Good Taliban, Bad Taliban? Pakistani commander's killing exposes blurry lines

Analysts say the US drone killing of a 'Good Taliban' commander in Pakistan could unleash new violence by anti-government insurgents - or undo peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Alamgir Bitani/Reuters/File
Pakistani Taliban commander Maulvi Nazir speaks during a news conference in Wana, the main town of the South Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan in this April 2007 file photo. Nazir was traveling in a car in troubled South Waziristan, Thursday, when his vehicle was hit by a missile, according to media reports.

The US drone killing of Pakistani Taliban commander Maulvi Nazir threatens to unleash new anti-government violence against the country’s weak government or civilian targets, and expose fractures in the country’s military and security forces, analysts say.

Mr. Nazir was traveling in a car in troubled South Waziristan, bordering Afghanistan, Thursday, when his vehicle was hit by a missile, according to media reports. He and six other Pakistanis believed to be militants were killed.

The attacks highlight the convoluted interconnections among insurgent factions in Pakistan, some of whom are focused on fighting US forces in Afghanistan, others of whom seek to topple Pakistan’s government. Still other groups target Indian forces. Many of the factions are backed or financed by military and intelligence agencies in Pakistan, who have differing agendas themselves.

The killing was confirmed by Pakistani intelligence officials in the nearby city of Peshawar who spoke on condition of anonymity since they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Mr. Nazir, who survived a suicide attack in November reputedly organized by rival Taliban commanders, was considered to be pro-government, a rare stance among Pakistani Taliban. He had agreed in the past to restrain his fighters from targeting Pakistani government forces, instead focusing efforts on the Taliban-led anti-US insurgency in Afghanistan. That had led some to label him a “good" Taliban.

With his killing, however, some analysts say his successor and followers may now turn their guns on civilian and military targets within Pakistan.

“Such [drone] attacks are not the first ones to have occurred and they have definitely created rifts between the Pakistani military and the likes of Maulvi Nazir-led Taliban,” says Mehreen Zahra Malik, an Islamabad-based columnist who recently visited Wana, the town in South Waziristan where Nazir was based.

Adding to the problem is widespread outrage among most Pakistanis toward US drone strikes. The government and military have harnessed that anger to pressure Washington. The “Good Taliban” forces increasingly suspect these attacks are being carried out with the consent of the Pakistani security establishment, Ms. Malik says.

“There is nothing to say the 'Good Taliban' won't also turn their guns on the Pakistani state in the coming days, which is definitely something the Pakistan Army would like to avoid,” Malik adds.

Other experts believe targeting Nazir could be part of a larger strategic alliance between Pakistan and the US, a relationship that has been strained by the 2011 secret US raid that killed Osama bin Laden without the knowledge of the government. The 2011 “Salala Incident” in which NATO aircraft killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a post on the Afghan border also prompted anger toward Washington.  

“By taking out the leadership of those Taliban based in Pakistan and fighting in Afghanistan like Maulvi Nazir, both countries can increase the pressure on the Taliban for talks because they will be in a stronger position,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, a defense analyst who has authored two books on the Pakistani military.

Some fear the drone attacks may end up backfiring.

“This drone attack belies the conventional wisdom... Why [would] the US target a militant close to the Afghan Taliban and antagonize those it wants to bring [to] the table for peace talks?” says Fahd Husain, a noted columnist for the several leading Islamabad newspapers.

Another reason that such attacks may be happening could have to do with the Pakistani military wanting to support stability in Afghanistan for its own interests, adds Mr. Husain. Recent reports in Pakistani media have discussed a new doctrine by the Pakistan Army that describes homegrown militancy as the “biggest threat” to national security.

“Pakistan knows that [after] the post pull-out of the Americans from Afghanistan in 2014, it will face a serious threat from the Taliban within the country and therefore there is an emergence of new strategic thinking within the Pakistani military,” he says.

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