Islamabad: A bitter feud has broken among the Pakistani Taliban over who should take over the group’s leadership from Hakimullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US drone strike two weeks ago.
The post was due to go to Maulana Fazlullah, a ruthless mullah from Pakistan’s Swat Valley area who ordered the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl blogger who spoke out against the Taliban.
But when he was officially confirmed in the position at a secret meeting of the Taliban’s high command last week, it sparked a walk-out by commanders from a rival faction. “When Fazlullah’s name was announced, they... walked out saying, ‘The Taliban’s command is doomed’,” said one Taliban figure who attended the meeting.
The argument over the succession has exposed long-running tensions within the Pakistani Taliban, who are in effect a loose conglomeration of some 30 different militia groups.
In recent years the movement has been dominated by the Mehsud tribe, with the recently-killed Hakimullah Mehsud having taken over the leadership from Baitullah Mehsud, who himself died in a drone strike in 2009.
Fazlullah, despite his reputation as a hardliner’s hardliner, is considered a relative outsider within the ranks, as he hails from the Swat Valley rather than the Taliban’s traditional strongholds in Pakistan’s tribally-administered region.
That is where one of the main other contenders for the leadership comes from - Khan Said, whose main previous responsibility has been recruiting and training suicide bombers.
“Mehsuds are not only not happy with this appointment, there are reports of serious infighting among them that might come to the fore in the near future,” said Saifullah Mahsud, director of the FATA Research Centre, a Pakistani think tank.
While a failure to agree on a new leader could compromise the group’s operation effectiveness, it could equally lead to even more bloodshed as different commanders and factions embark on their own rampages.
The group already stands accused of killing thousands of Pakistani civilians in recent years, as well as trying to impose sharia law in places like Swat. A fissuring of the command could also make it harder for the Pakistani government to press ahead with planned peace talks.
However, given that many of the Taliban leadership are either opposed to talks in principle, or are insistent that they will only lay down their weapons when the existing government is replaced by an Islamic caliphate, the chances of the peace talks leading to any meaningful agreement have always been in doubt.
Fazlullah has ruled out any dialogue and has announced a new campaign to attack government and security installations in the Punjab region, the political base of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister.