Taleban peace move ‘a ploy to cover up rifts’

Pakistani Taleban militants on patrol in South Waziristan. Picture: AP
Pakistani Taleban militants on patrol in South Waziristan. Picture: AP
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FIVE years after setting up an umbrella group to unite violent militant groups in the nation’s tribal regions, the Pakistani Taleban is said to be fractured, strapped for cash and losing the support of local tribesmen frustrated by a protracted war that has forced thousands from their homes.

Hakimullah Mehsud, the temperamental chief of the group known as the Tehrik-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP), recently offered to start peace talks with the government, raising the prospect of a negotiated end to Pakistan’s war against insurgents in a lawless region that runs the length of the border with Afghanistan.

But in interviews with analysts, residents and militant experts, Mehsud’s network has emerged as a narrow collection of insurgents – often with links to criminal gangs – that has only limited influence in a vast tribal region overrun by scores of insurgent groups led by commanders with disparate agendas and varying loyalties.

Rather than a precursor to peace, Mehsud’s offer could be an attempt to regain stature, silence critics and gain concessions from a weak government heading into national elections.

Taleban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan has repeatedly denied reports of divisions within the TTP, including reported challenges to Mehsud’s leadership.

But Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, said Mehsud’s offer to talk was an attempt to divert attention from internal rifts that were ripping the organisation apart and diminishing its influence.

“There is a lot of tension within the TTP,” he said. “This peace offer, I think, basically comes from Hakimullah Mehsud and the Mehsud commanders.”

Some of his most powerful commanders have broken away and set up their own fiefdoms, Mr Rana said.

Militant expert and author Zahid Hussain said: “The Taleban’s offer of peace talks is more of a ploy to gain legitimacy and a public relations tactic than a sincere move to end violence.”

He portrayed Mehsud’s Taleban as killers and criminals demanding negotiations on their own terms, including the release of prisoners who spearheaded the 2009 Taleban takeover of the Swat region in north-eastern Pakistan and who admitted beheading opponents.

In total disregard for Pakistani law, the video in which they offered peace talks featured convicted killer Adnan Rashid, who escaped from death row during a Taleban jailbreak last year.

Mr Hussain called the video a “grotesque joke” and criticised the government’s willingness to talk with Mehsud’s Taleban.

“Some political leaders are shamelessly calling on the state to surrender to the very criminals who have killed thousands of Pakistanis in suicide bombings, beheaded soldiers and bombed schools,” he said.

Two dozen political parties agreed at a meeting on Thursday to pursue talks with the Taleban. They included the ruling Pakistan People’s Party and the secular-leaning Awami National Party that rules the area where the tribal regions are located.

Provincial information minister Iftikar Hussain, whose son was killed by the Taleban, said: “We have to try to find peace. It is not a question of giving them legitimacy. Their forces are there and when they come to the negotiation table, they are recognising the writ of the government.”