Pakistan’s military believes the fugitive leaders of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are receiving outright support from militants as well as officials in Afghanistan, where they have found a safe haven.
The suspicion comes in the wake of an upsurge in cross-border incursions in Pakistan’s border regions led mainly by TTP militants and backed by their Afghan collaborators.
“The TTP senior cadres Maulana Fazlullah, Maulvi Faqir Muhammad and Abdul Wali, aka Omar Khalid, have been receiving support from local Afghan authorities and miscreants,” the military’s chief spokesperson Major-General Athar Abbas told The Express Tribune.
Maulana Fazlullah, also known as Mullah Radio, was the chief of TTP in Swat, while Maulvi Faqir and Omar Khalid headed the group in Bajaur and Mohmand, respectively.
Military officials have gone so far to accuse the authorities in northeastern Afghanistan of being complacent in these raids – a claim vehemently denied by Afghan officials.
The military itself does not directly blame them, but analysts believe some Afghan Taliban may be aiding their Pakistani namesakes, with or without approval from the group’s top hierarchy.
Hundreds of TTP insurgents had fled the military operations in the tribal regions of Bajaur, Mohmand and Malakand Division of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to find a safe haven in the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.
The exact number of TTP militants in Afghanistan is not known but Maj-Gen Abbas said that 200 to 300 militants have been mounting cross-border attacks in Dir and Chitral districts, suggesting they have a massive presence there.
“Militants from Bajaur and Mohmand are mostly based in Nuristan where they are hosted by an Afghan militant group, led by Qari Ziaur Rehman – a leader of the Salfi Taliban who are thought to be the closest ally of al Qaeda,” a senior military official told The Express Tribune requesting anonymity.
Salfi Islam is the bedrock of al Qaeda’s ideology, which is also followed by the Taliban controlling Kunar and Nuristan. This ideological convergence brought the two closer to each other.
Qari Zia is believed to be once a close confidante of Osama bin Laden and hosted him once after his epic escape from the Tora Bora mountains in 2001.
Peshawar-based security analyst Brigadier (retd) Muhamaad Saad believes the Taliban are not a monolithic entity. “They can be divided into three broad categories: Kandahari Taliban, led by Mullah Omar; Pakti Taliban, led by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin Haqqani; and Salfi Taliban,” he said. “It’s the Salfi Taliban who pose a real threat to Pakistan. They may not be obeying the Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar.” But the Afghan Taliban deny any schisms in the movement. “All mujahideen are united under the leadership of Mullah Omar,” Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid told The Express Tribune by phone from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan.
A respected cleric who runs an Islamic seminary in Shekandai, a village on the border between Chitral and Nuristan, endorses Mujahid’s claim. “There is no evidence of Qari Zia’s group defying the authority of Mullah Omar,” said Maulana Jamal Abdul Nasir.
Two years ago, the Nuristan Taliban had kidnapped a Greek professor from Chitral. And they had offered to free him in return for the release of three Afghan commanders – Ustad Yasir, the second-in-command of the 1980s jihadi leader Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, Maulana Rehmatuddin Nuristani, a local commander from Nuristan and Maulvi Abdullah Akhund from Kandahar.
“This shows there are no differences between the Salfi Taliban and those led by Mullah Omar,” said Maulana Nasir. The Afghan Taliban do not interfere in the affairs of Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries. “No member of Taliban can go against the movement’s policy,” Mujahid said – blaming the TTP for all cross-border incursions. He also denied Qari Zia’s group was sheltering the TTP militants.
The governor of Nuristan province also appears to be exonerating the Afghan Taliban. “The Afghan Taliban have never carried out cross-border attacks in Pakistan,” Tameem Nuristani told The Express Tribune by phone from his home.
He also put the blame squarely on the TTP. “Look, they (Pakistani Taliban) have killed hundreds of people in bomb and suicide attacks across Pakistan, they’re Pakistan’s enemy,” he added. Nuristani, however, conceded that the TTP militants have found ‘safe havens’ in Kunar and Nuristan. Asked why the Afghan authorities do not move against them, Nuristani said, “Like Waziristan, we, too, have areas where the government’s writ does not exist.”
Scores of Pakistani military and paramilitary troops and policemen have been killed in cross-border raids by militants in Dir and Chitral districts. Last month, dozens of people were killed in militant attacks on security check posts in Chitral. And earlier this month, dozens of young men from Bajaur Agency were seized by TTP while they strayed across the border in Nuristan during an outing.
What is Pakistan doing to stop such raids?
“In Dir (Upper and Lower) extra troops have been deployed to man the border region. And in Chitral, new check posts are being set up at a bridge connecting the region with Afghanistan. We are sending huge reinforcements there,” said Maj-Gen Abbas.
The unnamed senior military official said the military was also encouraging formation of village defence committees in Chitral on the pattern of Amn committees (qaumi lashkars) in the tribal regions. But he conceded that local residents were unwilling to join, fearing reprisals from the militants.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 11th, 2011.