Pakistan must 'exploit Taliban leadership rifts'

An heir apparent, Hakimullah Mehsud, has emerged in the battle to succeed Mehsud

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan must exploit rifts among Taliban commanders jostling to inherit the brutal legacy of rebel chief Baitullah Mehsud, analysts say, or risk the power vacuum being filled by Al-Qaeda.
An heir apparent, Hakimullah Mehsud, has emerged in the battle to succeed Mehsud after his reported death near the Afghan border, but analysts and officials told AFP that infighting continued despite the claims and swirling rumours.
On August 5, a missile from a US drone slammed into a house deep in the mountains of South Waziristan where Mehsud was said to be receiving medical treatment, with Pakistani officials certain the feared warlord died.
Desperate to salvage unity among Taliban footsoldiers, the Islamist militia insists he is simply ill, but that has not stopped a fierce battle breaking out for the reins of power and command over his fighters.
"There is a possibility they (the Taliban) could split if the government and the military and the intelligence agencies exploit the situation. It is a window of opportunity," defence analyst Talat Masood told AFP.
The infighting also comes after a military operation against the Taliban in northwest Swat valley, where the army claims to have "eliminated" extremists.
But the consequences of not taking further action could be dire, analysts say, with either a new militant boss emerging and staging spectacular attacks in a show of strength, or a dangerous power void opening up in the tribal belt.
"In the beginning, each one of them -- in order to consolidate his power -- will probably commit ruthless acts," said Masood.
And if no clear leader emerges from the fray and the government does not step in, other militant groups could take advantage of a lawless hideout straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"Al-Qaeda fills in the vacuum of leadership," Masood warned.
"They could exploit the situation as they did in Afghanistan and more or less took over the responsibility of leadership during Mullah Omar's period," he said, referring to the 1996-2001 Taliban government in Afghanistan.
Analyst and columnist Shafqat Mahmood said that Al-Qaeda also had the advantage of access to funds from overseas.
"When you have too much internal squabbling, sometimes somebody from outside can become the least unwelcome person," he said.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) umbrella militant group has been blamed for hundreds of deadly attacks across Pakistan since Mehsud took the leadership in July 2007 and began commanding the Islamists from his tribal fiefdom.
There are a handful of contenders to succeed him, with TTP deputy Maulvi Faqir Mohammad last week briefly claiming leadership, before anointing senior Mehsud henchman Hakimullah Mehsud to the top spot.
But analysts and officials say that another Taliban faction wants to see top commander Wali-ur Rehman at the helm.
"Various signals indicate that the battle for succession is still on. There is still a confusion, nothing is clear," said Brigadier Mahmood Shah, former security chief of Pakistan's northwest tribal areas.
Confirming the rifts with the Taliban themselves is difficult, with militant commanders only calling reporters when they want to comment.
So far, there has been no word from Rehman and his faction.
But speaking on the condition of anonymity, one Taliban commander from the tribal areas told AFP that Mehsud named Rehman as his successor in his will.
Masood said the government and military must play a clever game to further rip at the fabric of the militant structure, with a sustained military presence in the tribal belt coupled with intensified intelligence efforts.
Writing in London's Evening Standard newspaper, veteran Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid said that the government now had an "unprecedented opportunity to turn the tide against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda."
Rashid advocated a similar assault in the tribal belt to the one in Swat earlier this year, and said there was strong US pressure for such action.
But columnist Mahmood cautioned against too much interference in the fiercely independent tribal areas.
"If they are killing each other, I don't think the government should have any problem with that. If they introduce an outside element it's quite possible they stop fighting each other and start fighting the government," he said.
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