The Impact of Pashtun Tribal Differences on the Pakistani Taliban

The Impact of Pashtun Tribal Differences on the Pakistani Taliban
By Rahimullah Yusufzai, Terrorism Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, Volume 6, Issue 3 (February 7, 2008)

Though members of militant Islamic groups such as the Pakistani Taliban and other jihadis have almost the same anti-United States and pro-al-Qaeda worldview, they are not especially disciplined when it comes to organizational matters. Difficulty in this area explains the existence of so many extremist factions operating under different leaders and commanders who sometimes express conflicting opinions on domestic and international issues.

The formation of an umbrella organization, Tehrek-e-Taliban-Pakistan (Movement of Pakistani Taliban, or TTP) on December 14, 2007, was meant to bring the different Taliban groups operating in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) into one formation and improve their coordination (The News International [Islamabad], December 15, 2007). Its spokesman, Maulvi Omar, a shadowy figure using a fake name, claimed that 27 Taliban factions operating in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) were part of the movement. Nobody was surprised when Baitullah Mehsud, amir of the Taliban in the territory populated by the Mehsud Pashtun tribe in South Waziristan, was named as leader of the TTP. He was the most powerful among the Pakistani Taliban commanders and it was natural that he would lead the organization.

Tribal Nature of the Pakistani Taliban

The tribal nature of some of the Taliban groups soon became evident when militants in North Waziristan warned the Mehsud-led Taliban in neighboring South Waziristan not to launch attacks against the Pakistan Army in their part of the tribal region (The News International, January 30). The warning came from Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the amir of the Taliban in North Waziristan, despite the fact that he was earlier named deputy to Mehsud in the Tehrek-e-Taliban-Pakistan. Association with the TTP and being its deputy leader did not mean much when it came to the territorial and tribal limits of each Taliban group and commander. Hafiz Gul Bahadur was particularly furious when Mehsud’s men started firing rockets into the army’s camp at Razmak, a town in North Waziristan, during the recent fighting between the military and the Mehsud-commanded militants.

It was also evident that Hafiz Gul Bahadur and his Taliban fighters failed to abide by one of the major decisions of the TTP by refusing to coordinate attacks on the security forces in North Waziristan to help ease pressure on the Taliban fighting under Mehsud’s command in South Waziristan. This failure defied a Taliban decision that every Taliban group was required to come to the assistance of others in its area of operation that were under attack from the Pakistan Army. As part of that policy, a Taliban group in the semi-tribal area of Darra Adamkhel seized five military trucks packed with ammunition and supplies for the troops in South Waziristan. The attack triggered fighting in the gun-manufacturing town in a bid to overstretch the resources of the Pakistan Army (Dawn [Islamabad], January 26). Taliban factions in Mohmand, Bajaur and Orakzai tribal regions and also in the Swat district of the NWFP launched attacks against the security forces during this period as part of a strategy to ease military pressure on Mehsud and his men. But instead of launching attacks on the military, the Taliban fighters in North Waziristan announced an extension of their unilateral ceasefire with the government and even issued a warning to Mehsud to stay out of their territory. One reason the North Waziristan militants stayed out of the conflict in South Waziristan was the fact that they belonged to different Pashtun tribes; Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud belongs to the Mehsud tribe, while Hafiz Gul Bahadur and others in his group belong to the Torikhel Wazir and Daur tribes.

Command Structure in the Pakistani Taliban

The lack of coordination between the Taliban factions in South Waziristan and North Waziristan also showed that the TTP had yet to attain unity in the ranks of the militants operating in different tribal regions and districts. On paper, the TTP looks impressive, with powerful components in all seven tribal agencies and in most of the six semi-tribal Frontier Regions and several settled districts of the NWFP. Its command structure also appears strong, with representatives from tribal regions and districts where the militants had fought the army to a standstill or forced the government to deploy large numbers of troops to secure the area. Led by Mehsud from South Waziristan, the TTP’s deputy leader Hafiz Gul Bahadur belongs to North Waziristan and the second deputy head, Maulana Faqir Muhammad, is from Bajaur. Taliban groups in Swat and elsewhere are also represented on the TTP’s 40-member decision-making shura (consultative council). However, these groups also have regional and local political agendas and are, therefore, under pressure from their tribes and communities not to become involved in wider conflicts that could transform their areas into battlegrounds and contribute to their suffering.

A case study of Baitullah Mehsud’s leadership in South Waziristan would be instructive in understanding the tribal influences that impede unity among Taliban factions in FATA. As a Mehsud tribesman, he cannot freely operate in the Wana area, which is inhabited by the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe, even though both the tribes live side by side in South Waziristan and are almost equally affected by Talibanization. Past rivalries have kept the Ahmadzai Wazir and Mehsud tribes apart, and their relations to this day are uneasy and uncertain. As a consequence, Taliban members belonging to the two tribes maintained separate command structures to avoid friction and prevent tribal animosities from poisoning their relations. The Taliban among the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe thus functioned independently of commander Mehsud, first under the command of the late Nek Muhammad and then Haji Omar, Noor Islam, Maulvi Muhammad Abbas, Javed Karmazkhel and Maulvi Aziz. Last April, a split occurred among these Taliban commanders, with Maulvi Muhammad Nazir and Haji Hannan ousting Haji Omar and his allies for offering protection to foreign militants from Uzbekistan and other countries and accepting arms and money from the Pakistan Army. The Taliban in Wana have thus parted ways on the issue of supporting or opposing the presence in their area of Uzbek militants aligned with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) (The News International, January 26). In fact, tribal animosities have also influenced the decision of some Taliban fighters to join one or the other side on this issue. Haji Omar and Maulvi Nazir belong to different sub-tribes of the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe and this was a factor in pushing them into rival Taliban camps.

It would also be wrong to assume that all Mehsud clans and tribesmen support Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud. Many blame him for bringing suffering on the tribe and making their villages a battleground for the military and the militants. However, they cannot speak out against him due to fear of reprisal. The Mehsuds living outside their tribal homes in South Waziristan are relatively free to express their opinion about the Taliban commander, though they must be careful because Mehsud has followers and informants even in places like Tank and Dera Ismail Khan, where Mehsud families have migrated and become largely urbanized. The Shabikhel sub-tribe of the Mehsud is apparently proud of Baitullah because he is one of their own, but other clans do not have that kind of bond with the Taliban leader. Tribal affinities are fairly strong in Waziristan and it is common for members of a tribe to become closer in the event of a dispute with other tribes.

Factionalism in Waziristan and Bajaur

On occasion, there are reports that Taliban commanders and the rank and file in North Waziristan have developed differences on certain issues and split into factions comprising members from the Torikhel Wazir and Daur tribes. There are also signs that the local Taliban have evolved into Miramshah and Mir Ali factions, named after the two major towns in North Waziristan. The Mir Ali group often complains that their area has suffered greater damage as a result of militants’ attacks and retaliatory military strikes than Miramshah, which is the headquarters of North Waziristan and is better defended by government security forces.

In the Bajaur tribal region, the Taliban militants are mainly concentrated in the Mamond area, which is on the border of Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province. The top Taliban commander in Bajaur, Maulana Faqir Muhammad, also belonged to Mamond, as did his deputy Maulana Liaquat Ali, who was killed in a U.S. missile strike on an Islamic school in Chingai village on October 30, 2006 (The Nation [Pakistan], October 31, 2006). The Taliban influence has only marginally spread to other parts of Bajaur.

There is no denying the fact that tribal affiliations play a major role in the formation of Taliban groups and the choice of commanders. The Taliban and other jihad advocates often claim that they believe in the concept of a common Muslim ummah (community) and reject the division of their religion into groups based on ethnicity, language, geographical borders and tribes. In practice this is easier said than done. In tribal societies such as that of the Pashtuns inhabiting Pakistan and Afghanistan, even ideologically-driven radical Taliban and jihadist fighters gravitate toward their own tribe and local commander whether fighting U.S.-led Coalition forces or the armed forces of Pakistan.

Also See: Taliban find fertile new ground in Pakistan By Imtiaz Ali


Anonymous said…
There’s clearly an array of powers at work creating the case right now for a war on the Pashtun tribal regions. These things don’t just happen in a vacuum. Wars seem to start with the careful choreography of the news media. The war masters, the maestros, start feeding their lap dogs, the press. The music is then played by the press for the rest of us to hear.

Notice how all the papers are beginning to play the same thing about the Afghan and Pakistan border? The theme of “lawless frontier” is being played every week. The sound drowns out the reality of a noble 5000 year old culture of some 27-million people.

We hear instead about the vilified denizens of a “lawless tribal frontier.”

What you missed it? Well, it’s only been playing for about two weeks. You need to tune in to the inside pages. The maestros have been composing for a while longer…. Their creative juices kicked in about the time Sen. Obama, answering one of those deadly sucker-punch sound bite questions showed us his war face telling us he would take action on “high-value terrorist targets" in Pakistan if President Pervez Musharraf "won't act.

That’s the sunshine it took to start the war-sap flowing. War-sap is sticky stuff, its residue has been known to encapsulate the creatures that get too near and preserve them there for posterity.

There is a legal system in place of course, in this lawless frontier. It’s been there for 5000 years. The Pashtun call the system the jirga. But its not part of the sharia law, it’s unique to the Pashtun and precedes Islam by thousands of years. But we don’t sing about that just now.

Please, I definitely don’t want the Pashtun to start signing their homeland song either. I don’t want to learn that an 1893 border line drawn with the blessing of Queen Victoria divided a group of mountain dwellers along the Afghan and Pakistan boarder in two.

I thought mountain ridges where proper borders. Everybody uses them. I just can’t handle the sound of another this-a-stan or that-a-stan popping up. So please, I don’t want to know about a Pashtunistan. And I definitely have no interest in anything 5000 years old, if it means Obama can catch Osama on good intelligence, bring it on! That should be Commander Obama’s war face call: “Bring it on!” Hmmmm, that sounds familiar.

What is this Pashtuni-whatever, Pashtunwahli, anyway?

They openly express somewhat defiantly, total cultural independence and have seen conquering armies and powers come and go through the millennia. Probably because of their original geographic high mountain foothold they could stand off vast armies with terrain advantage. Well it’s about time maybe for all that to stop.

And, how come they sound more like American cowboys than foreigners? Darn it, if we are going to start another little war, can’t we start it with some body that doesn’t live like my great, grandfather?

Setting aside the Pashtun mostly pray to the same God I do, grandpa did, and great grandpa too, how on earth did they adopt the same code as the old cowboy code of the west?

According to “lawless frontier” musical score, the first impressions I hear is Pashtun love rifles, chewing green tobacco, and appreciate a good sense of humor. So what's not to like? I can’t go to war on that.

If I fell out of the sky and landed in a group of people like that, I'd get along just fine, especially if I were being chased by the law. What they call Nanawateh we call asylum. Nanawateh is extended even to an enemy, just like the Cowboy Code of the Old West. Except if you are granted asylum (called Lokhay Warkawal) by the Pashtun elders as a group you're in like Flynn! They protect you even if it means forfeiting their own lives. Man that is lawless. Imagine a code of living where a principal was so honored, that it exceeded my duty to the state. Hmmm. Now that is lawless. Isn’t it?

Better to just seek hospitality, then they’ll treat you like a king, which makes me want to open a 5-Star hotel somewhere in the snowy peaks along the boarder if I can find a few acres for a ski-lift not planted in opium poppies, viewed on Google Earth satellite, not that anyone is actually checking the carefully cultivated fields above 6,000 feet along the borders. I would feel right at home there, not unlike parts of Tennessee or California.

Look at the forces arrayed here. My little fantasy war is going to happen.

The Democrats need to show they can be trusted with national defense again, be it Hillary or Obama. And McCain says fight to win.

The second verse of the song is still being written: Floating the contingency balloon. Up, up, and awa-a-a-ay, in my beautiful ball-o-o-o-on….

Obama or Hillary, or McCain get sworn in January 20, 2009. By mid June, whoever is President is going to make a push into the boarder regions the so-called "lawless frontier tribal zones” and “on good intelligence,” unless of course my leader does it first before June 20th. The operation will be Pakistan’s (well okay we’ll give them a few billion). It will be a fast coordinated air-ground attack with airborne US intelligence and lots of surrounding US air cover as a safety check to insure the operation stays within operational parameters. Pakistani’s will not go into Afghanistan and vice a versa. Meantime the Pakistan Navy will be backed up (some would say surrounded and outgunned) by the US Navy to keep a lid on the operation seeing to it they don’t launch an attack on India by Pakistan Islamic fundamentalist-leaning ground forces. We’ll hold India’s hand throughout the entire episode and offer security where needed.

Up, up and awa-a-a-ay in my beautiful …. This thing’s going to happen regardless of who wins.

You can’t deny the poetic justice in someone with a Muslim name (Obama) catching a renegade terrorist (Osama). Can you imagine the songs that we could write about that? To the tune of “Froggy went a courting.”

Obama went a hunting and he did hunt, uh-huh
Obama went a hunting and he did hunt, uh-huh
Obama went a hunting and he did hunt, he hunt Osama on the Mount
Obama went a hunting and he did hunt, un-huh. …..

The best time to wage this little war would be during the Chinese Olympics. China would likely remain quiet with their hands temporarily full with the Olympics.

So my fantasy, glorious, contingency war needs to be brief, violent, and force the Pashtun jurga to rethink their long term cultural interests. It needs to end with Osama in a holding tank, brought up on charges in the world court.

If it fails? Well what do you expect from the lawless tribal frontier area in Pakistan with questionable army allegiance? Corruption is everywhere.

I’d still like to open a 5-star hotel with some good ski-runs. You don’t suppose the opium production their so good at, has anything to do with the foolishness of some of our drug laws? Nah.

Victor Davis Hanson says you have to look at war with a long term perspective in order to understand its meaning. Long term is real long term. It may well turn out that while many say Bush's legacy must be a failure, history may have a completely different take on things, long after both you and I and our great grand children have come and gone. It may turn out, that doomed legacy of a Bush Presidency we hear so often this campaign-cycle ends up being written 1000 years from now as the President who started Islamic Reformation and brought freedoms that enabled thinking people to ask questions about religious practices that eventually changed the world and started the east and the west talking again.

Ritz. I like that franchise. A 5-star Ritz, mini-conference center. A Pashtun bag-piper paying my old favorite, “The Ass in the Graveyard” with double malt scotch, in the bracing night air.

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