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    South Asia
     Mar 8, 2012

Battle for Pakistani Taliban's militant soul
By Amir Mir

ISLAMABAD - The removal of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan's naib amir or deputy chief because he went behind the leader's back in peace talks with the government threatens to spark an internal war that could splinter the umbrella organization of 40-plus Islamic militant groups.

Maulvi Faqeer Mohammed was fired by Hakeemullah Mehsudameer, commander of the TTP or Pakistani Taliban, last week with militant insiders saying the second-in-command was seen as growing too close to the Pakistan government and its security agencies.

Giving his reaction, Faqeer reiterated his support for peace talks with the government. "I support peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and the United States and also between the Pakistani


Taliban and Pakistan government as there is no other option to restore peace in the region", he said in a satellite phone call to a Pakistani English daily, The News, made from somewhere in Afghanistan, adding that he learned from the media rather than the central shura (council) of the decision to remove him. ''I have no idea when and where the shura held its meeting", he said.

Well-placed sources in militant circles said the former naib amir had being accused of having contacts within the country's security establishment, without the knowledge and approval of the TTP top brass. They said Faqeer's tone had changed since the Pakistan government expressed its willingness last year to hold peace talks. They pointed out that while Hakeemullah Mehsud simply rejected Pakistani Interior Mehsud Rehman Malik's November 2011 offer of negotiations, vowing to carry out more attacks, Faqeer was more welcoming. This stance eventually led to rumors that the TTP had declared a ceasefire with the government to pave the way for peace talks.

The removal of Faqeer was made public on March 4.

"The TTP shura (consultative council) met with central amir Hakeemullah Mehsud in the chair. It felt that the organization no longer required Maulvi Faqeer Mohammad as the naib amir. From today, he will be considered a common fighter and will no longer enjoy the status of the naid amir." spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told the BBC from an undisclosed location. He gave no reasons for the removal of Maulvi Faqeer, who had been a close associate of Hakeemullah Mehsud and a prominent figure in the TTP's anti-US jihadi agenda.

Faqeer Mohammad told The News there was no harm in talking to the government if it was willing to accept the militants' demands for restoring peace in the tribal areas. He claimed the government had almost accepted all his demands for signing a peace accord in Bajaur, but US pressure became a major hurdle. "Our rulers' lust for dollars never gets satiated and that is why they suspended talks with us. We know well that our rulers would be begging for talks with us if the US withdrew its forces from Afghanistan", he argued.

Asked about the allegation that he was holding talks with the government without the approval of the TTP leadership, Faqeer claimed that he had sought permission from the TTP top brass before holding peace talks with the government. "Negotiations are part of war. When the Afghan Taliban can hold talks with the US why can't we talk to the Pakistani government?" Maulvi Faqeer said.

Since its formation in 2007, the TTP has maintained a stronghold on territory in the Pakistani tribal areas on the Afghan border from which it could train fighters against US-led forces in Afghanistan and launch strikes at the Pakistani state. More than a decade since the US-led war on terror was launched, Pakistan has suffered under a onslaught of bombings by the group, which is also known as the Students Movement of Pakistan.

Suicide attacks are the TTP's preferred modus operandi, especially targeting Pakistani security forces, intelligence agencies and other symbols of the state. In recent years, the militants have combined forces with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, threatening to grow in reach and ambition.

Maulvi Faqeer is wanted by both Pakistani and Afghan authorities due to his involvement in cross-border ambushes on the US and coalition forces stationed in Afghanistan, as well as attacks on Pakistani border posts in the Bajaur Agency. He is also suspected of sheltering al-Qaeda leader Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2006.

In June and July 2011, Faqeer claimed responsibility for attacks on a Pakistani paramilitary checkpoint and on several border villages in Bajaur Agency. "Our fighters carried out these two attacks and we will launch more such attacks inside Afghanistan and in Pakistan", said Maulvi Faqeer in a live radio broadcast.

Asked if Faqeer had been expelled from the TTP, the spokesman said: "He will remain a part of the TTP, but will work as a common fighter. I have been directed by our commander Hakeemullah Mehsud to inform the media about the development".

Ehsanullah Ehsan said no one had been shortlisted by the TTP leadership to become the next naid amir and that the shura would take a decision on the issue during its next meeting. Faqeer, who hails from FATA's Bajaur tribal agency, has been deputy since TTP was formed in December 2007 in Peshawar.

Baitullah Mehsud was then chosen as central amir, while two key Taliban leaders in North Waziristan and South Waziristan - Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir respectively, were appointed as deputies.

Faqeer was appointed as third-in-command while Maulvi Fazlullah alias Mullah Radio was made secretary-general of the TTP and head of the Swat chapter.

At the time, Faqeer was a serious contender for the top position, but had to settle for deputy head as a majority wanted to keep the leadership within the Waziristan tribal area, which was their major stronghold. Bajaur district is located in the extreme north of the tribal areas and is some distance from Waziristan.

Following the death of Baitullah Mehsud in a US drone attack in August 2009, Faqeer swiftly told the BBC that he would assume temporary leadership of the TTP. However, two days later Faqeer was forced to announce the appointment of commander Hakeemullah Mehsud as the new amir.

"I can confirm that the TTP shura has elected Hakeemullah Mehsud as the new chief of the Pakistani Taliban, and it was a unanimous decision", Faqeer told the Associated Press on August 22, 2009. This episode suggest that Faqeer has had an uneasy relationship with Hakeemullah Mehsud since the latter's elevation as the TTP amir.

The Pakistan government's offer of peace talks to militant groups, including the TTP, was made in accordance with a resolution adopted jointly during an All Parties Conference on October 18, 2011. The conference was presided over by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and attended by all important political parties.

Reacting to the peace offer without waiting for his amir's counsel, Faqeer welcomed the initiative. He set two preconditions to talks: one, the government should reconsider its ties with the US; and, two, enforce Sharia law in the country.

In contrast, Hakeemullah vigorously rejected the offer, stating that the TTP's war on the state of Pakistan would continue as long as it sided with the forces of the infidel.

"We are all loyal soldiers of Mullah Mohammad Omar (the fugitive amir of the Afghan Taliban). He is our leader, guide and amir. The services and sacrifices made by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan have been proven over time and our association with them will only continue to strengthen", he said in a special message.

Media reports that the Pakistani Taliban had declared a ceasefire with the government of Pakistan in support of peace talks included one ran by Agence France-Presse on November 22, 2011 which quoted an unnamed Taliban commander. The anonymous TTP leader, claiming to be part 10-member negotiating committee, is believed to have been Faqeer. He said that two rounds of peace talks had already taken place.

TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan had to quickly refute that any peace talks had taken place between the two sides. "At the moment, the chapter of peace talks with the Pakistan government is completely closed," he told AFP by phone from an undisclosed location.

Faqeer again contradicted this a few weeks later, in December 2011, saying that the TTP and the government negotiating peace.

"Our talks are going in the right direction," Faqeer told Reuters. "If negotiations succeed and we are able to sign a peace agreement in Bajaur, then the government and the Taliban of other areas like Swat, Mohmand, Orakzai and South Waziristan tribal region will sign an accord. Bajaur will be a role model for other areas," he added.

In Bajaur, Faqeer said the government and the Taliban had ceased fighting to enable a jirga (tribal council) comprising notables from the tribal areas and settled districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and some government and security officials.

"The government has finally shown some courage through the All Parties Conference in Islamabad that has helped restore the trust of the Pakistani Taliban groups in the state institutions. The Pakistani Taliban were earlier reluctant to seriously consider the peace offers of the government as it had lost its credibility by arresting some senior Taliban commanders in Swat, who were invited for peace talks", said Faqeer, adding that the government had released 145 local militants as a goodwill gesture.

However, Faqeer's disclosure about peace talks was strongly refuted by another Taliban commander who introduced himself as Mullah Dadullah and who claimed to be the Taliban leader in Bajaur Agency. He said it was Faqeer's personal decision to enter into talks with the government and this should not be considered as a unanimous decision of the Bajaur Taliban or the TTP.

Ehsanullah Ehsan had to again deny TTP-government talks were underway, stating that there would be no negotiations until the government imposed Islamic law in the country. "Talks by a handful of people with the government cannot be deemed as the Taliban talking", he told The Associated Press by phone from an undisclosed location.

The claims and counter claims have led to speculation over a serious split within the TTP, with the removal of Faqeer unlikely to end the power struggle.

Faqeer's supporters in Bajaur Agency have reacted strongly, threatening to form their own group. Four important Taliban leaders of Bajaur loyal to Maulvi Faqeer called local reporters a day after his removal and rejected Hakeemullah's decision to sack their commander from his post as one-sided.

Maulana Abdul Mutalib, Fazal Khan, Maulvi Abdullah and Liaqat Khan said the decision was untimely and would sow discord among Pakistani Taliban militants. "The decision of the TTP's central shura has disappointed Bajauri Taliban," a Pakistani English daily quoted one of them saying.

Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist and the author of several books on the subject of militant Islam and terrorism, the latest being The Bhutto murder trail: From Waziristan to GHQ.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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