AS if the militancy scene was not confusing enough — at least for Pakistan’s decision-makers and policymakers — the now almost month-long fighting between two militant groups in South Waziristan has made the situation more puzzling, particularly in the context of the on-again, off-again peace talks.
The fighting between Khan Said alias Sajna and Shehryar — both Shabikhel Mehsuds — has raised questions of whether what is essentially a turf war for leadership and territorial control of the Mehsud heartland will spread to other tribal regions, and engulf the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, causing further fissures in Taliban ranks.
Also, important is the question of whether the clashes will have an impact on the peace talks between the TTP and the government-nominated committee of serving and retired civil bureaucrats.
Differences between Sajna and Shehryar date back to the time when Waliur Rehman had challenged Hakeemullah’s ascension as TTP emir following the death of Baitullah Mehsud. Waliur Rehman and Hakeemullah, like their leader Baitullah Mehsud, were killed in drone strikes but their death rekindled old rivalries.
What initially was a quest for TTP leadership soon turned into a fight for the control of the Mehsud heartland after the shura chose Swat’s fugitive militant leader Maulana Fazlullah as the new TTP chief.
The fighting which erupted in the first week of last month has, according to various estimates, left some 57 militants dead. Shehryar, who has a relatively smaller fighting force, is believed to have lost more men than Sajna.
Of the 22 command regions in the Mehsud part of South Waziristan, Sajna enjoys, according to government officials, the support of 18 commanders but as of now there is no clear victor.
So far, efforts by the Mullah Omar-led Amaarat-i-Islami Afghanistan and some senior TTP shura members to put an end to the fighting and enforce a four-month ceasefire have yielded no results as the two sides continue to launch attacks on each other’s bases and eliminate each other’s supporters and commanders in targeted killings and roadside bombings.
The TTP as an organisation has so far refrained from taking sides and SOS signals sent by one or the other group to rally support, government officials claim, have failed to evoke any response for a variety of reasons.
The current fighting in South Waziristan has not had any major impact on the TTP’s operational capability in the country, for the power to order and launch attacks now lie in regions beyond the Mehsud hinterland.
But the outcome of the fighting is likely to have an impact if Sajna manages to seize control of the entire territory. He has been in contact with the government, willing to cut a deal with or without the TTP. Whether he will stick to his position or change tack after winning the battle for leadership is not known. But the military has certainly put him in a difficult situation by launching an operation in Bobar where he has control and bases.
It has complicated matters. The peace negotiations have stalled for now. This owes much to the government’s own indecisiveness but also in small part to the infighting in South Waziristan.
There are those within the government who believe that holding peace talks with the so-called hardliners would be an exercise in futility and it would be better to go for separate, individual peace agreements with reconcilable groups such as the likes of Sajna.
And this is one reason, why, say some officials, the government has hardened its position vis-à-vis the conditions set forth by the Taliban committee. No concession may come forth, for instance, to the demand for a so-called peace zone.
The decision to unilaterally release 13 low-level militants as a confidence-building measure has been put on hold, for the time being, to find out what the TTP has to offer in return.
Also, in response to the TTP’s list of 904 combatant and non-combatant detainees that the militants allege are in the custody of the security agencies and who they want released, the government is likely to come up with its own list of people that it claims are in the militants’ custody, including scores who have been kidnapped for ransom. There is a war within and a war without. Militants are fighting it out amongst themselves in South Waziristan but they are also stepping up attacks elsewhere in the country.
Policymakers are divided. Should they support Sajna, tilting the balance in his favour to claim leadership, rally pro-peace groups around him and take on those inimical to the state? Or should they continue their engagement with TTP central? But what is clear is that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is adamant about pursuing the peace process. A military operation is off the table — for now.