By Kanchan Lakshman
Quoting intelligence reports on August 7, 2009, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi confirmed that the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a US drone attack which targeted his father-in-law Maulana Ikramuddin’s house in the Laddha sub-division of South Waziristan on August 5. “Based on information gleaned from intelligence reports, the news of Baitullah’s death is correct. But we are going for ground verification, and when the information has been confirmed, then we will be 100 percent sure,” he told reporters in Islamabad. He also told BBC Radio that it was “pretty certain” that the Taliban chief was dead. A Taliban commander and aide to Baitullah Mehsud, Kafayatullah, meanwhile, told Associated Press: “I confirm that Baitullah Mehsud and his wife died in the American missile attack in South Waziristan.”
Reports since August 5 have indicated that Taliban commanders were meeting in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to choose a successor. It was, however, unclear when they might make an announcement. There is strong speculation that the strongest contenders for the leadership are Hakimullah Mehsud, Maulana Azmatullah and Wali-ur-Rehman. Hakimullah Mehsud, for long an important leader in the Taliban hierarchy and a deputy to Baitullah, commands the TTP militants in the Orakzai, Khyber and Kurram Agencies of FATA. Azmatullah, like his slain chief Baitullah, hails from the Shahbikhel sub-tribe of the Mehsud tribe. He is an important ‘commander’ and also a member of the Taliban shura (executive council). Wali-ur-Rehman, another prominent member of theshura, was a former spokesman and deputy of Baitullah Mehsud. There has been a power struggle within the TTP for quite some time now and that explains the delay in announcing Baitullah’s death and the successor. There are, at the time of writing, unconfirmed reports that Hakimullah Mehsud was shot dead in a fight with Wali-ur-Rehman during a shura meeting somewhere in South Waziristan. Reports of Hakimullah Mehsud’s death, however, could not be independently verified. There are also some unconfirmed reports that an ailing Baitullah had already announced Wali-ur-Rehman as his successor before he died.
Whoever assumes the TTP leadership, there will be some strain on the unity and ranks. One of the crucial qualities that distinguished Baitullah from the other Taliban commanders was his ability to forge unity and consistently maintain a coalition of tribal loyalties, not an easy task, given the diversity and mutual tribal antagonisms that dominate the social and political matrix in the FATA.
As confirmation of Baitullah’s death comes, it will constitute a critical setback for the TTP, inflicting a measure of demoralisation among the rank and file. The TTP, however, which has exhibited wider movement-like characteristics, is not over-dependent on personalities. Under some continuous pressure from both US Predator strikes and the Pakistan Army’s campaign of bombings and missile and artillery strikes, moreover, the TTP will have anticipated the possible neutralization of some of its leaders, and can be expected to have prepared for such an eventuality. If the past trajectory is any indication, there will be another leader in the saddle soon enough, to carry on the jihad.
Crucially, the TTP’s strategic goals are not expected to undergo any radical change under any of the possible successors. A strong anti-US agenda will, indeed, be further intensified as news of Baitullah’s death in a US Predator strike sinks in, and the TTP’s extreme hostility to the establishment at Islamabad can only worsen. There will certainly be some changes in tactics, but these are likely to have minimal strategic impact, and cannot be expected to diminish the group’s capacity for orchestrating violence and subversion in the region.
Under Baitullah Mehsud, the TTP had been able to create a wider corps of warriors, whose exact strength is not known, though Pakistani reports mentions up to 20,000 to 30,000 armed men, including 2,000 to 3,000 foreign militants. In case the power struggle within the TTP intensifies in the immediate future, however, the Al Qaeda may assume a larger role in shaping the TTP’s strategic direction. Any further fissures within the TTP may, for instance, allow Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin Haqqani aka Khalifa Siraj, who are more closely linked to Al Qaeda and with their safe havens in Waziristan, to come to dominate the TTP. The Afghan Taliban would also like to have a TTP chief who is more open to operational co-operation, especially for attacks on the US and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
In the weeks and months to come, Islamabad and Washington will naturally use their intelligence assets within the TTP to exploit and deepen whatever fissures there are at the moment within the group. It remains to be seen how these assets will be able to take advantage of the momentary disarray. There has been much talk of a dialogue with the ‘good Taliban’. The US Administration continues its quest for a ‘negotiated settlement’ with the ‘good Taliban’ in Afghanistan. The success of the US Administration’s much touted ‘AfPak strategy’ depends largely on weakening the Taliban militarily and subsequently negotiating with them from a position of strength. This necessarily involves the futile search for what has been described as the ‘moderate Taliban’ or worse still, the ‘good Taliban’. Despite the repeated failures of such a quest, successive regimes in both Washington and Islamabad continue to pin their hopes on this irrational ‘strategy’. The diverse streams of the Taliban share the same ideological vision and strategy of terrorist violence. Most Islamist terrorist groups in Pakistan – be it the TTP, Taliban, Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), or others – have the same ideological worldview, and are integrally interlinked. These linkages and common ideological foundations underpin the essential logic and dynamic of their operations.
There is some euphoria in Islamabad’s strategic establishment over Baitullah Mehsud’s death, though any possible Pakistani role cannot have gone beyond the provision of ground intelligence, and the eventual strike was carried out by a US drone. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs has described Baitullah Mehsud as a murderous thug and, while there may be considerable anger against Islamabad among TTP partisans, it is America which will be reinforced as the evil kafir (unbeliever) on the ground in FATA and elsewhere in Pakistan. Anti-US sentiments, already at a high in Pakistan, are consequently bound to amplify in the immediate future, and can be expected to be transformed into targeted violence, both within Pakistan and Afghanistan and against American interests elsewhere in the world.
The leadership issue within the TTP will, inevitably, be settled one way or another. Once that happens, the commanders and foot-soldiers from various regions will regroup, and, in the days ahead, calls for revenge will grow loud. There are bound to be retaliatory attacks, including suicide bombings and fidayeen (suicide squad) attacks. In Afghanistan, this can only complicate an already difficult situation, with elections for a new President scheduled for August 20, 2009. Almost half of Afghanistan, incidentally, is already at a high risk of attack by the Taliban and other militants or is under “enemy control,” an Afghan Government map shows, an indication of the grim state of play before presidential elections. The threat assessment map, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, shows 133 of Afghanistan’s 356 Districts as “high-risk areas” with at least 13 under “enemy control.” The map shows virtually “the entire south of the country under extreme risk of attack, a vast swathe stretching from Farah in the west through Helmand province in the south and east toward provinces such as Paktia and Nangarhar near the Pakistan border.” An independent assessment by theInternational Council on Security and Development described the Taliban as having achieved a “permanent presence” in as much as 72 per cent of Afghan territory by the end of 2008.
At another level, Baitullah’s killing further underlines the reality that Pakistan will act against terrorist groups on its soil only when its hand is forced. Baitullah, it needs to underscored, was long propped up by Pakistani state agencies as a ‘strategic asset’, until he and the TTP turned renegade after the ham-handed Lal Masjid operation in Islamabad in July 2007. Despite their operations against Islamabad and its authority across the country, Pakistan’s response against the TTP remained muted, till intense US pressure, the rising bloodbath in Swat and the collapse of the state in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) forced an escalating military response – albeit one that was indiscriminate and ineffective, overwhelmingly targeting and displacing civilians. Significantly, jihadigroups that target India and Afghanistan, which continue to be regarded as Pakistan’s strategic assets, have escaped state action, despite increasing global and particularly US pressure.
While there is bound to be some momentary disarray within the TTP and a possible, though brief, respite from the violence, Baitullah’s death will not result in any far-reaching reversal of Islamabad’s fortunes, as far as the multiple insurgencies afflicting Pakistan are concerned. It may be recalled that the neutralization of the then Taliban ‘commander’ for Pakistan, Nek Muhammad, in a missile attack in South Waziristan on June 18, 2004, also provoked wildly optimistic assessments, but failed to establish any measure of peace or stability in the region. In fact, within weeks of Nek Muhammad’s death, Baitullah Mehsud emerged as the principal ‘commander’ in the region. After forging unity among 13 militant factions and a degree of military consolidation, Baitullah declared himself leader of the Pakistan Taliban some time in late 2007.
The TTP remains intact, despite the temporary reversals in Swat and Malakand Division of the Frontier, and in spite of all earlier military operations. It will survive Baitullah Mehsud’s death and its momentary decapitation.
Author is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management