ISLAMABAD The chief of the Pakistan Taliban has been isolated from his militant group for more than a year and is rapidly losing control, a newspaper reported on Tuesday, a day after the military said it had launched an offensive in the northwest.
Associates of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud and intelligence officials in Islamabad say Mehsud's position is tenuous following the defection of one of his top commanders last week, Pakistan's Express Tribune daily newspaper.
The defecting commander, Fazal Saeed Haqqani, who was the Taliban leader in the Kurram region on the Afghan border, told Reuters in late June that he left over the group's "brutal" attacks on civilians. Haqqani has pledged to fight against the Pakistani Taliban and U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
"It looks as though he is just a figurehead now," the Express Tribune quoted one of Mehsud's associates as saying of the Pakistani Taliban commander.
"He can hardly communicate with his commanders in other parts of the tribal areas ... he is in total isolation. Only a few people within the TTP know where he is."
The Pakistani Taliban, or Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), is an umbrella alliance of about 12 militant factions strung out through the northwestern Pashtun lands along the border.
It is the biggest threat to the Pakistani state and is behind many of the suicide bombings and other attacks across the country.
Several more Taliban commanders in Kurram, where the army has just launched an offensive, might desert Mehsud soon and the military was seeking to split commanders from him, the paper reported.
"You will see more of his boys turning against him and this is exactly what we desired and have been working on," an official who deals with counter-terrorism operations told the newspaper.
Haqqani's brother also said there was dissent in the top ranks.
"We got some indication that several commanders are not happy with Hakimullah and they may join us," Adil Rehman, who acts as a spokesman for his brother's faction, told Reuters on Tuesday.
Mehsud attempted but failed to woo Haqqani back to the TTP last week but Mehsud refused to shun violence in Pakistan and Haqqani refused to rejoin, Rehman said.
"They were not ready to accept our demand and insisted they would continue their attacks on security forces and civilians."
The army said Monday it had launched an air and ground offensive in Kurram against Taliban militants, its first major military operation since the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden, and coming just days after Haqqani's desertion.
"The operation has been launched with the aim of clearing the region of militants who have indulged in kidnapping and suicide attacks on security installations and forces there," army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said Monday.
The United States has been pushing Pakistan to tackle militants along its porous border with Afghanistan.
The Pashtun tribal lands along the border have never been under the full control of any government and have become a refuge for al Qaeda-linked militants, who plan and carry out attacks against NATO forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider and Saud Mehsud; Writing by Rebecca Conway; Editing by Chris Allbritton)