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Opinion

Pakistani Taliban: new leadership, old feuds

Drone strikes have exacerbated an already tense situation between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US.

Last updated: 24 Nov 2013 10:55
Naveed Ahmad

Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic, focusing on security, diplomacy and governance. He reports from Syria, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan for various international news sources and publications.
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The new leader of Tehreek-e-Taliban, Mullah Fazlullah, is known for his brutality [AP]

On November 1, a US drone killed Hakimullah Mehsud, a feared top commander of the Taliban in North Waziristan, a semi-autonomous Pakistan region bordering Afghanistan. The emir of Tehreek-e-Taliban, Pakistan, had masterminded the killing of hundreds of Pakistanis and Afghans, and dozens of Westerners including US nationals. Previous such US attempts had failed.

Pakistani Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, termed Mehsud's killing as "murder of the peace process". He contended that the government was engaged with the Taliban to open formal peace talks after an agreement between the country's politicians and armed forces. Islamabad vowed to rethink its relationship with Washington while top opposition leader Imran Khan, whose party controls the border province, threatenedto block NATO supplies on November 23. Just two days before the planned protest, Washington humiliated Islamabad and provoked its opponents by killing nine people in a drone strike deep inside Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa (KPK) province. Addressing thousands in Peshawar, Khan vowed to shutdown the logistical corridor for NATO.

After the Taliban opened a representative office in Doha, Qatar, calls for a similar engagement with the militia's Pakistan chapter rapidly gained support. Pakistan has currently deployed over 150,000 troops in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Pakistani armed forces and civilian militias have suffered the largest number of peacetime casualties in the rugged and remote region's history. 

South Waziristan, and six other similar units demarcated by the British, has been the base of hard-line Pakistani, Afghan and foreign fighters since the late 1970s. Despite Pakistani military strikes in the area, the US believes that fighters' safe havens still exist. While the controversy over cross-border infiltrations has continued for over a decade, now Islamabad, Kabul and Washington seem willing to take a pragmatic view of the situation in advance of NATO withdrawal in 2014.

According to the wishes of Afghanistan and the US, Pakistan has released various top Taliban commanders. This gesture, before the upcoming negotiations, is thought to be a confidence-building measure aimed at bringing the militia to a mainstream political process.

Though little is officially known about the negotiation process itself, the tripartite commission - comprising the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan - has met several times, focusing on freeing more captured fighters.

Economic strain

Strained by the economic impact of persistent military campaigns in its tribal areas, and sheltering and feeding Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), Pakistan is desperate to reach a negotiated settlement with the tribesmen who are imposing extremism in the name of Islam. Although there were earlier attempts to reach peace with the fighters in the tribal areas, Pakistan has never before witnessed such public clamour for talks.

On September 9, all of Pakistan's political parties and top military commanders unanimously agreed to hold negotiations with the Taliban as a first move to counter the violence.

Al Jazeera's guide to who's who among the
top ranks of the Pakistani Taliban

The All Parties Conference resolution aimed "to initiate the dialogue with all stakeholders forthwith and for this purpose, authorise it to take all necessary steps as it may deem fit, including development of an appropriate mechanism and identification of interlocutors".

The resolution stated, "Guiding principles should include respect for local customs and traditions, values and religious beliefs and the creation of an environment which brings peace and tranquillity to the region."

The politicians and military commanders rejected the insinuation that the drone strikes were part of a written agreement between Pakistan and the US. Moreover, the aerial intrusion and use of force was termed illegal, illegitimate and counter-productive.

The outcome of Mehsud's death could have been appreciated better had Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif not returned from a three-day US visit with anti-drone rhetoric as his public diplomacy punchline. Nisar Ali Khan likened the renegade commander's killing with the demise of the peace initiative. He said a three-member team was to visit Hakimullah the day he was taken out by a US drone. Though the Taliban spokesman denied expecting any such negotiating team in Waziristan, there is substantial evidence that Islamabad and the Taliban were in contact and mutually willing to hold talks.

New militant-in-chief 

After over a week of consultations, the Taliban have chosen a brutal leader, Mullah Fazlullah, as its new chief. Fazlullah is known for slitting the throats of Pakistani soldiers and civilians in the Swat region before fleeing to the safety of Afghanistan after a full-scale military operation was launched. While media reports suggest that his elevation to Taliban Pakistan chief has the blessings of Mullah Omar, various credible sources believe that Afghan intelligence was providing him a safe haven ever since he left Swat sometime in May 2009.

Pakistan won't rock the boat with the US merely because of Mehsud's killing or violations of sovereignty.

Pakistan won't rock the boat with the US merely because of Mehsud's killing or violations of sovereignty. However, the prospect of blocking NATO supply lines from Peshawar to Karachi remains high. Opposition leader Khan makes logistic support to NATO contingent upon respect of Pakistan's sovereignty, namely an end to drone strikes.

He is, however, confusing NATO with the US. Analysts believe that Pakistan may lose support from European friends by disrupting the supply line. Countries like Turkey are not only part of NATO, but also have troops deployed in Afghanistan. Adjusting his position a bit more realistically, Khan has recently sought a moratorium on drone strikes while the country holds talks with the Taliban.

With the change in leadership, the Taliban have threatened revenge attacks across Pakistan while annulling any prospects of talks with Islamabad. Though security around important civilian and military installations and offices has been heightened, the mood in Pakistan is of uncertainty and nervousness.

Playing both sides

Adding to the tense situation, is a startling revelation that non-Pashtun-dominated Afghan intelligence has been aiding the Pakistani Taliban carry out terror attack across the border, a tactic often alleged to have been used by Islamabad.

Pakistan is fast moving towards asking for its demands to be met before any future release of Taliban prisoners. Realising the dangers ahead, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has also questioned the timing of Mehsud's assassination. Besides critical security cooperation with its neighbour, the future of Afghanistan heavily depends on vital supplies from Pakistan, ranging from wheat grains and meat, to petroleum and industrial machinery. The stability of Pakistan's border regions cannot be emphasised enough for a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.

The situation, worsening since the ill-timed drone attack, is set to have direct implications for US-Afghanistan talks with Taliban through its Doha office. Islamabad still holds Afghan Taliban's second key leader, Mullah Baradar, in its custody. Karzai has repeatedly expressed his discomfort over the delay in his release, while the Afghan High Peace Council delegation held its first meeting with him last week during their Pakistan visit, a symbolic step reassuring Taliban as well as Islamabad's readiness for a political way out.

For Pakistan itself, failure to militarily eliminate extremists in tribal areas or assimilate them into the mainstream through political process, comes at a heavy cost. The nation, which has lost over 60,000 lives since 2002, is already on the verge of fiscal collapse due to lack of foreign investment which in turn is due to corruption and the absence of security.

Pakistan needs peace on its border regions as much as the US requires a stable Afghanistan in post-2014. The controversial killing of Mehsud has opened up a debate on US-Pakistan relations, which can result in wasting crucial time and opportunity to recalibrate the position for bilateral interests.

Likewise, consistent CIA drone strikes and the eruption of sectarian violence provoked by a Shia procession in Rawalpindi on November 15, are becoming a pretext for a fresh wave of violence in the country. Islamabad will probably have to wait a little longer for the US to appreciate the importance of a similar political engagement with Pakistan in Waziristan.

Islamabad, Washington and Kabul need a better understanding, coherence and prudence now, more than any time since 9/11.

Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic, focusing on security, diplomacy and governance. He reports from Syria, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan for various international news sources and publications. 

Follow him on Twitter: @naveed360

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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