ISLAMABAD — The Pakistani Taliban faced the prospect of a damaging leadership rift Monday when the abrupt dismissal of a senior commander provoked an angry reaction in the militants’ ranks, offering the Islamabad government a fresh opportunity to weaken a foe that in recent years has killed thousands of Pakistanis and tried to detonate a crude car bomb in Times Square in 2010.
Militant commanders in Bajaur, a small but strategically important tribal district on the Afghan border, spoke out strongly against the news that their leader, the Taliban deputy commander Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, had been fired at a shura, or leadership council, meeting over the weekend.
In a telephone interview with journalists based in Peshawar, the commanders, Maulana Abdul Mutalib, Fazal Khan, Maulvi Abdullah and Liaqat Khan, threatened to set up a rival group. “The decision of the shura has disappointed the Bajaur Taliban,” one of the men said. “This is untimely and can create a rift amongst the mujahedeen.”
Simmering tensions between Muhammad and the head of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, spilled into the open in January when it emerged that Muhammad had unilaterally entered into peace talks with the Pakistani government. A few weeks ago, Muhammad said the government had released 145 Taliban prisoners as a goodwill gesture, an assertion not confirmed by the government.
“He was removed due to his involvement in talks with the government without the consent of our leadership,” said Ehsanullah Ehsan, the main Taliban spokesman. “His successor will be decided over the coming days.” Ehsan added that Muhammad had also been demoted to the rank of fighter.
The rift highlights strains within the ranks of the Pakistani Taliban, formally known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, whose ability to carry out attacks has been hurt by a combination of U.S. drone strikes in its Waziristan stronghold in the mountainous region of northwest Pakistan, and Pakistani military operations elsewhere in the tribal belt.
“The TTP’s peak has passed, it’s on the downslide,” said Khalid Aziz, a former provincial chief secretary. “Its people are coming under pressure; they are starting to go back to their tribes.”
Much of the tumult within the group centers on its leader, Mehsud, who helped build a fearsome militant network that stretches across northwestern Pakistan and into the country’s most populated cities. But in recent years Mehsud, who is in his early 30s and has a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, has been most concerned with staying ahead of his Central Intelligence Agency pursuers.
Since claiming responsibility for a suicide attack on a CIA base in southern Afghanistan in 2009 that killed seven Americans, Mehsud has been firmly in the sights of armed U.S. drones that roam the skies over Waziristan.