The South Asia Channel

A militant group in crisis

The recent killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, the notorious leader of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), in a U.S. drone strike has not only put the newly-elected Pakistani government in a difficult position, it has also presented the militant group with a serious leadership crisis that may culminate in wider rifts, fragmentation, and even armed confrontations if ...

NASEER MEHSUD/AFP/Getty Images
NASEER MEHSUD/AFP/Getty Images

The recent killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, the notorious leader of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), in a U.S. drone strike has not only put the newly-elected Pakistani government in a difficult position, it has also presented the militant group with a serious leadership crisis that may culminate in wider rifts, fragmentation, and even armed confrontations if it persists for a long time.

Looking at the reign of terror let loose by the ruthless TTP fighters under Mehsud’s command, both in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the country’s cities, there is every reason to celebrate his death. However, the reaction from the Pakistani ruling and opposition political parties have converted him from a dreaded villain, whose daring attacks on Pakistani civilians and government installations forced state authorities to place a 50m-rupee ($470,000) bounty on his head, to a hero.

Political fallout

In an emotional press conference on November 2, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, announced that "this is not just the killing of one person, it is the death of all peace efforts." While this may seem like hyperbole to some, Khan has to avert the wrath of the Taliban, as well as snatch the opportunity away from his government’s key rival, Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, who has threatened to block the NATO supply route through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where his party controls the government.

Since the May 2013 election, the PTI has emerged as the third biggest party in Pakistan’s parliament and Khan himself is a staunch opponent of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the covert CIA drone program that targets wanted al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Although public opinion over Mehsud’s death is widely divided, Sharif has had to condemn the U.S. strike, even though it killed a wanted terrorist, lest his opponents — like Khan and Monawar Hassan, leader of the anti-U.S. Jamiat-e-Islami party — accuse him of being complicit.

In September, under pressure from the opposition, the government convened an All Parties Conference and continued appealing to the Taliban to begin peace talks, despite the latter’s ruthless attacks on civilians and military personnel, which include the killing of a two-star general and a double suicide attack on a church in Peshawar.

The second, and somewhat more important, factor behind the Pakistani government’s angry reaction to Mehsud’s death is the fear of revenge attacks by the TTP. Silence, let alone a hint of satisfaction on part of the government, could provide enough ground for Taliban suicide bombers and target killers to chase government ministers, just as they did with the Awami National Party and Pakistan People’s Party during this year’s election campaign. (The two parties had ordered military operations against the TTP in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and South Waziristan in 2009.)

In discussing the Pakistani reactions to the killings of Osama bin Laden in 2011 and Mehsud last week, local columnist and commentator Ayaz Amir said: "When Osama bin Ladin [sic] was killed the army went into mourning, citing breach of national sovereignty. Hakeemullah [sic] Mehsud’s killing has plunged much of the political class into mourning." As there has been no serious reaction to the November 1 drone strike from Pakistan’s military, the silence is being seen as consent on the part of Pakistan’s security establishment.

U.S.-Pakistan Relations

Apart from the unnecessary hysteria about the release of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui and an end to U.S. drone strikes, which was mostly for public consumption, Sharif’s October visit to Washington was quite successful, particularly on the economic and social fronts, military-to-military relations, and Pakistani concerns about the post-2014 Afghanistan. But the November 1 drone strike and the political considerations Sharif faces at home present the Pakistani government with a dilemma.

Being a close U.S. and NATO ally, Sharif can’t raise the issue of the killing of a declared terrorist via diplomatic channels. But Pakistan can’t welcome Mehsud’s death either, lest that invite the wrath of the TTP and provide an excuse for opposition groups to take to the streets. However, those in Sharif’s close circles believe that, despite the rhetoric of his interior minister and angry speeches in the Pakistani parliament, the prime minister is still supportive of close ties with the United States.

Testing time for the TTP

If the killing of TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone strike on August 5, 2009 was the first serious blow to this loose network of a dozen-plus militant outfits, Hakimullah Mehsud’s death may prove fatal.

In 2009, signs of rift among the TTP factions emerged as the group tried to find Baitullah Mehsud’s successor, choosing between his two close associates Wali ur-Rehman Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud. Though the matter was resolved when Hakimullah was appointed as the new TTP commander and Wali ur-Rehman was named as his deputy, the differences persisted, despite the duo’s appearances exchanging smiles in several videos.

Tensions flared up again when Wali ur-Rehman was killed in a drone strike in May 2013 and his group declared Khan Said, alias Sajna, as their leader, without consulting Hakimullah or the TTP shura (consultative body). It was the same old rivalry that resurfaced this past weekend when Hakimullah loyalists refused to endorse Said as his successor, despite the fact that he had received support from 43 of the 60 shura members.

Local sources told this writer that Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani, who was named the group’s interim chief, comes from Hakimullah’s group and is maneuvering hard to draw maximum support for a Meshud group commander from the shura members. If that occurs, the grievances, even open opposition and confrontation, from Said supporters could lead to fragmentation in the network.

Apart from Said, there are quite
a few names on the potential successor list, but the tribal dynamics are such that it is unlikely the Mehsud faction will concede leadership to a non-Mehsud. Prominent among the potential candidates are Fazlullah, the chief of the Swat Taliban who is also known as "Mullah FM" for his notorious FM radio channel and is now running his bases from Afghanistan; Omar Khalid Khurasani, who leads the Taliban in the Mohmand tribal agency; Hafiz Saeed Khan in the Orakzai tribal district; and Bhittani.

Since the TTP is drawing most of its fighting force from the Mehsud tribe and uses Mehsud terrain for its base, the Mehsud loyalists will always want a lead role in the organization. However, serious tensions exist among the Mehsud, and even if the shura were to pick Hakimullah’s successor soon, the years of disputes and bad blood between the two main factions could lead to serious divisions in the TTP rank and file.

Daud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist currently working as a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. He has worked with Pakistan’s English dailies The News and Daily Times, Afghanistan’s Pajhwok Afghan News, and has written for the Christian Science Monitor and London Sunday Times.

The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Daud Khattak is a Senior Editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Twitter: @daudkhattak1

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