As the contest for a successor to Baitullah Mehsud, the maverick warlord from South Waziristan who was reportedly killed by a drone strike in early August, remains surrounded by controversy and mystery, one of the major questions rearing its head is whether the successor will be able to galvanize fighters the way the amir did and continue his lethal campaign against the state of Pakistan with the same vigor.
A careful analysis of the on-ground conditions tells us no to both questions.
Baitullah Mehsud rose to international prominence in a unique context that helped catapult him into the role of undisputed “leader of the rogues,” a magnet that pulled commanders from all over the tribal territory and unified them in December 2007, when Mehsud formally launched his Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
The deaths of two of his predecessors, Nek Mohammad Wazir in June 2004 and Abdullah Mehsud two years later, created a void that Baitullah found easy to fill. It was a time when al Qaeda’s reach in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan had begun shrinking. Radical militants therefore found in Baitullah Mehsud a horse they considered fit to ride, a leader they could get behind.
And by the end of 2006, as the Pakistani army gradually mounted its campaign against militants inside FATA, Baitullah, growing in influence and chafing at Pakistan’s alliance with the United States, came under the disapproval of the military. The siege of the Red Mosque in July 2007 provided him with the additional pull he needed to draft malleable youngsters and turn them into living bombs to target the state security apparatus. In the process he gained more support from al Qaeda and ever more ideologically driven young fighters joined him, also supported by a large number of Punjabi militants, particularly zealots of Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkatul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
But the situation for Baitullah’s successor has changed altogether; the Bush-Musharraf combination is gone. The Obama administration is closely coordinating its military strategy with the Pakistan army, and the Taliban largely stand discredited after their reckless attempt to take over Swat and Buner this spring. The TTP and other shades of Taliban don’t enjoy the kind of public support that they had before the Malakand operation. In fact, only 1 percent of Pakistanis have a very favorable view of the Taliban, according to polling released last week.
And the erstwhile alleged backer of Islamist militancy, the Pakistan army and its chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, also appear to radiate a different message. “Pakistan’s current fight is against extremism and terrorism. It is not a fight based on religion, ethnicity, sub-nationalism or provincialism,” said Kayani in his address to over a thousand under-training cadets of the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) northwest of Islamabad. As a tribute to three hundred officers and soldiers who died during the recent military operations Kayani had especially invited about five hundred members of the aggrieved families to attend this year’s midnight Independence Day Parade, on August 13.
This nation of 170 million will not bow down to the handful of extremists, the general told the cadets and survivors of the fallen soldiers.
These conditions are likely to work against the new TTP chief, who will find it extremely difficult to keep all the commanders together the way Baitullah did. His abrupt disappearance from the scene has sent shock across his cadres and delivered a huge psychological blow to the TTP rank and file. It was also al Qaeda’s loss since, besides the Haqqanis and Hekmatyar, Baitullah Mehsud served as a supporting pillar to the militant organisation.
There are a few simple reasons why al Qaeda will try to retain influence over the TTP.
- Al Qaeda has turned Pakistan into its training ground and sanctuary for its anti-US war and wants to maintain what shrinking ideological and tactical space still exists within the country.
- It continues to view the Pakistani army as a US collaborator and thus would like to support its opponents. The TTP tops that list, and has been responsible for about 3,500 casualties within the security establishment — army, para-military and the police — since late 2006.
There are, however, still big question marks as to what happens with al Qaeda’s Afghan allies such as Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Mullah Omar . Until recent years, they’ve all had good working relationships with the Pakistani security establishment. What would the improved military relationship between Pakistan and the United States mean for the al Qaeda-Afghan Taliban alliance? For the Pakistan-Afghan Taliban future?
U.S. expectations of Pakistan to go after all symbols of terror – those militants attacking western forces inside Afghanistan – is quite natural. But it may not be all that easy for Pakistan to meet those expectations in view of the many fronts that it currently faces – stretching from a belligerent India in the east to the Baluchi separatists and the al Qaeda-inspired pan-Islamists in the west and southwest. And more Pakistanis still view India as a greater threat to the state than the Taliban.
Pakistan’s challenge now rests on a balancing act: calibrating external expectations with internal political turmoil and economic crises. This requires exceptional leadership qualities and unusually close coordination of policies among the civilian and the military high commands
It remains to be seen whether Pakistan’s leaders can capitalize on the opportunity that Baitullah Meshud’s removal has created. Merely treating symptoms will not work. The answer to the current turmoil lies in attacking the disease and its causes. President Asif Ali Zardari’s decision to amend the 1901 colonial laws governing the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to permit political activity there, should therefore be seen as a welcome step. This hopefully will pave way for full integration of these wily regions, to be followed by gradual improvement in governance and justice delivery.
However, if this is not done quickly, extremist alliances like the TTP and leaders like Baitullah Mehsud will keep popping up as alternatives to the state. The state of Pakistan must therefore hurry to address causes that the terrorists use to appeal to the sympathies of millions of frustrated and hapless inhabitants of these regions.