Pakistani Taliban Factions Complicate U.S.-Afghan Negotiations

6 MINS READJan 4, 2013 | 11:30 GMT
S.S MIRZA/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistani protesters demonstrate against U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle strikes on Jan. 3

A suspected U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle strike in Pakistan's tribal region Jan. 3 killed a key Taliban leader who had been helping Islamabad combat hostile Taliban factions. The top warlord of the Ahmadzai Waziri tribe, Maulvi Nazir, and several of his close associates died when missiles struck the house where they were meeting in Angoor Adda, South Waziristan. Nazir's death comes a little over a month after anti-Pakistan rival Taliban forces attempted to assassinate him.

Maulvi Nazir's reported death is a setback for Islamabad's efforts against Taliban rebels and could give Pakistan's main Taliban rebel group, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the opportunity to come back in South Waziristan. A U.S. strike killing Nazir could push his group or other larger Taliban factions, such as that of Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan, to align with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. The result could be a much more potent insurgency against the Pakistani state, weakening it to the point that it could become unable to play a meaningful role in negotiations about Afghanistan's future.

Islamabad considers Maulvi Nazir's group a benevolent Taliban faction because the tribal militia has not waged war against the Pakistani state, although it has been involved in militant activity in Afghanistan. Nazir and the Pakistani government had an understanding for years, which helped Pakistan limit the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan's influence in South Waziristan. Tribal divisions played a critical role in this agreement because Nazir was from the Ahmadzai Waziri tribe, which occupies the portion of South Waziristan bordering Afghanistan, while Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan is from the rival Mehsud tribe that inhabits the areas bordering Pakistan's Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

North Waziristan map

From the very early days of the Pakistani Taliban rebellion in 2003-2004, Nazir's group served as a proxy force against the al Qaeda-linked Taliban forces that were hostile to the government. On one occasion, Nazir's forces played a role in pushing out foreign fighters of Uzbek origin. Fearful of getting directly involved in a fight among tribes, the Pakistani government initially hoped that Nazir's proxy force combined with some assistance from state security forces would manage South Waziristan, which in those early days was the nerve center of an array of jihadist forces.

But Nazir's group had other priorities, including fighting in Afghanistan and avoiding a full-scale war between his Waziri tribe and the Mehsud tribe. In late 2007, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan was founded as an alliance of several different tribal militias and groups based in the urban areas of Pakistan, particularly Punjab. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was the most prominent group to join. Over the next two years, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan expanded by aligning with many of the Taliban militias based in the other six agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the greater Swat region. This expansion allowed it to project power into the Pakistani core through dozens of high-profile attacks, largely against police, military and intelligence personnel and facilities.

In early 2009, Pakistan's civil and military leaders embarked on a major offensive against Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, first in Swat in the spring and then in South Waziristan in the fall. Nazir and the Waziris facilitated the offensive by helping to force Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan out of the Mehsud areas into North Waziristan. Nazir and the Waziris, along with some elements of the Mehsuds, agreed to allow the Pakistani army go after Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in exchange for guarantees that Islamabad would not interfere with their activities.

Over the past three years, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan have been kept out of South Waziristan because of the Pakistani troops in the Mehsud areas and the state's arrangement with the Waziris. The result was that Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan was weakened to the point that it has been able to resume large-scale attacks only in recent months, and those attacks remain largely confined to the Pashtun areas in the northwest.

Nazir's death has created a vacuum, which Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan could exploit to get back into South Waziristan. This could involve Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan returning to the area, as well as Nazir's group, or at least significant elements of it, joining with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

Some Taliban forces that have not been involved in the fight against Islamabad may see the killing of Nazir as the Pakistani state selling out its erstwhile allies as part of the negotiations with the United States about Afghanistan's future after the NATO forces withdraw. Pakistan has greatly improved its working relationship with the United States since a U.S. attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in 2011 that strained ties, and the pace of negotiations involving Islamabad, Kabul and Washington has increased. This closer Pakistani-U.S. cooperation coupled with the loss of their leader and vulnerability to attacks by both the United States and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan could encourage Nazir's followers to align with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, especially since the balance of power in South Waziristan has been thrown off.

It is unclear whether the United States acted unilaterally in this alleged attack, if there was a mistake in targeting or if elements in the Pakistani state approved Nazir's elimination — though the latter is the least likely scenario since Nazir was instrumental in helping Islamabad control the hostile Taliban factions. Regardless of how and why Nazir was killed, Pakistan's policy of dividing the Taliban factions and pitting them against each other will backfire, especially if this type of targeting continues.

It would be even more problematic for Pakistan if Hafiz Gul Bahadur turns against Islamabad. Bahadur is the key warlord of the Waziri tribe's Uthmanzai branch and is based in North Waziristan. With a bigger militia than Nazir, Bahadur must be wondering if he is next on the target list. Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan is already operating out of certain areas in North Waziristan, and if Bahadur allied with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, it could greatly augment the insurgency in Pakistan.

Under the current circumstances, Pakistan has avoided going into North Waziristan for several reasons: it lacks the necessary military capabilities; it has a working agreement with Bahadur in North Waziristan; and the Haqqani wing of the Afghan Taliban has a key sanctuary in the agency. Pakistan's goal has been to contain the Taliban rebellion by isolating Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan from non-hostile Taliban factions and hopefully incorporate those factions in the settlement with the United States and Afghan Taliban to help control Afghanistan after the NATO withdrawal.

The Pakistanis hope such an agreement will create the conditions necessary to contain the insurgency in Pakistan by making deals with pragmatic elements within Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan that are interested in reconciliation and are willing to disassociate from the more hard-line elements that subscribe to al Qaeda's worldview. In recent weeks, there have been several reports and statements from both Pakistani officials and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan leaders about negotiations and their respective conditions for such talks.

The killing of Nazir has upset the Pakistani strategy and shows a continued disagreement between Islamabad and Washington over which Taliban elements are reconcilable. From the U.S. point of view, there is no certainty that its talks with the representatives of Afghan Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar will lead to a settlement. Therefore, the Obama administration sees it in its interest to weaken the Afghan Taliban and its Pakistani allies as much as possible before the 2014 deadline and gain leverage for negotiations.

More broadly, this incident shows the differences in the strategic interests of the United States and Pakistan regarding Afghanistan. The United States will withdraw ground forces and manage the country through support for the Afghan security forces and unmanned aerial vehicle strikes. Pakistan, however, cannot escape the fact that its western flank is composed of tribal Islamist militants that cannot be militarily defeated. Therefore Pakistan, much more than the United States, needs a settlement with the Afghan Taliban as well as those within its borders.

The growing problems in Pakistan's tribal areas mean that Islamabad will have a hard time realizing a settlement in Afghanistan, and post-NATO Afghanistan could pose serious security risks for Pakistan in the future.

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