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Pakistani Taliban Splinter Groups Dampen Prospects For Peace Talks

Pakistan's Taliban militants have become increasingly fragmented in the past few years. (file photo)
Pakistan's Taliban militants have become increasingly fragmented in the past few years. (file photo)
Islamabad has been urging the Pakistani Taliban to join unconditional peace talks after the strategy was endorsed at a national-security conference earlier this month.

But the government is already reconsidering its approach after a fresh wave of violence by Taliban splinter groups.

The plan is a key component of new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's electoral promise to find a way out of a bloody internal war between the army and Islamist militants that shows no signs of abating.

Sharif proposed peace negotiations with groups tied to the Pakistani Taliban, which are separate from Afghanistan's Taliban, during an all-parties conference on September 9.

Some initial contacts with potential negotiating partners were made, but Sharif is now warning he may abandon the idea after a double suicide bombing on September 22 at a Christian church in Peshawar killed 85 people.

Responsibility for the Peshawar attack has been claimed by two different extremist groups, Jandullah and Jand-ul-Hafsa, which belong to the long list of Pakistani Taliban offshoots.

Once clearly under the umbrella of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban began splintering after TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2009.

The TTP, now under the leadership of Hakim Ullah Mehsud, remains a potent force in the fight against the government. But it is not clear if the TTP directly controls the activities of groups such as Jand-ul-Hafsa, which has vowed to continue attacking foreigners and non-Muslims in Pakistan as long as drone strikes against insurgents continue.

Known Pakistani Taliban splinter groups include Tehrik-e Taliban Swat, Tehrik-e Taliban Mehsud, Badar Mansoor, Al-Furqan, Al-Mukhtar, Al-Kharooj, the Al-Azam Brigade, the Asian Tigers, Al-Qital, Punjabi Mujahedin, and Itihad-e Mujahideen Khurasan.

Murky Command Structure

Some of the groups cooperate with each other, and have joined consultations within a Taliban shura, or council, convened by Hakim Ullah Mehsud. But it is unclear what command structure, if any, Pakistan’s Taliban splinter groups share.

Hamid Mir, a journalist and presenter for Pakistan's Geo-TV, has kept track of groups that have rejected the government's call to join peace talks.

"There are different groups among them, such as the Molvi Fazal Ullah group that operates in Swat," Mir says. "It is against peace talks between the government and the Taliban. Another is the Umer Khalid group of the Mohmand tribal area. Some individuals within Pakistan's security agencies are against peace talks as well. When Hakim Ullah Mehsud summoned a [Taliban] shura meeting [to discuss the government's call for negotiations], the representatives of these groups showed their resentment."

Rahimullah Yousafzai, a prominent Pakistani journalist who specializes in covering militants, says it is no longer clear who all the Taliban group leaders are in Pakistan that would have to agree on a peace deal to end militant attacks.

"The government also does not know the exact number of [militant groups in Pakistan]," he says. "The provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which is run by the Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaaf party, says there are 35 militant groups in the province and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Sometimes we hear that there are 70 or 80 groups. Some even say there are around 100 militant groups in Pakistan. But none of these numbers or information is completely accurate."

According to Omar Hameed, a spokesman for Pakistan's Interior Ministry, Islamabad has banned more than 60 militant groups in Pakistan. "There are around 62 banned militant groups," he says. "Three of them have also been listed as terrorist groups by the United Nations Security Council -- [Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, the Haqanni Network, and the Al-Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e Taiba]. The rest have been banned by Pakistan's government."

Other Sources Of Violence

But Mazhar Mashwani, a senior official in Pakistan's Crimes Investigation Department, says militant structures have become too complicated to keep an accurate count.

"The number of banned militant groups is 24, but there is a problem," he says. "When a group is banned by the government, it gives birth to many splinter groups. Thus, members of the banned group divide into smaller groups and carry on their activities under new names. They also have many sectarian and tribal offshoots of different militant groups -- and some are sponsored by neighboring countries."

Retired Lieutenant General Hameed Gul, the former head of Pakistan's ISI intelligence service, says the Pakistani Taliban has fragmented into 30 groups.

Of those, Gul says, only 25 have agreed to sit at the negotiating table with government officials.

In the broader scheme, in addition to the Taliban insurgency and Islamic extremism, Pakistan faces violence from four other sources -- separatism, sectarianism, ethnic discord, and political militancy.

There are separatist rebels in Balochistan Province, such as the Baloch Liberation Army, the Baloch Republican Army, Lashkar-e Balochistan, and the Baloch Liberation United Front.

Sectarian Sunni Muslim militant groups in Balochistan -- such as Lashkar-e Jhangvi -- have been attacking Shi'a Muslims from Quetta's ethnic Hazara community.

In Karachi, there are militant wings of at least three Pakistani political parties.

Written and reported by Ron Synovitz with reporting by RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Majeed Babar