The killing of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone strike this week has not exactly handed officials the rare success they may have hoped for. In fact, it appears mostly to have muddied the waters of Pakistan’s already somewhat incoherent anti-militancy strategy, with the government terming the strike the “murder” of a nascent process of dialogue and at least one opposition politician declaring Mehsud, a man responsible for thousands of Pakistani deaths, a “martyr.”
Mehsud, killed along with five others in what appears to be a unilateral US strike on Dande Darpa Khel village in the North Waziristan tribal area on November 1, has yet to be officially replaced by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The group’s structure, acting as it does as an umbrella organisation for several allied armed groups both within and outside Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), means that each group must now complete a consultative process to nominate Mehsud’s permanent successor. Meanwhile, Asmatullah Shaheen, a senior commander, has been named interim chief.
The TTP leader’s killing has been hailed by some for the possibility that it could lead to a succession struggle within the organisation, splintering the group. The TTP has, however, survived intact from the killing of several senior commanders in recent years, including that of its founding chief, Baitullah Mehsud, in August 2009.
“I highly doubt that the TTP’s operational capability will be hit by this,” said Zarrar Khuhro, a senior Pakistani journalist. “The TTP in any case is a conglomerate of extremist groups and not a monolith. There are entities allied to, or operating under the TTP umbrella that remain as deadly as ever.”
Khuhro argued that “historical evidence suggests that [talk of] cracks [in the TTP] has been greatly exaggerated in the past,” and that Pakistan should be more concerned about reprisal attacks being carried out in the wake of Mehsud’s death, as has been threatened by the group.
“I think the real backlash will come when the new TTP chief tries to cement his militant credentials. There will be pressure on him internally to prove himself and there is no doubt that their cadres will try and carry out mass casualty events and strike high-profile targets. Of course, this is something they were doing in any case.”
However, Robert Grenier, the former Islamabad station chief of the United States’ CIA, takes a different view, arguing that the TTP is an atypical group in the Pakistani militancy environment, allying itself as it does to a “global jihad.”
“I don’t think it’ll be straightforward and even if they do select a nominal leader of the organisation… I don’t think the organisation would be quite so unified as it has been in the past,” he told Al Jazeera. “Baitullah was quite a charismatic figure… Hakimullah was maybe a distant shadow [of him]. I’m not sure there’s really anyone who has the standing to play a similar role within the organisation [today].
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“What was quite different, starting with Baitullah and later with Hakimullah… was that they really did consider themselves as part of the global jihad [and also struck at US targets in Afghanistan] and that of course is not traditional [in the history of Pakistani armed groups] and I think with the death of a leader like Hakimullah it will become easier for the Pakistanis to play on individual intents and rivalries [within the TTP’s cadres].”
‘The fear is palpable’
Regardless of those threats, the country’s government on Monday reaffirmed its commitment to a newly launched “dialogue” process, aimed at striking a deal with the TTP and ending a violent anti-state campaign that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 2007.
“The government will not let the [dialogue] process to derail,” said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, two days after US Ambassador Richard Olsen was summoned by the Pakistani Foreign Office to answer for the killing of Pakistan’s most wanted man.
That the newly elected Sharif-led government is heavily invested in the dialogue process is illustrated by their continued commitment to what was a major campaign promise, despite a string of major attacks in the past two months which killed more than 140 people, mostly in the country’s northwest. Among the attacks, more than 80 people were killed in a double-suicide bombing at a church, and a targeted attack killed a senior army general.
I think that the government understands that it will be very, very difficult for them to completely suppress the militants by force of arms. This has always been the way in terms of militants in the tribal areas, back to the time of the British Raj.
“Talking and fighting in irregular war are not mutually exclusive,” said Ejaz Haider, an Islamabad-based security analyst and senior journalist. “There is no harm in talking, but a dialogue must be conducted from a position of strength. Approaching talks in a way that signals weakness… is a recipe for disaster.
“Nothing illustrates the weakness of the state better than the way it has reacted to the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud. The fear is palpable. It is noticed by the TTP and they will be stupid not to take advantage of this.”
Grenier, the former CIA station chief, agreed with the assessment that the Pakistani government has been weak in its approach to talks, arguing that there was “a great deal of wishful thinking” on the part of the country’s political leadership.
“I think that the government understands that it will be very, very difficult for them to completely suppress the militants by force of arms. This has always been the way in terms of militants in the tribal areas, back to the time of the British Raj. I think this is the mindset of the Pakistanis [and] there’s very little the militants could do that would permanently change the minds of the Pakistanis and turn them away from the idea of some sort of political settlement.”
Debate on drones
The round condemnation of the killing of the TTP chief by a US drone strike is also an illustration of just how toxic the strikes have become in public discourse in Pakistan. While the drone strikes have in the past been privately condoned by the Pakistani civil and military authorities, the government has now renewed its commitment to opposing the strikes. The issue was reportedly at the top of the agenda of Sharif’s recent meeting with US President Barack Obama.
It is, perhaps, telling of the US commitment to the tactic, however, that there have been at least two US drone strikes, including the one which killed Mehsud, in Pakistani territory since the two leaders met.
“The US policy of conducting drone strikes is unpopular, not just here but also in the West,” argued Haider, citing recent reports critical of the programme released by Amnesty International and the United Nations. “That said, the US will continue to conduct the strikes when it finds targets it wants to hit. That is in the nature of power projection. The frequency will of course go down, and it already has. Also, there will be more focus on personality strikes than signature or force protection strikes.”
Grenier believes that the Pakistani government would have been more amenable to the strikes if they had “more control” over targets.
“I think that the government is quite sincere both when it denounces the [drone] attacks and when it quietly supports them. I think that really what they would like is to have control… There are certain strikes that they would likely not make if they had control, and others that they would still make.
“I think there is a very deep ambivalence on the part of the Pakistani authorities, both civilian and military. Part of what drives that is that at the end of the day there’s really not that much they can do about it,” Grenier said.
Meanwhile, even as diplomacy with the US on drones appears to have achieved little, the government appears firm on the dialogue process, regardless of the fact that the TTP itself has called off any negotiations for the time being.
Haider argues that this puts the government in a position of weakness.
“Who has the initiative; who is desperate to talk? Why should the TTP decide the timing and mode of talks and expect the talks to go through even when it merrily goes around killing people?” he asks.
It is a thought echoed by Khuhro.
“The TTP kill a former prime minister [Benazir Bhutto], kill generals, kill civilians, but the government has no preconditions for talks,” he said. “The Taliban breaking off talks over this [killing] is ridiculous.”
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