PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN— A struggle for power between Pakistani Taliban commanders divided over whether to talk to the government has erupted in violence with dozens of fighters killed along the Afghan border over recent weeks, Pakistani security officials said.
It is unclear if the fighting will weaken an insurgency aimed at bringing down the nuclear-armed Pakistani state but the security agencies will be hoping to turn the bloodshed to their advantage.
The violence is between rivals in the Mehsud tribe, one of numerous ethnic Pashtun groups that straddle the Afghan-Pakistan border who have for generations battled outsiders to preserve their autonomy, and often each other over feuds.
The Pakistani Taliban, a loose alliance of militant groups drawn largely from Pashtun communities, have been fighting for years to overthrow the government and impose strict Islamic law.
The rivals are from the same sub-group of the Mehsuds, a tribe based in the South Waziristan region that provides the Taliban the bulk of their money and many of their fighters.
On one side is a commander called Khan “Sajna” Said, who is in his mid-thirties and acts as an arbitrator for the Taliban in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, and controls lucrative extortion rackets there, said an analyst with extensive contacts in the insurgency.
Sajna supports peace talks with the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Taliban commanders said.
But his rival, Shehryar Mehsud, is against the tentative talks that began in February and one of his commander said attacks on the government would go on regardless.
“We will continue attacks even if they sign a peace agreement,” the commander said, adding that his men had killed 20 of Sajna's fighters and razed a dozen of their training camps in South Waziristan in the past week.
Mehsud recently returned from Afghanistan, where he spent years in exile after quarreling with previous Taliban leaders. He has access to foreign money and thinks he should lead since he comes from a prominent family, a militant insider said.
Government and military spokesmen did not return calls seeking comment.
“No central command”
The fighting underscores the difficulty of trying to negotiate a peace deal with an insurgency that has no unified command, an analyst said.
“The Pakistani Taliban are unlike the Afghan Taliban. They are a loose alliance, they have no central command,” said author Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the militants. “Exactly who are we talking to? This is a question Nawaz Sharif has never answered.”
Such bloody rivalry is not uncommon. The current violence is rooted in a conflict between the previous leader of the Pakistani Taliban and his deputy, who were killed in separate attacks by missile-firing U.S. drones last year.
The government would be trying to seek advantage but had to tread carefully, said a security analyst.
“The policy of the civilian government is to make these people fight among themselves,” said retired general Talat Masood. “But if one wins, it will emerge stronger and far more dangerous.”
The analyst with the insurgent contacts said the government was trying to exploit the split by getting Sajna to agree not to attack government forces.
“They have sent Sajna several message but he has yet to respond,” said the analyst.
Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said commanders were trying to get the rivals to talk.
Imtiaz Gul of the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies said the clashes were likely at least partly related to money.
“Tribal commanders are also plugged into organized crime and at time the feuds may not be stemming from political differences,” Gul said.
Although security officials would be hoping the split would weaken the insurgency, Gul said he doubted it would.
The insurgents may be afraid of each other, he said, but they are even more afraid of being divided and picked off alone.