Pakistan Taliban divided on talks issue

Taliban fighters stand blindfolded as they are presented to the media, after being captured by security forces, in Kandahar on March 5, 2012
Image caption Afghan Taliban talks are at the heart of the divisions within the Pakistani Taliban

As the push for talks between Western nations and the Afghan Taliban intensifies, fissures have emerged in Pakistan's militant landscape. The BBC's Haroon Rashid reports on troubled relations and infighting within the Pakistani Taliban.

In early March, the Pakistani Taliban sent out a rather unusual email to media outlets, including the BBC.

Ehsanullah Ehsan, spokesman for the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the biggest umbrella organisation of Pakistani militants, wanted to draw journalists' attentions to a letter purportedly from the supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

He asserted that the letter, which had been distributed in Pakistan and Afghanistan a few weeks earlier, was a fake.

Image caption The Taliban claimed the letter purportedly from Mullah Omar was a fake

"Americans spread a fake message regarding our Ameerul Momineen, Mullah Mohammad Omar," the brief email stated. He attached a scanned copy of the "bogus" letter's masthead as well.

The letter itself urged Taliban fighters to reduce their attacks and spare civilians until negotiations between the Taliban and Western allies in Qatar made progress.

Earlier, the Afghan Taliban were quick to deny the letter had anything to do with their leader.

"Since our cunning enemy (America, its allies and stooges) is facing frustration... it is relying on such fabricated and short-lived lies spread through its intelligence organs in order to deceive the people," a message on the Taliban's website read.

Taliban 'negotiations'

Many believe the reason for the flurry of denials was to stop the message having an adverse effect on their fighters. The Pakistani Taliban are independent operationally but ideologically they still consider Mullah Omar as their supreme leader.

Image caption Maulvi Faqir Mohammad led the Taliban in the Bajaur district and says he supports dialogue

"Since the letter was distributed on both sides of the border it was natural that the Taliban on both sides clarify it," Sami Yousafzai, a senior Afghan journalist, told the BBC. "Taliban on both sides of the border felt under pressure."

The Afghan Taliban are already in an uncomfortable position with some of their rank-and-file fighters after reports that they are in "exploratory negotiations" with the Americans. Media reports suggest some Taliban commanders are not happy with this decision. These commanders argue that when the Americans are already on their way out, why should they talk?

But it seems the damage has already been done for the Pakistani Taliban.

One day after the TTP spokesman vociferously denied the authenticity of the letter, he cropped up again, this time saying the Taliban was removing its deputy chief Maulvi Faqir Mohammad. Talking to the BBC from an undisclosed location in the tribal region, he gave no reason for the unexpected decision.

But it did not take long for things to crystallise.

Peace overtures

The very next day Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, who leads his fighters in the tribal region of Bajaur bordering Afghanistan, came out with a statement saying he supported dialogue with the government if it could help make peace. He said his peace overtures towards the Pakistani government could be why he was ousted.

The 43-year-old militant is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan's Kunar province after Pakistani troops flushed his and his supporters out of their strongholds last year. He was made deputy head in December 2007 when he joined the Pakistani Taliban.

There is a Pakistani reward of 15 million rupees ($157,400) on his head.

There had been unconfirmed reports last November that he was engaged in peace talks with the Pakistani government and may surrender, but that has not yet materialised.

Experts believe his removal could cost the TTP dearly. "He is one of their strongest horses in Bajaur Agency. His eviction could mean divisions and possible infighting that could weaken an organisation already on the back foot after successful Pakistani operations and US drone attacks," says Dr Ashraf Ali of the Islamabad-based think tank, Fata Research Centre.

The TTP led by Hakimullah Mehsud is already facing stiff resistance from smaller independent militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Islam in the nearby Khyber tribal region. These groups are not letting Hakimullah's men take hold of the vital trade route between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

As the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan explore possibilities of negotiations with their adversaries, they know the road could be lethal.

The approach by insurgent leaders on either side of the border - and the response from the rank and file - are completely divergent.

In Afghanistan the Taliban face opposition from within the ranks for entering negotiations, while in Pakistan dissent has come because the militant leadership has failed to engage in dialogue.