ISLAMABAD — A long-anticipated split in the Pakistani Taliban appears to have finally occurred, dealing a blow to the unified command of the outlawed militant organization. But critics are skeptical about whether it bodes well for what they consider the “controversial and confused” peace efforts of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Formed in late 2007, the loosely knit alliance of dozens of armed anti-state groups, called the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, has killed thousands of Pakistanis through suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks.
But this week, a key faction within the militant organization announced it was no longer part of the TTP, commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban.
A spokesman for the breakaway group, led by militant commander Khalid Said Sajna, cited what he called “un-Islamic” terrorism policies of TTP leaders, and its practice of raising funds through kidnapping and extortion.
It is still not clear whether Pakistani government policies or the intervention of its intelligence service may have encouraged the split. It is also not clear whether the breakaway group is interested in negotiating for peace.
“This wedge might have been encouraged by the security establishment [the military] and the position of the TTP has been weakened,” former army brigadier Said Nazir said, but militants “have not announced any sort of cease-fire.”
Nazir said the split could give authorities greater leverage in attempts to strike a peace deal over areas where the militants are in control.
Preparing for foreign troops’ departure
As U.S.-led foreign troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year, both Afghan and Pakistani leaders are scrambling to anticipate the fallout from their departure.
In Pakistan, pressure is increasing on the government to extend its writ to the militant-infested border regions, particularly in North Waziristan, a known hub of Afghan insurgents.
The central government’s influence has long been weak in the tribal areas and the military has struggled for years to subdue militants who fight against the state.
Ehsan ul Haq, a retired army general and former chief of Pakistan's military spy agency, the ISI, said securing the border region is critical for both Kabul and Islamabad.
“We only have a very short time window to put our own house in order, operationalize our response, gain and consolidate control over all our territories, including North Waziristan,” Haq said, citing a need to regulate “the Pak-Afghan border.”
“Our efforts at gaining control over our territories and negating the misperception of the sanctuaries ultimately hinge on our decision on the border issue,” he said.
U.S. and Afghan officials have long accused the Pakistani military, particularly the ISI, of assisting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, citing Islamabad’s alleged reluctance to undertake a major offensive against militant bases in the Waziristan region.
The former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Maleeha Lodhi, suggested the long-running problem tests Pakistan’s international credibility.
If a country can’t maintain law and order in its frontier regions, fueling cross-border concerns with other countries, “it is a little hard to see how that country will pursue its objectives, whether regionally or globally,” she said.
Peace talks criticized
Earlier this year, Sharif, the prime minister, opened peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, hoping that diplomacy could succeed where years of military offensives did not.
However, the initiative drew severe criticism from progressive and civil society groups. They said it was pointless negotiating with a group whose mission is the violent overthrow of Pakistan’s political system.
Critics like Lodhi also say the effort contributed to an overall uncoordinated policy on addressing the Taliban threat.
“So, for us, the fundamental issue is to align all the elements of state power or national power,” she said. “I am afraid they are not aligned right now. The elements of national power are in complete disarray. Nor is there a strategic clarity about how do we pursue these goals to bring about the kind of domestic peace and stability that our people deserve.”
Some critics fear the split in the Pakistani Taliban could increase Islamabad’s tensions with Kabul because the breakaway militant faction is known for close links with Afghan insurgents. Some believe the militants could be seeking peace deals in Pakistan so they can concentrate on helping the Taliban insurgency across the Afghan border during the pivotal year when foreign troops withdraw.