September Issue 2009
Staging a Comeback?
The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its affiliates struck twice against the personnel of the law-enforcement agencies with suicide bombings on August 29 and 30 in different parts of the NWFP, killing 38 Khassadars and policemen, to send a warning that they still retained the capacity to fight back, despite Baitullah Mehsud’s death.
Just a day after the brutal attack, a suicide bomb killed 21 Khassadars and injured another 27 in the border town of Torkham in Khyber Agency. The TTP claimed responsibility for the attack and threatened more to avenge Baitullah’s assassination in a US drone strike on August 5.
On August 30, the militants struck in Swat’s capital city, Mingora, when a suicide bomber snuck into a police station by scaling the boundary wall and caused an explosion which killed 16 newly-recruited members of the Special Police Force and injured another five. No claim of responsibility for the terrorist attack was made, but it was clear that the Swati Taliban led by Maulana Fazlullah were involved. In fact, this was the fourth suicide bombing in Swat since July 13, when the IDPs started returning home to the valley from Peshawar. The earlier three suicide attacks had targeted the roadside checkpoints of the army and not only caused casualties, but also a scare among Swati people about the continuing threat that the Taliban militants posed in Swat despite the sustained and aggressive military operation.
The Torkham bombing is viewed as the beginning of a new round of terrorist attacks by the TTP under its recently-appointed leader, Hakimullah Mehsud. The 29-year-old Hakimullah was the commander of the Taliban militants for three tribal regions — Khyber, Orakzai and Kurram — before he was named Baitullah’s successor, and it soon became obvious that he ordered the suicide attack on the tribal police at Torkham on the Pak-Afghan border. The attack could be interpreted as an attempt by him to live up to his reputation as a daring and ferocious Taliban commander and prove that he is a worthy replacement for Baitullah.
This was the first major terrorist strike by the TTP after a long time. The halt in suicide bombings, particularly in urban centres, had helped calm the nerves of the citizens and also enabled the government to boast that its tough security measures and capture of a number of militants had degraded the TTP’s ability to launch further terrorist attacks. However, another more important reason for the lull in bombings and suicide attacks was due to the TTP’s refusal to concede Baitullah’s death in the US drone strike. After admitting that Baitullah was killed in that attack, along with his wife, the TTP was ready to strike back. The suicide bombing in Torkham followed by the one in Swat were the first retaliatory strikes in what might turn out to be a series of attacks to avenge Baitullah’s assassination.
It is relevant to mention that the TTP, and even the non-TTP militant groups like those led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan and Maulvi Nazeer in Wana, have made it absolutely clear that they will take revenge on Pakistan’s security forces as well as the government for every US drone attack due to their belief that the Americans were launching missile strikes in the tribal areas with the full cooperation of the Pakistan Army.
The TTP was able to resolve the issue of succession, at least for the time being, after belatedly conceding Baitullah’s death and appointing men to two of the most important positions in the organisation: Hakimullah and Maulana Waliur Rahman Mehsud. Under the power-sharing formula, the younger man, Hakimullah, was chosen as the TTP central amir, and Waliur Rahman was made the leader of the militants in their stronghold of South Waziristan.
Stepping into Baitullah’s shoes won’t be easy for Hakimullah. Baitullah had almost become a mythical personality among his followers due the somewhat exaggerated importance that the US and its allies gave to him and his organisation. The US announced $5 million head-money on him after the Pakistan government promised to pay Rs 50 million to anyone providing information that could lead to his death or capture. Time magazine named him among the 100 most influential figures in the world. Thrice, he had fought against the Pakistan Army and brought it to a standstill, and brought about 20 militant groups in the NWFP — which includes the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan — onto one platform. He was also the link between Pakistani and Afghan Taliban and had strong ties with Al-Qaeda and several jihadi groups operating in the region.
For 20 days, the Pakistani Taliban commanders tried to hide and deny Baitullah’s death. They conceded his death when it became impossible to keep denying it any further. The evidence was piling up and the Taliban were unable to provide any proof of Baitullah being alive. Despite the TTP denials, it appears that Baitullah was killed along with his wife on the night of August 5, when US drones fired two missiles at his father-in-law Maulana Ikramuddin’s house in Zangara village near Ladha town in South Waziristan. The story that Hakimullah fed to the media about Baitullah getting critically injured in the drone attack, and succumbing to his injuries later, may not be true. Until then, he and other TTP commanders were claiming that Baitullah was ill rather than injured. Almost like an afterthought, Hakimullah and his men presented to the media a new story and another sequence of events. It was, however, difficult to believe this version of the story following the implausible denials and explanations that the TTP commanders made during recent weeks.
There was no way that the new TTP leader would be from any place outside South Waziristan and the person also had to belong to the Mehsud tribe. Baitullah’s fellow Mehsuds in the TTP would not have agreed to pass on the leadership to anyone else. Neither Maulana Faqir Muhammad, the TTP deputy leader and the Taliban commander for Bajaur Agency, nor Maulana Fazlullah from Swat, Tariq Afridi from Darra Adamkhel or Abdul Wali alias Omar Khalid from Mohmand Agency, had any real chance to head the organisation after Baitullah’s death. The swiftness with which Maulana Faqir Muhammad withdrew his claim to Baitullah’s position as the TTP acting head, revealed his own weak position in the organisation and underscored the inevitability of having someone from South Waziristan replace Baitullah.
In the absence of a strong leader like Baitullah, the TTP will be confronted with new challenges. There are already reports of differences in its ranks. The TTP could suffer disunity if it continues to suffer losses at the hands of Pakistan’s armed forces and the US drones. The show of solidarity by Hakimullah and Waliur Rahman with each other and their oft-repeated denials of any differences between them, were clearly designed to keep the morale of the Taliban fighters high at a time of grief for the TTP due to Baitullah’s death. It was also aimed at assuring the Taliban troops that their two most important commanders are united and not fighting each other as claimed by Pakistan government functionaries.
However, the impression created by government supporters that the TTP is heading for a major military defeat appears premature. It is down but not out after losing control of Swat, Buner, Dir and other districts in the Malakand region, and suffering huge losses in the Bajaur and Mohmand tribal regions. Baitullah’s death has deprived the TTP of its founder and most powerful commander. While some of its other commanders are on the run or in hiding, the Pakistani Taliban, like the Afghan Taliban and the Al-Qaeda, are known to quickly replace fallen or captured commanders and emerge with new vigour.
The major worry, though, for the TTP should be the loss of public support in Pakistan. In particular, it has lost backing in its previous strongholds all over the NWFP. The suicide bombings in towns and cities and the killing of civilians has deprived it of sympathy from people who previously supported it. Even those Taliban attacks that have targeted personnel of the security and law-enforcement forces serve to turn public opinion against the militants. Although the people in Swat, Buner, Dir and in almost all the tribal areas may not be happy with the government and the security forces due to a host of reasons, the support for the military action against the militants is still strong. The common people want to get on with their lives and they believe there cannot be normality and stability as long as the Taliban militants are present and active in their areas.
The following sidebars were also part of the print version of this story:
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.