The Taliban organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan are undergoing unprecedented divisions that pose both new opportunities and challenges for the two neighbors battling insurgencies.
Leadership disagreements and factional infighting have raised the specter of a far-reaching realignment among Taliban factions. In the vast theater spanning Afghanistan and Pakistan, hardline Taliban factions are now engaging in escalating infighting with moderate Taliban groups seeking an accommodation with Islamabad and Kabul.
This week a leading Pakistani Taliban faction formally announced that it was abandoning the umbrella group, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The faction, led by Khalid Mehsud, who is also known as Khan Said Sajna, accused TTP leaders of involvement in criminal activities.
Khalid Mehsud, also known as Khan Said Sajna
"[The TTP leadership] clique is involved in the heinous crimes of robbery, extortion, kidnapping for ransom and targeted assassinations," he said in a statement issued to journalists on May 28. "They have killed Islamic scholars and forced madrasas to pay them money and engage in orchestrating bomb blasts in public places after getting paid from outside the country."
The most revealing part of the statement said that the TTP "bothered the Punjabi Taliban and Al-Qaeda," and propagated certain "sectarian beliefs and ideology."
The TTP has not responded to the Mehsud group, but the division was inevitable after dozens of Taliban fighters were killed in clashes between the group’s members and militants loyal to erstwhile TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud this month.
Their differences boiled over into open confrontation after Hakimullah’s supporters lobbied hard to prevent Khalid from assuming the TTP's leadership. Hakimullah was killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike in November.
In recent months the TTP has launched some major attacks and has negotiated with Islamabad, but internal disagreements now threaten its status as Pakistan's main militant adversary. Tens of thousands of Pakistani civilians and soldiers have been killed in TTP attacks and retaliatory military operations.
Across the border in Afghanistan a similar process is underway. Qari Hamza, a purported spokesman for the Afghanistan Islamic Movement, a Taliban splinter group locally known as Fidai Mahaz or "Sacrifice Front" in Pashto, labeled the Afghan Taliban as a Qatari militia.
"The spokesman of the Qatari militia cannot decide who are [the real] mujahedeen while they sit at a negotiating table with the crusaders," one of the group's recent statements said, in a mocking reference to the Afghan Taliban's political office in the tiny Gulf nation. "These people think of themselves as the Islamic Emirate and even claim to have a monopoly over Islam, but they really need to revaluate themselves before branding others as [good] Muslims or infidels."
This breakaway faction has claimed responsibility for some recent attacks and high-profile assassinations. Afghan officials believe it is an extremist Taliban splinter group now headed by Haji Najibullah, a close associate of former Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, who was killed by NATO troops in 2007.
A rift among the top fugitive leaders of the Afghan Taliban is expected to further cloud its future.
Former Taliban military commander Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir is missing after he was removed from his post as the leader of the Taliban military commission last month. The controversy around his removal has emerged as a major threat to the solidarity of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban leadership council based in Quetta, the capital of the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan near Afghanistan's border.
The Taliban has rejected Afghan government claims that Zakir was being held by Al-Qaeda linked Pakistani Taliban militants, and insisted that he "is free and is engaging in his activities."
But nothing has been heard from Zakir since he was sacked. A source close to Taliban leaders told Gandhara that Zakir has been absent from the meetings of the exiled Taliban leadership council for more than a year because of a power struggle with the de facto Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur.
"The two men did not agree on the question of making peace with Kabul," the source said in early May. "Zakir wanted to push for a military victory after the withdrawal of the U.S. forces towards the end of this year, while Mansur favors the search for a settlement through negotiations."
Afghan officials claim that the Afghan Taliban recently appointed hardline commander Ibrahim Sadar to replace Zakir. They said that Taliban leaders blamed Zakir for failing to disrupt voting during the first round of the Afghan presidential polls on April 5.
But the appointment of hardline figures might foment more internal divisions, which would render the Quetta Shura ineffective and incapable of controlling its shadowy organization inside Afghanistan.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Afghan intelligence official told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the most powerful Taliban military faction, has ordered his followers not to obey the Quetta Shura’s orders.
Haqqani, whose father Jalaluddin Haqqani was a major anti-Soviet mujahedeen commander in the 1980s, is known for launching brazen attacks in major Afghan cities.
Afghan security affairs analyst Javed Kohistani said that fragmentation within the Taliban ranks has seriously undermined their capacity to pose a major military challenge.
"Factionalism, mistrust and disagreements afflict the Taliban [both in Afghanistan and Pakistan] and prevent them from utilizing their military capacity," he said. In addition, "[their main backer] Pakistan now feels that the Indian and Afghan intelligence agents have infiltrated the Taliban ranks and they cannot be trusted."
Kohistani said that the Taliban infighting presents a unique opportunity to Kabul, but that the government’s capacity to respond is compromised by the country’s prolonged presidential election. "Unfortunately, we are undergoing a political transition in Afghanistan and the government cannot make major strategic decisions," he said.