Weekend at Baitullah’s
By Arif Rafiq On Friday, a Taliban commander claimed that the shura, or advisory council, of the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) selected Hakimullah Mehsud as the group’s amir, or supreme commander, in place of the dead (or, as the group claims, ailing) Baitullah Mehsud. However, rather than providing definitive answers to questions regarding the TTP ...
By Arif Rafiq
On Friday, a Taliban commander claimed that the shura, or advisory council, of the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) selected Hakimullah Mehsud as the group’s amir, or supreme commander, in place of the dead (or, as the group claims, ailing) Baitullah Mehsud.
However, rather than providing definitive answers to questions regarding the TTP post-Baitullah, the announcement — for a number of reasons — furthers uncertainty over the group’s future. Not only is the TTP’s media relations apparatus a basket case, but its operational command continues to be in disarray.
The TTP appears to be publicly denying Baitullah’s death to preserve a modicum of organizational unity. Baitullah — and, particularly, Baitullah’s brutality — was the glue that held the group together.
In contrast to the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban has been vulnerable to inter-tribal rivalries, competition between warlords, and the often clever machinations of the Pakistani military-intelligence apparatus.
Baitullah told Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Zaidan in his first television interview, aired in January 2008, that he founded the TTP to counter the Pakistan Army’s “policy of deception,” i.e. pitting Pakistani Taliban groups against one another. The umbrella group’s shura — not local Taliban affiliates — would decide whether there would be war or peace with the Pakistan Army. As a result, the Pakistani military would be denied the opportunity to make peace with one Taliban group to fight another, vastly increasing the negotiating power of the TTP and the odds of the Pakistani security forces being overstretched by multiple military operations across the Pashtun crescent.
Baitullah’s strategy worked. From 2007 to 2009, the TTP killed thousands of Pakistani civilians, political and tribal leaders, and security personnel — proving itself and Baitullah as forces to be reckoned with.
The Pakistani security services faced insurgencies in multiple tribal areas and settled districts, as well as large-scale terror attacks in its major cities.
But now, the TTP, hammered by the Pakistan Army and U.S. drones, and deprived of Baitullah’s unifying force, remains vulnerable once again to the aforementioned characteristic flaws. These shortcomings are reflected in the curious behavior of Faqir Muhammad, the deputy amir of the TTP, this week.
Faqir was the TTP commander who announced on Friday that Hakimullah Mehsud has succeeded Baitullah as the oufit’s amir. But, last Wednesday, Faqir, who also heads the TTP’s Bajaur Agency affiliate, told BBC Urdu that he was the group’s acting amir. Faqir also promoted Muslim Khan, spokesman for the TTP’s Swat affiliate, to the umbrella organization’s central spokesman, and said he’d consider changing the organization’s name. He was, in a sense, getting ready to move into the corner office and make some key administrative moves.
And so, it was quite peculiar that only two days later Faqir stepped back and, speaking on behalf of the TTP shura, announced that Hakimullah was made the group’s amir. In fact, Faqir said that the group’s new spokesman is Azam Tariq, who, interestingly, Hakimullah had announced a week and a half earlier as the TTP spokesman. So Muslim Khan’s promotion quickly bit the dust. But, more importantly, Faqir’s power grab was too brazen and he ended up deferring to Hakimullah.
Strangely, Faqir — not any official spokesmen — has been doing all the talking. It might be that he’s really only speaking for himself. The young and brash Hakimullah has been awfully quiet. He hasn’t spoken to the media in almost two weeks. Pakistani security officials claim he died after a supposed shootout with another Taliban commander, Wali ur-Rehman Mehsud.
While Wali ur-Rehman, in an interview with the AP on Sunday, asserted that both he and Hakimullah are alive, he did express his own claim to the TTP mantle. He said that Baitullah, his cousin, gave him control over the umbrella group and a final successor “would be chosen within five days.”
Tracking the TTP post-Baitullah is about as difficult as mapping out who’s slept with whom on Melrose Place. But, what is clear is that the TTP is suffering from a failure to communicate.
This is a marked drop from the past. Until this spring, the TTP had a public and media relations campaign that advanced its strategic aims significantly. TTP spokesmen called in to talk shows and commanders held press conferences; the group operated pirate radio stations, distributed videos on disc and the Internet, and issued rapid responses faster than a publicist at Hill & Knowlton. The communications strategy furthered perception of the TTP as ascendant and organized.
Contradictory statements coming from senior TTP leaders indicate the absence of internal coordination. This could be because the group’s leaders can’t take the risk and communicate with one another (which would make one question whether the TTP shura even met). But, also, it’s highly probable that many of TTP’s commanders quite simply don’t want to communicate with one another. A handful is competing for the post of amir. So, the communications failures are not just operational gaffes; they’re symptomatic of real divisions within the TTP.
The Pakistan Army, heavily invested in restoring normalcy in Swat, presently doesn’t have the resources necessary for full-fledged ground operations in South Waziristan. But, by exacerbating intra-TTP divisions, the Pakistan Army can have the militants fight and weaken one another, without having to expend much of its own resources.
Simultaneously, the Pakistani military can continue to choke off TTP supply lines, arrest its operatives in Pakistani cities, attack the Taliban from the air, and build bridges with a Mehsud tribe critical to an eventual decisive victory in South Waziristan.
Arif Rafiq is the president of Vizier Consulting, LLC and a regular contributor to the Pakistan Policy Blog.
A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, a political risk advisory firm focused on the Middle East and South Asia. Twitter: @arifcrafiq
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