ISLAMABAD - As the military takes on selective militant hideouts in North Waziristan and elsewhere, tensions are on the rise between TTP and other Taliban groups that don’t want confrontation with the Pakistani military after having secured peace deal with it in 2007-8.
Already, a tense situation exists between TTP commanders and their rival groups in North Waziristan as the fighters from both sides dig in for any eventuality. But no group has yet formally ended the 2008 agreement (Shura Mubarika) between the deceased TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud and top pro-government Wazir commanders, late Mullah Nazir from South Waziristan and Hafiz Gul Bahadur from the North.
As TTP prepares for a long haul and tough days to come, informed people of the area believe the hardened fighters and their commanders might vacate their areas and slip across the border in case of heavy pounding by the military in the days to come. “Swat was a different ball game. It doesn’t border Afghanistan, so majority of fighters of Fazlullah could not slip to Afghanistan. Even Fazlullah had to save his life, taking a long route through mountains to Nuristan, Afghanistan. Majority were killed or captured during the military operation as their average age was under 20 and they lacked guerilla training and fighting experience,” an independent observer having returned from South Waziristan recently said. “North Waziristan is different. Here the fighters are battle hardened with an average age of below 30. Majority of these fighters (10,000 as per a rough estimate) have a capability to slip away across the border to Afghanistan if their leadership (TTP) orders them to do so. They can also opt for a guerilla fight according to the situation on ground,” he added on anonymity. He feared Al-Qaeda-led foreign fighters can play a decisive role in this area in the days to come. Around 1,000 Saudi, Yemeni, Sudanese, Kuwaiti Qatari fighters are trying to consolidate their position in these areas of Waziristan, especially Mir Ali, he added.
Haqqanis are, however, the most potent and lethal force of the area. Ranked as one of the top terrorist outfits by Americans, Haqqanis hold the key to balance of power in North Waziristan and any confrontation between TTP and pro-Pakistan military Taliban in the area.
“Some people close to Haqqanis suspect Fazlullah and his commanders for being behind the recent killings of their top commanders,” an informed source said. “Mullah Fazlullah will have to decide in the days to come whether he will keep on sitting in the lap of Afghan intelligence or bows to the Haqqani network,” the source opined.
Mullah Nazir group, which commands the largest number of fighters in South Waziristan with the backing of the largest and most powerful Utmanzai Wazir tribe is now led by their commander Salahuddin Ayubi (Bahawal Khan) and has been in agreement with the government since 2007-8. In fact, Mullah Nazir group fought alongside the Pakistan military in 2009 to flush out Uzbek, Arab and Chechen fighters from South Waziristan and compelled them to flee to North Wazirisan.
The second most powerful tribe of the area, Mahsuds, are in disarray as most of them are IDPs in settled areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhawa like DI Khan, Bannu and elsewhere. Since the death of late TTP Chief Hakimullah Mehsud in a drone strike in November last year, the Mehsuds have lost TTP’s command to the Swat group led by Mullah Fazlullah. Now a powerful Mehsud commander, Khan Said Sajna, who succeeds late TTP leader Waliur Rehman, wants peace with the military and the government for repatriation of his tribe already living in very difficult conditions as internally displaced people (IDPs). Sajna contended for the top TTP slot, but lost to Mullah Fazlullah.
As the situation changes on the ground, the man to watch for the moment is Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the leader of Ahmedzai Wazir, the largest tribe in North Waziristan, is said to be sitting on the fence as TTP and Al-Qaeda affiliates are trying to win him over. Gul Bahadur is considered an old affiliate of the Pakistani military establishment. Lately, lack of funds and fighters has weakened Gul Bahadur’s grip on this area in North Waziristan which stretches from Khajoori to Barmil, and a large part of this area also connects to the Pak Afghan border. Other important areas of North Wazirisan under the writ of Gul Bahadur’s fighters are: Mir Ali, Razmak, Darpa Khel etc. Already, Gul Bahadur is facing an onslaught from affiliates of another commander, known as “Good Abdur Rehman” who once fought alongside Mullah Dadullah in Kandooz, across the border in Afghanistan.
Safe estimates by independent observers say around 5,000 to 6,000 foreign fighters, including Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens, Turks and Tajiks live in this area. Only Arabs account for more than 1,000 as majority of them are children of the deceased fighters who have been living in this area since 90s.