Two deadly attacks within a space of 24 hours – one in the Khyber agency on Aug 28 and and the other in Mingora/Swat next day took over 40 lives. The target again was the security apparatus. In the first instance it was the Khasadars , and in the second members of a new community police force set up to patrol the region were being trained when the attacker detonated his explosives. With these attacks, the militants primarily underscored their resolve to keep intimidating the security apparatus, a pattern Baitullah Mehsud had repeatedly vowed. Even Muslim Khan, the spokesperson for the Swat taliban, had openly declared the army and other organs of the security apparatus as enemy targets.
Earlier on August 17, the Taliban had claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings in Swat saying the blasts were a message to a visiting US envoy Richard Holbrook that the militants remained strong despite recent army gains there.
All these attacks underscored that – despite the loss of Baitullah Mehsud in the August 5 drone attack and the confusion thereafter, the extremists remained undeterred, and ready to strike at will.
The bombings were “a gift to Holbrook,” Muslim Khan had said.
The latest string of bombings apparently was a reaction to the claims that the military keeps churning out regarding losses to the militants.
This also means the Tehreeke Taliban Pakistan has recovered, even if not fully, from the shocking death of Baitullah Mehsud, who had indeed become an icon of terror in the last two years.
But on August 25, Hakimullah Mehsud finally put to rest all the speculation about Baitullah by calling up journalists in Peshawar.
Hakimullah also insisted he had been unanimously made the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief by its Shura, while Maulana Waliur Rehman was named leader of the Mehsud Taliban in South Waziristan.
Faqeer Mohammad, the TTP chief for the Bajaur agency – one of the seven tribal regions bordering Afghanistan – had claimed Aug 20 he had taken over as the head of the organization. Although he apparently withdrew from the contest soon thereafter, yet it remains to be seen whether he would throw his weight behind the new TTP leader.
It seems that “the Afghan Taliban played a key role in resolving differences among various TTP commanders…they negotiated with each and every commander to settle matters.” Pakistani intelligence officials in Islamabad agreed the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives might have helped prevent a vicious fight over the top TTP position, yet they still sound a little skeptical as to whether the issue has been settled once for all.
These officials, and those familiar with the militant scene, however, agree that regardless of who eventually prevails as the TTP top leader, the successor had to be a South Waziristani from the Mehsud tribe for the simple reason that the TTP originated in the rugged and mountainous Mehsud area. (like most of the Afghan Taliban leaders also come from Kandahar and its vicinity, which was the birthplace of the Taliban movement).
“Baitullah’s fellow Mehsuds in the TTP would not have agreed to pass on the leadership to anyone else. Neither Maulana Faqeer Muhammad, … nor Maulana Fazlullah from Swat, Tariq Afridi from Darra Adamkhel and Abdul Wali alias Omar Khalid from Mohmand Agency had any fighting chance to head the organisation after Baitullah’s death.”(The News on Aug 26).
Who is Hakimullah Mehsud: The 27 year old erstwhile close confidante of Baitullah Mehsud had been responsible for TTP operations in Khyber and Mohmand Agency, and had headed the anti-Shia campaign in the Orakzai Agency, where he spent most of the time until recently.
Some of the journalists who met him somewhere in the Orakzai Agency in the last week of November (2008) had already seen Hakimullah as the emerging deputy to Baitullah Mehsud.
The TTP militant had invited journalists from Peshawar for the meeting during which he said his targets included President Asif Ali Zardari and his allies for their ‘pro-American’ policies.
Hakimullah, over six feet tall, and radiates certain charisma, had also threatened
on the occasion to ‘cut off’ supplies to American forces in Afghanistan if US drone attacks continued. His people also displayed one of the two American Humvee military vehicles they had hijacked in Khyber Agency on 10 November.
He also accused members of the central government and those of the provincial government in the Frontier Province of ‘working to break up Pakistan in collaboration with the US.’ That is why Hakimullah’s men not only unleashed a string of vicious attacks on the US-NATO military cargo destined for Afghanistan, particularly between November 2007 and March 2009, but also conducted several suicide attacks across Pakistan. Hakimullah owned up many of these attacks involving TTP trained bombers.
Hakimullah, who studied in a Madrassa for some years but didn’t graduate as a Mullah, has been commanding a couple of thousand fighters in Orakzai, Kurram and Khyber agencies but would probably have to rely on Waliur Rahman for both manpower and resources to run the TTP in the Waziristan region.
Waliur Rahman Mehsud, a cousin of Baitullah and his close aide, is likely retain control of the organizational matters in South Waziristan as he did in the last years of the ailing Baitullah’s life. Moreover, and thus would enjoy considerable clout as local TTP Ameer.
Only the coming weeks and months would tell to what extent does Waliur Rahman help Hakimullah Mehsud consolidate his grip over the TTP and whether the latter would be able to unify all TTP components like a strong Baitullah did.
As far the Pakistani security agencies they still appear to be working to benefit the visible disarray within the TTP and keep them divided as much as possible. It will be interesting to see who succeeds – the Pakistani agencies, who would want and see a fragmented TTP as a more manageable threat, or Al-Qaeda and its Afghan affiliates, who would leave no stone unturned to reunify all TTP factions in the same lethal entity that it has been under Baitullah Mehsud.
In essence, the so-called TTP-led “Jihad against the Americans” is likely to continue under Hakimullah Mehsud. Waliur Rehman also made it clear in his Aug 23 interview with the AP. But only time will tell to what extent has Baitullah’s death dented this resolve and made the job easier for the Pakistani and US forces to whittle them down through a precise intelligence-based campaign in the Waziristan region. ends
(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. And the author of a recent Penguin publication “The Al-Qaeda Connection – Taliban and Terror in Tribal Areas.”