The TTP, or Taliban Movement of Pakistan, claims responsibility for most of the recent deadly suicide attacks across the country. The fracture within this terrorist outfit may be welcome news to Pakistan’s military, which has failed to break its backbone despite increasing US pressure and military offensives along the Afghan border.
“It is a good message for Pakistan and America both,” says Peshawar-based analyst Brig. (Ret.) Mehmood Shah. “This is the first dissenting voice from within and that, too, is coming from a powerful commander. It will definitely fracture the TTP, isolate it, and there might be more cracks to be seen in the near future.”
“It’s like clipping the wings of the TTP, especially in the important tribal area of Kurrum,” he suggests.
Location, location, location
Kurrum carries tremendous significance for Pakistan and the US as it is the shortest route to Kabul from anywhere in Pakistan (here's a map of Kurrum). It borders Khost in the south, Paktia in the southwest, and Nagarhar in the north – all provinces considered to be strongholds of the Afghan Taliban.
The Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani terror network, under the pressure of American drones in North Waziristan, have been eyeing Kurrum to get access to Afghanistan in order to join the Afghan Taliban in their fight against the US-led forces.
Kurrum has also been at the center of a violent sectarian conflict between the warring Shia Turi and Sunni Bangash tribes that has already claimed thousands of lives since 2007.
Lower Kurrum is under the control of Taliban militants who have established training centers and bases there, while Shias control Upper Kurrum bordering Afghanistan, thus blocking the Taliban’s route to Afghanistan.
The rival Shia tribal elders say the “ruthless” commander is behind the killing of their community members and considered to be very close to Hakeemullah Mehsud, the chief of the TTP, and the Haqqani network, one of the most dangerous insurgent groups fighting against US forces in Afghanistan.
In a rare type of strike in Lower Kurrum, US drones targeted a Taliban compound and a vehicle with four missiles on June 20, killing 11 militants, most of whom reportedly belonged to the Haqqani network. Sources say the targeted compound belonged to Taliban militants of the commander Fazal Saeed Haqqani.
The 'real challenge' now
“He [Fazal Saeed Haqqani] still wants to implement sharia [Islamic law] in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He still wants to continue his fight against the Americans. I believe the real challenge will be to keep him at bay from the Haqqani network,” says Muhammad Amir Rana, director at the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS).
The commander’s decision to split from the TTP came amid reports of a possible operation by Pakistan’s security forces in Kurrum, as US and Pakistani officials aim to prevent militants under the pressure of US drones from slipping into Kurrum from North Waziristan.
Pakistan has recently experienced a spate of terror attacks carried out by the TTP. These include suicide attacks and the recent siege of a Pakistani naval base in Karachi.
Sources in the Fata Disaster Management Authority say a relief camp has been set up in Kurrum to accommodate hundreds of families who may have to leave the conflict zone.
Meanwhile, Shia tribal elders say they would welcome any military operation against Taliban militants and their havens in Kurrum. “We will support the military operation with our hearts and souls,” says Sajid Toori, a prominent Shia tribal elder and a member of the parliament. “We believe that all roads to long-lasting peace in the tribal region and Afghanistan go through Kurrum; and we will fight the Taliban till the last drop of our blood.”