July 9, 2008 | FDD’s Long War Journal

Uzbeks presence in Pakistan’s tribal areas reignites intra-Taliban conflict

A several-year-old intra-Taliban conflict between two South Waziristan warlords has flared up again. Mullah Nazir has teamed up with Mullah Gul Bahadar to oppose Baitullah Mehsud's support of Uzbek extremists in the tribal areas.

Nazir, a Taliban commander in South Waziristan and a chieftain in the Ahmedzai Wazir tribe, and Bahadar, a Taliban commander in North Waziristan and a leader in the Utmanzai Wazir tribe, have been given permission to join forces against Baitullah Mehsud to stop him from attempting to “re-impose Uzbek militants” on the tribes. Nazir and Bahadar's union was approved by an Ahmedzai Wazir tribal council consisting of more than 500 tribal leaders.

Baitullah Mehsud is a powerful leader of the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan and the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan. He has close links with al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, and has sheltered Uzbek terrorists from the Islamic Jihad Group.

The presence of the Uzbeks in the Waziri tribal areas has fueled resentment amongst the tribes. The conflict is based on a complex series of issues such as tribal rivalries, land ownership, jihadi strategy, and the murder of al Qaeda supporters.

An intra-Taliban turf war

While many Pakistan analysts were quick to seize upon the infighting between Nazir and Baitullah in 2007 as the nucleus of the Pakistani version of the Anbar Awakening, the Sunni insurgent and tribal revolt that led to the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq, a closer look at Nazir shows he is committed to the Taliban and al Qaeda cause.

Nazir openly supports al Qaeda and its leadership, and admitted he would provide shelter to senior al Qaeda leaders. “How can I say no to any request from Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar under tribal traditions, if they approach me to get shelter?” Nazir asked the Pakistani press in the spring of 2007. Arab al Qaeda operatives help finance Nazir's operations. He also openly supports the continuation of the jihad in Afghanistan and vowed to provide fighters to support the Taliban.

The Ahmedzai Wazir tribal meeting that sanctioned the agreement between Nazir and Bahadar shows the extent of the disagreement between Baitullah and Nazir. The jirga was clear to limit the alliance to opposing the return of Uzbek influence in the tribal areas. There is no discussion of preventing Baitullah's armed opposition to the Pakistani government, halting his suicide campaign against the Pakistani government and people, ending the fighting against Coalition forces in Afghanistan, or ejecting Arab al Qaeda members from the tribal areas. One of the tribal leaders present was temporarily jailed after saying the agreement between Nazir and Bahadar would only help the enemies of the Taliban.

The feud between Nazir and Baitullah can be traced back to early 2007, when Nazir led an offensive against the Uzbeks living in the Waziri tribal areas in April 2007. Nazir and his tribe resented the Uzbeks for their encroachment on Waziri lands and the Uzbeks insensitivity to tribal customs. In the feudal-like state of Waziristan, the Uzbek's land ownership was a direct challenge to the tribal power structure.

The Uzbeks proscribed fighting the Pakistani government versus foreign forces in Afghanistan. This theory has gained considerable ground in the tribal areas and is promoted by Sheikh Essa, an Egyptian al Qaeda strategist and cleric. Nazir also accused the Uzbeks of committing “crimes,” when in fact the Uzbeks were responsible for the murder of at least three of Nazir's financial representatives to al Qaeda.

The fighting was hyped by the Pakistani government as an indication of the success of the 2006 South Waziristan peace agreement with the Taliban. But the fighting ended after senior Taliban commanders Mullah Dadullah, Siraj Haqqani, and Baitullah Mehsud intervened. Baitullah supports the presence of Uzbek fighters in the tribal areas. The deal allowed the Uzbeks to resettle in North Waziristan in regions inhabited by Bahadar's clan.

In early January 2008, Nazir's forces clashed with Baitullah's legions after Baitullah's men executed eight members of a Waziri peace jirga. Nazir ordered all Mehsud clansmen to leave Wana and formed a lashkar, or tribal force, of 600 men to follow through. But a promised offensive against Baitullah's forces failed to materialize, even after the military struck at Baitullah's power centers in late January.

The disagreement between Nazir and Baitullah comes as the Pakistani Taliban is consolidating recent gains after fighting the Pakistani military to a standstill last winter. The government has sued for peace throughout the tribal areas and the settled districts of the Northwest Frontier Province. Baitullah recently moved against a rival tribal in the town of Jandola in South Waziristan, which borders Tank to the east. The Pakistani military is threatening to conduct an operation to eject Baitullah's forces from Jandola.

The Taliban and al Qaeda are likely to reign in the warring tribal leaders to minimize the distractions and disunity during the campaign to secure greater control of territory in the Northwest Frontier Province. The powerful Haqqani family will likely initiate negotiations between Nazir and Baitullah to place the internecine fighting on the back burner if fighting breaks out between the two groups.