Good Taliban, bad Taliban: The case of Hafiz Gul Bahadur

Once lauded as the 'good Taliban' for refraining from carrying out attacks against Pakistan's security forces, Bahadur's group seems to have joined hands with the TTP to launch attacks in KP.
Published March 21, 2024

Tensions simmering along the Pak-Afghan border have recently erupted into violence yet again, with a familiar player returning to the forefront — Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s militant group.

Blamed for the devastating March 16 suicide attack on a Pakistani military post in North Waziristan, which claimed the lives of seven soldiers including two officers, the militant group’s actions have sent shockwaves through the region. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s retaliatory airstrikes inside Afghanistan on March 18, targeting suspected hideouts of Bahadur’s group, have further strained the already fragile relations with Kabul’s Taliban rulers and raised fears of regional instability.

Good Taliban gone bad

But beyond the immediate violence lies a story of transformation.

Once lauded as the ‘good Taliban’ for refraining from carrying out attacks against Pakistan’s security forces, Bahadur’s group finds itself labelled ‘bad Taliban’ due to its role in the recent terror attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s southern region. This dramatic shift sparks a multitude of questions: What drove this transformation? Where does Bahadur’s group fit within Pakistan’s complex militant landscape, dominated by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)? And perhaps most crucially, what factors led the Bahadur-led group to engage in such a dramatic escalation?

Alongside the TTP, militants affiliated with the Bahadur group have of late been linked to several high-profile attacks on Pakistani security forces under various banners, including Da Ghazyano Karwan, Da Sufiyano Karawan, and Jaish Fursan Muhammad.

The group’s reach extends beyond North Waziristan, potentially posing a threat to security forces in adjacent districts like Bannu, Lakki Marwat, Dera Ismail Khan, and Tank. Some of its recent attacks include the March 16 suicide bombing in North Waziristan, the November 26 suicide bombing in Bannu’s Bakakehl area and the August 31 suicide attack on a military convoy in Bannu’s Jani Khel area.

Who is Hafiz Gul Bahadur?

Bahadur hails from the Mada Khel clan of the Uthmanzai Wazir tribe in North Waziristan, a former tribal district bordering Afghanistan. He is considered a descendant of the Faqir of Ipi, a legendary figure known for his resistance against British occupation in the 1930s and 1940s.

While little is known about his early life, local journalists and tribal elders say Bahadur was involved with the student wing of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Fazl (JUI-F). This aligns with the trajectory of other regional militants who fought alongside the Afghan Taliban against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, likely facilitated by the Haqqani Network which was based in Miran Shah since the 1990s.

Following the US-led intervention in Afghanistan in late 2001, militants including the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and those affiliated with Central Asian groups fled across the border to Pakistan’s tribal areas, including North Waziristan. Local militants like Bahadur, who had fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, provided refuge to these groups in the region.

Rise to prominence

Despite publicly aligning with the US in the “war on terror” after 2001, Pakistan initially seemed to tolerate the influx of militants into North Waziristan. Following two assassination attempts on President Musharraf and increasing pressure from the US, however, Pakistan launched operations in the region in 2004.

But these operations, intended to target foreign militants, backfired. A tribal elder from North Waziristan observed that they “galvanised the militants”, strengthening them against local authorities and tribal elders. Initially limited to the Wana and Shakai areas, the operations expanded after the 2004 killing of a local Taliban leader, Nek Muhammad.

Bahadur’s trajectory during this period reflects the complexities of the region. By 2005, he and his deputy, Maulvi Sadiq Noor, resisted the Pakistani military’s efforts to expel foreign militants. However, by mid-2006, Bahadur changed his stance, entering into a peace agreement with the government. The move angered some foreign militants, such as those from The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), who accused him of siding with Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Bahadur established a Shura council to govern the region, enforcing taxes and penalties. This also signalled cooperation with the government to some extent, with the peace agreement effectively making him the leader of the local Taliban in North Waziristan.

The agreement, however, did not sever Bahadur’s ties with the Afghan Taliban. Reports suggest that his group operated a suicide training camp in Dattakhel, specifically for the Afghan insurgency. Dattakhel, interestingly, was at the receiving end of scores of US drone strikes targeting foreign and local militants in Pakistan.

Reluctance to join the TTP

While the militant Al Qaeda sought to unify various Pakistani Taliban groups under the banner of the TTP in December 2007, Bahadur’s faction remained on the outside.

Journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, in his book, Inside Al Qaeda and the Taliban, suggests that the group’s key concern was to prevent the Pakistani state from exploiting divisions among local Taliban groups.

However, Bahadur’s primary focus, as observed by Peshawar-based journalist Rifatullah Orakzai, remained on the insurgency in Afghanistan, contrasting with the TTP’s focus on activities within Pakistan. “This difference likely influenced Bahadur’s decision to maintain a separate identity,” said Orakzai.

Mufti Noor Wali, leader of the TTP, mentions in his book, Inqilab-i-Mehsud, that objections to Baitullah Mehsud’s leadership and the presence of militants adhering to Salafi and Panjpiri schools of thought within the TTP may have been additional factors for Bahadur not joining the outfit formally.

Interestingly, Wali’s book also mentions a short-lived alliance, the Shura Ittehad-i-Mujahideen, formed in 2009. This alliance, reportedly including Al Qaeda, the TTP’s Mehsud chapter, Bahadur’s group, and Mullah Nazir’s faction, aimed to resist potential Pakistani military actions in Waziristan. However, disagreements led to Bahadur and Nazir’s departure from the alliance.

Support from Haqqani Network?

According to militancy experts, Bahadur’s group continues to benefit from its ties to influential groups such as the Haqqani Network, Al Qaeda, and even the TTP, despite maintaining a separate identity.

A retired military officer, with experience in North Waziristan, also agreed with the assessment, saying the group received crucial support from senior leaders of the Haqqani Network. This support reportedly includes “safe havens in Afghanistan, additional manpower, financial resources, and even advanced weaponry left behind by US forces”. This external backing significantly bolsters Bahadur’s capabilities.

The retired officer also explained that the tribal makeup of the region provides Bahadur’s group with operational freedom. “The presence of the Wazir tribe on both sides of the border allows militants to move back and forth with relative ease, making them more difficult to track and contain,” he said.

Transformation from ‘good’ to ‘bad’ Taliban

The 2006 peace agreement between Bahadur’s group and the Pakistani government remained in place with occasional disruptions. However, the fragile agreement came to an end in late May 2014, just before Pakistan launched a major military offensive, Operation Zarb-i-Azb, in North Waziristan. Bahadur accused the government of violating the agreement, effectively nullifying it.

Even as the military operation significantly weakened militant groups, including the TTP and Bahadur’s faction, forcing them to flee to bordering Afghan provinces, analysts believe that the indiscriminate tactics employed by the military, besides the killing of Bahadur’s relatives, further contributed to his growing animosity towards the Pakistani state.

“Bahadur expected leniency from the military during the operation due to his group’s previous cooperation with the government,” explained a tribal elder in Miran Shah. But this expectation proved futile. The military operation demolished houses belonging to Bahadur and his lieutenants and forced their families to be displaced. “This indiscriminate treatment embittered Bahadur and fuelled his anti-government stance, thus transforming him from ‘good Taliban’ to ‘bad Taliban’,” said the tribal elder.

In April 2022, several airstrikes, ostensibly carried out by Pakistani authorities but never actually confirmed by the government, targeted hideouts of the TTP and Bahadur’s group in Afghanistan, reportedly killing civilians, including children, some said to be close to Bahadur. “This further fuelled Bahadur’s anti-government stance,” said Orakzai.

Recent collaboration with the TTP

While Bahadur’s group traditionally focused on Afghanistan, recent developments suggest a potential shift. Both Bahadur’s faction and the TTP, weakened in the past, have been emboldened by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021. This seems to have paved the way for some form of collaborative strategy between the two groups.

For example, the TTP claimed responsibility for attacks in Bannu and North Waziristan in June, crediting cooperation with Bahadur’s group. However, details about the operational collaboration remain unclear.

The TTP, aiming to become the leading jihadist force in Pakistan, has actively sought to incorporate other groups. Since mid-2021, they have claimed mergers with 47 Pakistani Taliban factions, sectarian groups, and even Al Qaeda affiliates, although most are lesser-known entities. In December 2021, Aleem Khan, Bahadur’s former deputy, defected to the TTP.

Researcher Riccardo Valle, specialising in militant groups in the Pak-Afghan region, reports on his website, Militancy Chowk, that talks between the TTP and Bahadur’s group regarding a unified platform have taken place.

While the outcome of these discussions is unknown, Valle expresses concern that a successful merger would “further jeopardise the situation in south Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while expanding the TTP base in the province and posing new challenges to security forces”.