Pakistani Taliban militants have long waged a war against the Pakistani state. But the group known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – which has killed thousands of Pakistanis and was responsible for shooting Nobel Peace Prizewinner Malala Yousafzai – now appears to be crumbling.
Since the summer, TTP has seen many key commanders defect to form their own groups or to join, or think about joining, other international militant organizations, including the so-called Islamic State.
The development suggests a shift into "good Taliban" and "bad Taliban" inside Pakistan. The so-called good Taliban militants would align with the Army's interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir, especially as NATO draws down; they might also take part in a reconciliation process with the government.
The bad Taliban would likely continue to attack inside Pakistan and agitate against the state for being an ally of the US and insufficiently radical in Islamic terms. But they would become more isolated, or so hope some Pakistani Army leaders.
The problem with rosy hopes that the Taliban are in permanent disarray, say experts, is that they can easily realign with different jihadis. Six key Pakistani Taliban commanders have recently defected and announced allegiance to Abu Bakar Baghdadi, the chief of Islamic State, in October. Fliers with IS propaganda are being seen in cities close to Afghan border.
How the TTP broke up
Cracks in the Pakistani Taliban apparently began to show this past June, after an anti-Taliban Army operation called Zarb-e-Azab, named after a sword of the prophet Muhammad.
However, the real weakening of TTP started last year. Then Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a US drone strike. The new chief, Mullah Fazlullah, took over, reportedly operating out of Afghanistan. Pakistani officials initially tried to engage Mr. Fazlullah and the Pakistan Taliban with a peace initiative. But that led nowhere. The Army's Zarb-e-Azab attack operation then began last June.
“The break up [of TTP] is a combination of many factors. Firstly, Fazlullah’s elevation to become the chief," says Rahimullah Yousafzai, the Peshawar editor of The News, a popular English daily. "But being based across the border made it impossible for him to control the organization, leading to different factions in different tribal belts becoming more independent.”
One positive outcome of the government's peace initiative is that it caused stress and fracturing within the organization. Something called the Mohmand faction of the Taliban decided to break away and go on its own. Its commanders were furious that the main TTP leadership even considered talks with the government in Islamabad. This Mohmand faction, one of the "bad Taliban" groups, claimed last week's suicide bombing at the Pakistan-India border crossing outside Lahore that took at least 60 lives.
The most fatal split
However, the final blow to the Pakistani Taliban came when its deputy leader, Khan Said Sajna, decided to leave. Mr. Sajna accused the TTP of harming the cause of their fellow Afghanistan Taliban across the border. He did not want to follow the "bad Taliban" and attack Pakistani targets. He instead wanted to support the Afghan Taliban over the border up north.
The departing Sajna group issued a press release as it split: “Their statement indicated that Sajna wanted to focus on Afghanistan...They [also] wanted to come back into the fold of the good Taliban,” says Safdar Dawar, a media activist and a journalist who hails from North Waziristan.
According to Mr. Dawar, Pakistan has given sanctuary to the so-called good Taliban in the Pakistani tribal belt on the Afghan border. That is where they initially fled after 9/11. From that position they can cross the border and impact Afghan issues, especially after Western and NATO forces leave the region.
The Pakistani press reported last week that the Pakistan Army had offered a truce deal to Sajna, a move that is being seen as the second phase of the Army-led June attack (in Waziristan). That move is in line with a similar policy of reconciliation toward the Pakistan-friendly Taliban.
Interestingly, Sajna was designated as a global terrorist by US Department of State just last week.
Outside Pakistan, good Taliban not always seen that way
Sajna is also considered to be crucial in the reconstitution of the "good Taliban" in its Waziristan home. He is from the main tribe in Waziristan that founded the Taliban and he can ensure that only "good" militants resettle there, says Dawar.
Pakistan's support of "good Taliban," however, continues to be unpopular in the West and Washington, and some analysts in Pakistan warn of "blowback."
“The TTP may have been defeated at a tactical level but not at a strategic level," says Hasan Khan, host of a popular Pakistan talk show on regional politics. "They [the Pakistani Taliban] they may be weak today, but tomorrow the ones Pakistan continues to bring into the fold of the good Taliban will be helping the bad ones again."
Mr. Yousafzai argues that the leaders of a weakened TTP may start using the name of Islamic State (sometimes known as ISIS) to send a message of strength. "But the ISIS does not have a stronghold here yet so these attempts are just to oversell themselves at a time when they are in disarray,” he says.