Pakistan may struggle to benefit from Taliban leader’s death

Islamabad will have to weather expected wave of reprisal attacks before trying to reach out to Hakimullah Mehsud's successor, analysts say.

The killing of the Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, left, is expected to lead to repsisal attacks. Ishtiaq Mehsud / AP Photo
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Taimur Khan

Foreign Correspondent

New York // The CIA drone strike that killed Pakistan’s most wanted Taliban terrorist may lead to a wave of revenge attacks, but could also present Pakistan with a prime opportunity to press the advantage with the weakened group before engaging in potential peace talks, analysts said.

But with no clear counterterrorism strategy in place and reluctance in Islamabad to launch military action against the Pakistani Taliban amid widespread public anger at the use of drones and disagreement with the military over peace talks, it appears unlikely that the government will be able to exploit the opportunity provided by the death of Hakimullah Mehsud, the analysts said.

However, there are hopes that Mehsud’s successor may be more amenable to peace talks with the government.

A commander of the Taliban Movement of Pakistan (TTP), whose goal is the overthrow of the Pakistani state, said yesterday that the group’s ruling council was “taking opinions from all the shura members and senior commanders” before choosing a successor, and that the final decision “may take more time”.

Pakistani media reported yesterday that Mehsud’s number 2, the militant Said Khan, known by the nom de guerre Sajna, who operated a TTP faction considered to be relatively more pragmatic, was the top choice, but Mehsud supporters were reportedly resisting his promotion.

“Sajna could be more amenable to a peace deal with Islamabad,” said Arif Rafiq, a Pakistan analyst at the Middle East Institute. ““However, he has not shied away from attacking the Pakistani state. And the TTP will have to engage in reprisal attacks after the killing of its leader. So the prospects for progress in the peace talks are dim in the short term.”

“At the same time, the TTP is an umbrella group and so now that there’s a leadership transition going on, Pakistani intelligence could try to leverage the differences within the network before Sajna settles in,” Mr Rafiq said.

“Hakimullah was quite brutal in dealing with dissenters in the network. Now that he’s gone, the disaffected could feel more free to adopt a more accommodating posture with Islamabad.”

But even if a relative moderate takes over the TTP, he may quickly take a more hardline stance in order to assert authority and consolidate power, Mr Rafiq said.

When Mehsud’s predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed by a US drone in 2009, many observers thought the group might splinter altogether.

“What this may do to the TTP is difficult to answer. Last time we found out that Baitullah’s successor, Hakimullah, was much more brash, much more ruthless,” said Moeed Yusuf, South Asia Programmes director at the US Institute of Peace. “Lets hope its not the case this time round.”

Regardless of who takes control of the TTP, there will likely soon be a wave of terrorist strikes in retaliation for Mehsud’s death. “Our revenge will be unprecedented,” Abu Omar, a TTP commander in North Waziristan, told the New York Times. He said the Pakistani government was “fully complicit” in the US strike.

Every political party in Pakistan says it supports peace talks with the TTP to end the war it began waging in earnest against the Pakistani state in 2007. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had reportedly selected a delegation of clerics who were to visit the tribal areas on Friday to initiate talks that have been scuttled for the time being in the wake of Mehsud’s death.

The TTP for its part denied that any talks were on the horizon as it continued its terrorist campaign, and the government’s claims are difficult to verify.

“We still have no information about what these talks are and what each side is doing,” said Mr Yusuf. “It’s not clear whether Hakimullah was a facilitator of talks or whether he was opposed to talks, and depending on that, and whether you are pro or against talks, you will have the answer as to whether this was good or bad.”

While Mr Sharif’s interior minister echoed the sentiments of other righ-wing parties in Pakistan by lashing out at the US, accusing it of sabotaging the talks, there have been signs in recent weeks that security cooperation between the two countries has become much closer, with Mr Sharif and Barack Obama pledging as much after their White House meeting last week.

Both countries are working urgently to create the conditions for a political settlement in Afghanistan between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban, which is related to but has separate goals from the TTP.

The US is increasingly frustrated by Kabul in its negotiations to keep some of its troops in the country after international forces withdraw next year. “The US has to have contingencies for a situation in which it might not have any troops present in Afghanistan and that’s why it has displayed a greater keenness to work with Pakistan,” Mr Rafiq said.

An example of this came in September, when US special forces intercepted an Afghan intelligence convoy that was meeting with Latif Mehsud, a senior aide to Mehsud who had reportedly been an Afghan intelligence asset for two years, indicating that the Afghan government had been collaborating with an Al Qaeda-linked group against Pakistan.

After vocally opposing the use of drones, now that Mr Sharif is in power there are some signs that his government may privately be less opposed to the strikes as cooperation with the US increases.

Last week the ministry of defence released a new tally of civilian deaths in drone strikes which showed that none had been killed in the past year, a stark revision that many observers found suspicious.

“The government has boxed itself in,” Mr Rafiq said. “Now that it seems to be embracing a limited use of drones, it really doesn’t have the political space to embrace them publicly. Their approach seems to be countering one lie with another lie.”

*With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse