The death of Hakimullah Mehsud, Pakistan’s most wanted man, in a US drone strike on Friday, November 1, in the country’s restive North Waziristan region in semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas, has changed the security environment in the South Asian nation.
The United States had set a 5 million dollar head money on the slain leader while Pakistan had also set almost the same amount as his head money. Considered one of Pakistan’s most feared terrorists, Mehsud is blamed for orchestrating hundreds of suicide attacks, killing over 45,000 Pakistanis. He was also behind a suicide attack on a CIA base in Khost in eastern Afghanistan in 2009, in which seven CIA men were killed. He had also planned Faisal Shehzad’s failed attempt to bomb Times Square in New York City in May 2010.
Once owner of a small shop in Makeen, a small town in the South Waziristan tribal region, Hakmiullah, 34, ran a multi-million dollar criminal enterprise, heading Pakistan’s most dangerous terrorist network, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP.
The attack happened eight days after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif demanded an end to drone attacks during a meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington D.C. The United Nations, Amnesty International and many human rights groups are warning Washington that it’s controversial secret war through unmanned Predators may be a violation of the international law.
Mehsud rose to prominence in 2007 when he kidnapped 250 Pakistani soldiers in Waziristan. Later he became a spokesman for Baitullah Mehsud, another feared terrorist who was also killed in a drone attack in 2009. Hakimullah succeeded Baitullah as the TTP chief after his death.
The TTP is an umbrella organization of scores of Pakistani militant groups fighting the state for its support for the US-lead war in Afghanistan. The TTP doesn’t hide its affiliation with Al-Qaeda and Mullah Umer-led Afghan Taliban. The exact number of Pakistani Taliban groups is a contested subject, but most of Pakistani analysts believe that there may be as many as 56 groups active in the tribal areas of the country bordering Afghanistan. Many of theses terrorist outfits are sectarian and are financed by Saudi Arabia and Iran in their proxy war against each other.
Setback for the Taliban
The death of Mehsud is the biggest setback to the banned TTP since August 2009 when Baitullah was killed. Even if the Taliban announce Mehsud’s successor, he will take time to consolidate his position and keep the allied groups together.
Many analysts in Pakistan believe that while the Taliban have greatly improved their organization in recent years, but internal rifts and power struggles could accentuate in the coming months.
Leaders of the Punjabi Taliban (the outlawed sectarian terrorist groups based in southern part of Pakistan’s largest Punjab province), the Fazlullah group of Swat-based Taliban and Umar Khalid Khorasani’s group in Mohmand tribal region are all ambitious and could divide the network, weakening them internally. However, such divisions may not mean a weakness in their ability to wreak terror. They would still remain a dangerous destabilizing force in Pakistan, at least for the time being.
Four names were being floated for the successor of Hakimullah Mehsud, including Khan Sayed ‘Sajna’, Mullah Fazlullah, Hafiz Saeed Khan (a TTP leader from the tribal Orakzai area) and Umar Khalid Khurasani. Some Pakistani leaders reported that ‘Sajna’, 36, was chosen as the new leader at a meeting of TTP Shura (Consultative Council) but the group has so far not made any formal announcement.
‘Sajna’, if formally announced as the new leader of one of South Asia’s largest terrorist franchises, may indicate even more violence in Pakistan in the coming weeks and months. He is believed to have never received any education and his sole qualification is his battle-hardened fighting skills. He is considered to be the brains behind some high-profile terrorist attacks.
‘Sajna’ is said to have masterminded the May 2011 attack on Mehran Naval base in Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi. It was one of the many embarrassing security breaches Pakistan has seen in recent years. Ten security personnel were killed and two US-supplied P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft, worth $36 million each, were destroyed in the attack.
He is also believed to have orchestrated the 2012 jailbreak in Bannu, a small city in the southern part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Four hundred prisoners, some of them on death row on terrorism charges, escaped. They included Adnan Rasheed, a former rogue officer of the Pakistan Air Force, who was involved in an attack on the country’s former military strongman General Pervez Musharraf in December 2003.
Mullah Fazlullah, a maverick hardcore terrorist who took responsibility for killing Major General Sanaullah Khan Niazi of the Pakistan Army in Upper Dir region on September 15 this year, was flushed out of Pakistan’s northern picturesque Swat valley after a military operation in 2009. He uses Afghanistan’s Nooristan province as a staging ground for his terrorism in Pakistan.
Islamabad accuses the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai of harboring Fazlullah and abetting him in his bloody terror campaign.
Terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan
History seems to be going in a round circle in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. Afghanistan and the United States have for long accused Pakistan of harboring the feared Haqqani network, lead by Sirajuddin Haqqani. He is the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a famous mujahideen and military leader of pro-Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
A CIA drone targeted Mehsud as he was coming out of a meeting with his senior aides at around 7.15 p.m. (local time) on Friday. The meeting was held at his recently-built house in Danday Darpakhel, a small village some one mile from Miranshah, the main city of North Waziristan tribal region.
Others killed in the attack included his uncle, and his deputy Abdullah Bahar Mehsud, who was also his driver. Mehsud recently appointed Abdullah after US forces arrested Latifullah Mehsud in Afghanistan, overlooking Sajna. One report said Mehsud had developed serious differences with Sajna, especially over peace talks with the Pakistani government and TTP’s finances.
Pakistani media reported that Hakimullah had gone to his house to consult his aides on Pakistani government’s talks offer. A three-member government delegation was to leave for a meeting with the TTP representatives in North Waziristan on Saturday to fine-tune the much-touted peace talks modalities. A conference of Pakistan’s all major political parties had mandated the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on September 9 this year to hold peace talks with the violent militant groups to convince them to end their bloody campaign.
Latifullah Mehsud was Hakimullah’s successor and go-between with the Afghan intelligence agency. The arrest of Latifullah has given more credence to Pakistani claims that the government of President Karzai is abetting anti-Pakistan terrorist groups, something Afghan officials no longer hide privately.
Many in the Pakistani establishment believe that the TTP might have received funding from India as well through its Afghan interlocutors. They point to the close relations between Afghanistan’s spy agency, the NDS – National Directorate of Security – and Indian premier intelligence agency RAW – Research and Analysis Wing. RAW is believed to have trained many Afghan intelligence officers as well.
Pakistanis maintain that there is growing evidence that Afghanistan is harboring more and more elements fighting the Pakistani state. Fazlullah group tops this list.
The US forces seized Latifullah Mehsud on October 5 in Afghanistan while being taken to Kabul by Afghan sleuths. The government in Kabul has given broad indications that Afghan intelligence has relations with the TTP.
Also in recent days, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, once deputy chief of the TTP, was arrested in Afghanistan. Afghan government told Pakistan that Faqir was in its custody. However, Afghan authorities recently released him without giving any reasons.
Afghan support to the separatists in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province is also not a new Pakistani complaint. A Pakistani media quoted one official as saying that how Pakistan had given evidence of support to Baloch separatists by elements in the Afghan government. Pakistan claims that many Baloch separatist groups have training bases inside Afghanistan and many prominent Baloch leaders such as Brahamdagh Bugti have been enjoying Afghan hospitality in Kabul and Kandahar.
The biggest question being debated in Pakistan after Mehsud’s elimination is how far it will help Pakistan in bringing peace within its borders and controlling the extremists to strike beyond its geographical frontiers.
Two major fallouts of the incident are being feared. One that the government’s initiative for holding peace talks with the Taliban is effectively out of steam, at least for the time being. A new wave of terrorism is the second fallout being feared by the Pakistani government, which has issued security red alerts in many cities, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
One more causality of the dramatic developments in Pakistan could be hindrance in the flow of NATO supplies through Pakistan. Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned politician and head of Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (Pakistan Justice Movement) while angrily reacting to the latest spate of drone strikes has announced his plans to move a resolution in the provincial assembly of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where his party has the government, to stop NATO supplies from passing through Pakhtunkhwa province.
Pakistan could see more political instability if Khan’s party succeeds in passing such a resolution and then tries to implement it. It is not clear if the federal government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will approve of such a move. Sharif’s information minister Pervez Rasheed gave broad indications that the federal government may not support such a move, saying closing NATO supplies wouldn’t stop drones. Similarly, Pakistan’s powerful military establishment may also not approve of it.
Sharif’s senior cabinet minister Nisar Ali Khan bitterly criticized Friday’s attack, calling it a conscious effort by the United States to sabotage the peace process that his government wanted to start. Pakistan has also issued its stock condemnation of the attack, but not many Pakistanis take such statements seriously. They often accuse their own government of playing a double game with them, condemning such attacks and facilitating them at the same time. One newspaper even did not rule out ground support by Pakistani intelligence to Friday’s drone attack that took out Mehsud.
The reality of covert Pakistani government support to drone strikes aside, the decision may further increase anti-American sentiments in the country.
Many Pakistani analysts in TV talk shows had their reasons to believe that the timing of Mehsud’s death indicated “conscious American effort to sabotage” the peace talks.
“The dialogue process has been droned out,” said Air Marshal (Retd.) Shahid Lateef, a former senior Pakistan’s Air Force officer. He told a Pakistani channel that it was Pakistan’s fourth attempt for peace deal with the Taliban since 2004 that had been sabotaged. “These killings are no coincidence. You are holding talks with Afghan Taliban and opposing the same with Pakistani Taliban,” he said while referring to Washington’s efforts for a deal with Afghan Taliban.
Shahid Lateef said Waliur Rehman (Mehsud’s former deputy) was killed after he announced his support for peace talks with the government and now Hakimullah was taken out after he agreed to peace talks.
But not every one in Pakistan is convinced about the success of the proposed talks, even if these were held. Veteran journalist Zahid Hussain is one of them. Zahid believes that prospects of a peace dialogue were bleak any ways because there are more than 50 Taliban groups and government cannot have deals with each one of them. And above all, it would be difficult for the government to accede to Taliban’s demands many of which violated Pakistan’s constitution.
“Pakistan should adopt a clear policy and take firm action. The Pakistani sate will have to decide whether it will talk to such groups which do not accept Pakistan’s constitution and have relations with foreign governments,” he told a Pakistani TV channel.
Maj Gen (Retd) Athar Abbas, a former DG ISPR, had a different take on the attack. “Probably the US has helped Pakistan by killing its most wanted man,” Athar Abbas said in a TV interview.
Some Pakistani analysts believed that US might have addressed Pakistan’s old off-the-record complaint that US drone strikes target only anti-US terrorists, sparing those fighting Pakistan Army.
While many analysts agree that there might be delay or an end to peace talks initiative, still there are some who believe that his death is a temporary setback to peace initiative. In a report in The News International, Amir Mir, a senior Pakistani journalist, quoted senior officials in the Pakistani security establishment as saying that Mehsud’s death and Khan Sayed Sajna’s ascendance as the new TTP leader could in fact speed up the peace talks process, for he is believed to be more pro-talks than the dead Mehsud.