The South Asia Channel

Death by drone?

Death by drone?

If Hakimullah Mehsud is dead, it is good news for Pakistan. If his deputy Qari Hussain Mehsud is also no more, so much the better. This would mean a potentially fatal double blow to the vicious, al Qaeda-affiliated Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Confusion still surrounds the circumstances of the January 14 or January 17 suspected U.S. drone strikes in Waziristan that were rumored to have left Hakimullah, the current chief of the TTP, dead. The remoteness of the area and the absence of adequate ground intelligence in Waziristan usually makes the verification of such high-profile casualties very difficult.

Although the TTP sent out an audiotape purportedly by Hakimullah Mehsud on January 16, it did little to clarify doubts about his livelihood. The fact that it was a brief audio message instead of a videotape that came out of South Waziristan further fueled speculation that Hakimullah was probably dead or seriously injured.

If Hakimullah has been killed, it would be the second most serious blow to the militant organization since August 5, 2009, when missiles fired from CIA-operated drones brought an abrupt end to the diminutive and stocky founder of the TTP, the maverick militant Baitullah Mehsud. The strikes in mid-January fell on Shaktoi, a village on the border between North and South Waziristan, the area where many TTP militants sought sanctuary after Pakistani military operations begun in October of 2009 evicted them from their strongholds in Makeen, Ladha, and Sararogha, in South Waziristan.

The TTP is an icon of sustained and brutal assault on the interests of Pakistan, its institutions, and its people. The organization is believed to be behind almost all of the 87 suicide attacks that struck Pakistan during 2009 and killed more than a thousand, many of them between October and December. These attacks appeared to be a reprisal for the killing of Baitullah Mehsud and the beginning of Operation Rah-e-Nijat.

Who is Hakimullah Mehsud?

Hakimullah Mehsud, around 28, rose to prominence for his terrorist activities out of the tribal agencies of Khyber and Orakzai, and he also spearheaded the sectarian anti-Shia campaign in neighboring Kurram agency, where the presence of TTP zealots was wreaking havoc on the lives of Shia-minority Pashtuns.

During an interaction with journalists he had invited to his mountainous stronghold in November 2008, Hakimullah named Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and his allies among his targets for what he called their ‘pro-American’ policies.

Hakimullah, more than six feet tall, radiates a certain charisma, and had also been threatening to cut off supplies to U.S. forces in Afghanistan if U.S. drone attacks continued. He had also driven one of the two American Humvee military vehicles his group had hijacked in Khyber Agency a few days earlier last fall.

Hakimullah suspected that Pakistan’s central and provincial governments were out to "break up Pakistan in collaboration with the U.S.," and thus believed the government of Pakistan was a legitimate target for attacks. That is why Hakimullah’s men not only unleashed a string of vicious attacks on the U.S. and NATO military cargo vehicles destined for Afghanistan, particularly between November 2007 and March 2009, but also carried out a series of bloody suicide attacks across Pakistan. Hakimullah owned up many of these attacks, which involved TTP-trained bombers.

Hakimullah, who studied in a madrassa for some years but didn’t graduate as a mullah, had been commanding a couple of thousand fighters in Orakzai, Kurram, and Khyber agencies but probably has to rely on Wali ur-Rehman, a cousin of the late Baitullah Mehsud and now the head of the TTP in South Waziristan, for both manpower and resources to run the TTP in the Waziristan region. After the death of his predecessor Baitullah, Hakimullah assumed the leadership of the TTP in the late summer of 2009.

Impact

If Hakimullah or Qari Hussain is confirmed dead, it would mark a significant move forward in the war against pro-al Qaeda Pakistani militants.

Firstly, Pakistan’s military establishment, which was the avowed enemy number one of the TTP and also suffered the most at its hands, would most likely rejoice the elimination of Hakimullah and Qari Hussain. Both constituted the heart of the TTP, which also includes Wali ur-Rehman, the cousin of Baitullah Mehsud in charge of TTP operations in South Waziristan.

Secondly, the U.S. military would also be happy that at least one more anti-government leader has been put to sleep. About a week after the deadly December 30 suicide attack on CIA’s Forward Operating Base Chapman in eastern Afghanistan, a video showed Hakimullah Mehsud sitting to the left of Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian doctor who ended up killing seven CIA officials including the base chief, a mother of three young children, five men, and another young woman. The emergence of the video instantly turned Hakimullah Mehsud into CIA’s prime target — if he was not already — because his group had apparently first hosted al-Balawi and then facilitated his onward journey into Afghanistan to hook up with the CIA.

Thirdly, the duo’s death would certainly shake the TTP to its core; following the disruption it suffered because of the Pakistani Army’s advance into South Waziristan, and arrest of several dozen TTP-trained suicide bombers even from cities such as Islamabad and Peshawar, the organization already had relatively little space and sanctuary to plan and train for terrorism.

Fourthly, the TTP had primarily been a Mehsud movement, with almost the entire top tier of leadership coming from the Mehsud tribe, historically notorious for highway robberies, abductions for ransom, and mercenary crimes. The issue of succession and preserving the TTP as a lethal terrorist outfit would be a daunting challenge no matter when it occurred.

Fifth, Qari Hussain’s death (although unconfirmed as of yet) would mean an end to the brains behind the TTP’s terrorist strategy that included the training of suicide death squads until the Pakistani Army swept into South Waziristan’s Mehsud region last fall. Hussain, according to sources privy to the nucleus of the TTP, served as the master strategist for the terrorist outfit.

A TTP without Hakimullah Mehsud and/or Qari Hussain represents yet another golden opportunity for the Pakistani Army to intensify its military-intelligence campaign against terrorists operating in the Waziristan region. Decapitating terror outfits coupled with precise intelligence-based operations remains the only option to demobilize hundreds of trained suicide bombers and other fighters, and demoralize those misled militants who delude themselves with the thought of subjecting the state of Pakistan to their violent whims. In 2009, the Pakistani state began to reverse the TTP’s campaign of carnage by wresting its territories back from terrorists in Swat and South Waziristan. The events thus far in 2010 offer the state of Pakistan much greater reason to attempt to extend its writ as far as possible.

Imtiaz Gul heads the Independent Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. He is the author of Most Dangerous Place — Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier, due in May by Penguin USA/UK.