The South Asia Channel
The bin Laden aftermath: inside the Pakistani Taliban
The death of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Baitullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone strike in August of 2009 touched off a heated debate about the future of the militant outfit and its succession. Many believed Mehsud’s death was a fatal blow to the TTP, and they have proven correct partially, if not fully. Soon after ...
The death of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Baitullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone strike in August of 2009 touched off a heated debate about the future of the militant outfit and its succession. Many believed Mehsud’s death was a fatal blow to the TTP, and they have proven correct partially, if not fully. Soon after Mehsud’s death, cracks emerged in the TTP’s leadership, weakening the group’s umbrella organization, which was once seen a mounting wave likely to engulf major parts of Pakistan.
Now that the United States has gotten rid of its Enemy No. 1 and founder of al-Qaeda after almost 10 years, a similar debate is raging about the future of the group that has spread its tentacles to different parts of the world and influenced countless individuals with its jihadist propaganda.
Osama bin Laden’s death, in an audacious and stunning commando raid by U.S. SEALs in Pakistan’s Abbottabad cantonment, is no doubt a hard blow to al-Qaeda. But it also carries adverse consequences for its TTP affiliate. The TTP’s leadership is already underground, partly because of major military actions by Pakistani security forces in areas like Swat, Mohmand, and Waziristan, and partly because of the increasing number of drone strikes in the tribal areas over the past year. In a situation where the TTP was already in disarray, the killing of bin Laden, the hero of all militant groups and particularly their footsoldiers and new recruits, will prove disastrous for their morale.
Operations in Swat and South Waziristan have almost dismantled the organizational structure of the TTP, which has continuously attacked the Pakistani state, and whose leaders include Maulana Fazlullah and Hakimullah Mehsud. Both of them were, on one hand, a source of inspiration and courage for their fighters, but served as a symbol of dread for those opposed to their agendas.
The Taliban in Bajaur under the leadership of Maulvi Faqir Muhammad have already adopted a notable silence over the past year, keeping a distance from the TTP and other groups, while those fighters in neighboring Mohmand are already in hiding in the remote areas bordering eastern Afghanistan.
The Khyber-based Lashkar-e-Islam (LI) of Mangal Bagh, one of the feared militant outfits that operated just a few kilometers from Peshawar less than two years ago, has also retreated into the remote and mountainous Tirah Valley and engaged in a war with its staunch opponent, Ansar-ul Islam. Reports over recent weeks suggest that the locals from Zakhakhel tribe, once the host of LI, are now up in arms against the group and both sides are taking casualties on daily basis.
In spite of this chaos across the tribal areas, in the short run the TTP can unleash a campaign of attacks on soft targets to take their revenge for bin Laden’s death, as well as to try to tell the world that they remain a serious threat. A similar bombing campaign from local Taliban fighters occurred in Peshawar and other parts of Pakistan following Pakistani military operations in Swat and South Waziristan in 2009.
In the longer run, however, Taliban footsoldiers are likely to loose faith in the group’s power and come to believe that no place is safe for a terrorist, whatever his stature and position. The continuous failure of U.S. forces to locate and capture people like Osama bin Laden had been a source of courage and inspiration for those eager to join the ranks of the Taliban, and now that he’s gone, some may be discouraged from joining the jihad.
Recently, the killing of Taliban godfather Colonel Imam by Hakimullah Mehsud’s fighters, and continuous violations of the Kurram peace accord, which was negotiated by the Haqqani network, shows further divisions among the militant groups that operated under the umbrella of the TTP. The death of Colonel Imam, who was kidnapped and then held in captivity for months, highlighted growing divisions between Hakimullah Mehsud and the Haqqani network. By the same token, the Kurram peace accord was signed with the covert support of the Haqqani network to get the goodwill of the Shia Muslims living in upper Kurram close the Afghan border. However, local Taliban fighters have continued attacking the Shia, proving that they are not on the same page with the Haqqanis and even with their TTP leadership, which is drawing money from the Haqqanis and providing them local support.
The only groups under the Pakistani Taliban heading that are holding strong are those led by Hafiz Gul Bahadar and Maulvi Nazir in Waziristan, where Pakistani security forces are hesitating to launch an operation against them despite pressure from the U.S. Although these groups have suffered losses as a result of the drone strikes, their leadership structures are intact and their chiefs remain in close contact with the Haqqani network and al-Qaeda members.
However, the discovery of bin Laden so far inside Pakistan will further increase pressure from the U.S. on the Pakistani government to launch a serious military operation in North Waziristan, believed to be the hideout of Haqqani network. As the U.S. plans its Afghan withdrawal and NATO countries seem to be in a hurry to conclude the war, their pressure on Pakistan, particularly after bin Laden was killed so close to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, is quite understandable. Therefore, any Taliban sympathizers in the Pakistani Army and security agencies will find themselves on slippery grounds in continuing to refuse to take decisive action against the three groups that have traditionally been considered ‘good’ Taliban — the Haqqani network, Hafiz Gul Bahadar, and Maulvi Nazir.
The talks about talks with the Afghan Taliban are also a source of concern for the TTP’s leadership. Most of the Pakistani Taliban fighters consider their Afghan counterpart as a source of motivation and their fugitive chief Mullah Muhammad Omar as their leader. However, if the Afghan Taliban are actually considering talks with the Afghan government, the Pakistani Taliban will be left without an inspirational leader.
Pakistan’s religious parties, who used to avoid condemning Taliban violence in Pakistan, have also adopted a meaningful silence over bin Laden’s death. No one is coming forward to criticize al-Qaeda, even for political point scoring, although several have organized protests against the U.S. raid in Abbottabad.
After years of not condemning Taliban attacks in Pakistan, the leadership of the Islamist parties may be rethinking their stances. Attacks on civilians and the leadership of those parties have provided enough food for thought for those parties to think that they are playing with fire, as demonstrated by two attacks on the pro-Taliban leader of the JUI-F, Maulana Fazlur Rehman. A Jamaat-e-Islami party rally was also attacked in Peshawar and several of its workers were killed and injured.
The JUI-F and JI’s silence may be pragmatic. When I recently asked one JI leader why they don’t oppose the Taliban and their violence in Pakistan, he told me, "We have no option but to stay silent. We are running schools, welfare organizations, and having our public meetings. Do you think we can continue all this if we come out in open against the Taliban?"
The JI’s strident anti-Americanism is another issue, but this comment suggests Pakistan’s Islamist politicians are making a covert compromise with the Taliban groups. Their leaders privately disagree with the agenda of the Pakistani Taliban, although they support the Afghan Taliban. The disenchantment of Pakistan’s religious political parties with bin Laden and with the Pakistani Taliban is yet another blow to the TTP’s morale.
Although the TTP and its allies are not likely to collapse immediately following the death of bin Laden, the Pakistani public and politicians’ growing disenchantment with the TTP and its agenda, the organizational struggles of the various Taliban groups in the tribal areas, and increased pressure on Pakistan’s security forces to go after militants in Waziristan suggests that the ‘Talibanization’ of Pakistan may, at last, be receding.
Daud Khattak is a Pashtun journalist currently working for the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Pashto-language station Radio Mashaal.