The Pakistani Taliban's Coming Divide

How the Death of Its Leader Could Be Bad for the United States


Baitullah Mehsud at a news conference, 2009. (Courtesty Reuters)

For good reason, U.S. and Pakistani officials are eager to declare Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), dead. A TTP-sponsored attack in 2009 on U.S. Forward Operating Base Chapman killed seven CIA employees. And the TTP has repeatedly hit Pakistani government targets with impressive brutality. Most recently, it released a video of its execution of 15 captured Pakistani soldiers, which declared, "This will be the fate of you all." 

Thus, when, on January 15, news outlets across the world reported Mehsud dead, killed by a U.S. drone attack, many must have breathed a sigh of relief. But those reports may have been premature. Over the past two years, several similar announcements -- some even by prominent officials such as Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik -- have surfaced, only to be proved false by Taliban videos shortly thereafter. Mehsud even took credit for the 2010 attempted Times Square bombing months after supposedly dying. For their part, TTP spokesmen have adamantly denied that Mehsud is dead, or that he was even in the area of attack. Of course, it issued similar denials following the drone strike that killed Baitullah Mehsud, the previous TTP head, in August 2009. This Mehsud could be dead, wounded, or unscathed, but considering the increasing capability of U.S. intelligence and its ability to execute on it with drones, chances are high that his days are numbered. 

It is tempting to assume that the assassination of an uncompromising Pakistani Taliban leader would be an unmitigated benefit for the United States. But the reality is not that simple, especially given ongoing efforts to negotiate an end to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States has hinted at initiating talks with various anti-coalition groups, including with the Taliban in Qatar and Hizb-i-Islami in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But it has left negotiations with the TTP entirely to Islamabad. (And that is intentional. Islamabad would likely be quite hostile to Washington's interference in its dealings with the TTP, since it considers the group a domestic issue.) 

Mehsud came to power in 2009, days after Baitullah Mehsud was eliminated. Upon Hakimullah Mehsud's demise, TTP heads would also try to replace him with a successor -- one who would continue the group's opposition to finding a settlement with Washington and Islamabad, defend territories in Pakistan's tribal regions, and preserve military and political alliances with foreign fighters stationed in Pakistan, including members of al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The TTP itself has said as much. "We will continue jihad if Hakimullah is alive or dead," TTP spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan said, of the latest rumors about Mehsud. "There are so many lions in this jungle, and one lion will replace another one to continue this noble mission." 

For now, Mehsud's potential successors include Waliur Rehman Mehsud, Faqir Mohammad, and Malik Noor Jamal, three Pakistani Taliban officials who have previously held or vied for leadership positions in the TTP. Although the organization would be best served by appointing one of them quickly, it could run into trouble achieving consensus on whom, and on maintaining group cohesion throughout the transition. Recently, the Pakistani press has reported on the TTP's fragmentation. If Mehsud's replacement were not politically adept at negotiating tricky TTP intergroup dynamics, the unsteady organization would be further vulnerable to internecine rivalry. Remember that Baitullah Mehsud's death led to an outbreak of fighting between TTP affiliates in Upper Orakzai as multiple commanders debated succession. 

For Washington, this could sound like good news. Indeed, as groups within the TTP network target each other, they undermine their own organization, essentially doing the job of the drones for Washington. Moreover, infighting would heighten paranoia among TTP members; very few people knew of Mehsud's whereabouts, so militants would surely grow suspicious of each other, fearing potential collusion with the CIA. (After Baitullah Mehsud's death, there was a spike in anti-TTP intelligence, including information leading to the Pakistani capture of spokesman Maulvi Omar. His death made the TTP look vulnerable, inspiring less-dedicated militants and local civilians to cooperate with the Pakistani government against the group.)

But the politics of such a development play more to Pakistan's benefit than to the United States'. Most Pakistani policymakers argue that the country's best hope for controlling its unruly territories is to increase political maneuvering in addition to a military presence in Taliban-held territories. Over the years, the TTP has killed Pakistani generals, bombed Pakistani Army headquarters, and attacked Pakistani military outposts and police stations. Islamabad has launched several offensives against the militants in Waziristan, but with mixed results. Islamabad could use a divided and suspicious TTP to its advantage by reconciling with milder factions. The government could also attempt to mediate intra-group battles. At most, mediation could end the violence. At least, the government would be inserting itself (and asserting its authority) into Taliban territory. 

TTP militants may eventually flip in favor of the Pakistani military. But it is unrealistic to expect them to also disavow anti-NATO activities in Afghanistan and surrender foreign fighters operating in the territory they hold. After all, Islamabad has only limited leverage over the fighters, and has a vested interest in anti-NATO activities besides. In negotiations, then, Pakistan would likely grant the TTP operational freedom across the border in Afghanistan as long as it suspended violence against the Pakistani state. 

And even an agreement along those lines might be short-lived: one effect of Pakistan's double game -- supporting U.S. interests in Afghanistan while surreptitiously sustaining Afghan Taliban elements -- is that both the country's U.S. allies and its Taliban ones mistrust it. For insurance, some in the TTP will continue to be die-hard anti-Islamabad. This will be true as long as Islamabad is at least somewhat allied with the United States, and probably for some time after that, too. If the Pakistani government does not get a foothold in post-Mehsud negotiations, any number of other players could step in. For example, the Abdullah Mehsud Group (an anti-TTP organization initially formed against Baitullah Mehsud) could end up mediating between Taliban factions. Inasmuch as this would give the Abdullah Mehsud Group greater infleunce, it would effectively swap one militant Taliban group for another. Or, worse yet, the Afghan Taliban's Quetta Shura could decide to take meaningful, operational control of the TTP, replacing Mehsud with one of its own. 

For now, the relationship between Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, and the TTP is somewhat distant; TTP officials publicly announce their loyalty to Omar, but are largely operationally independent of him -- a distinction that might be allowing Omar to maintain covert Pakistani government protection. As long as Omar maintains some separation from the TTP and its targeting of the Pakistani government, he can promote himself to Islamabad as the leader of an Afghan national movement that protects Pakistani regional interests. 

Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine Omar pursuing unity as a way to seek more leverage over Islamabad. For example, he could pressure the Pakistani government for concessions (such as protection) in exchange for attempting to nudge the TTP away from attacking Pakistani army installations and toward targeting U.S. or NATO interests. Indeed, Omar may already be making moves to consolidate influence over Taliban affiliates. On January 2, the Taliban announced that multiple factions of the Pakistani Taliban, including those led by Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman, as well as militants from the Haqqani network, established a new coordinating commission, the Shura-i-Murakbah, ostensibly led by Omar. It was designed, spokesmen claimed, to bring Pakistani Taliban groups under better management. 

This would be a bad thing. A united Taliban is not in Pakistani or U.S. interests. Such a group would be even more difficult for Islamabad to influence than the current Taliban entities in its territory. If the Afghan Taliban and TTP united, Islamabad would be facing a powerful Pashtun political force with strong ties to foreign fighters and (once U.S. forces leave) a deep strategic base in Afghanistan from which it could attack Pakistan. In other words, if Omar's Afghan faction dominates a TTP secessionist struggle, Pakistan may find itself dealing with the whole Taliban problem, not just pieces of it. Islamabad would be better off if it could use a divide-and-conquer strategy to work with a (somewhat) pliable Afghan Taliban and a marginalized Pakistani one. 

On the U.S. side, of course, having to fight or negotiate with an invigorated, expanded Taliban would be no happy development either. That is not to say that the death of Hakimullah Mehsud would not be welcome news. It would be. Mehsud was an uncompromising, dangerous man. He killed Americans, worked to destabilize Pakistan, and attempted to use proxies to attack on U.S. soil. Further, news of another successful drone strike would reaffirm the potency of U.S. intelligence and air power. As with the deaths of Nek Mohammed, a Pashtun military leader, Baitullah Mehsud, and Osama bin Laden, the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud is one step toward denying militants physical and psychological sanctuary in Pakistan. Yet as much of the literature on drones suggests, such killings usually harden militants' determination to fight, stalling any potential negotiations and settlement. Engaging in talks while under attack would make the TPP seem weak, as if negotiating out of fatigue instead of a mutual desire to compromise. Unlike with al Qaeda, the United States might be unable to assassinate its way toward a more pliable Pakistani Taliban leadership. 

In other words, Mehsud's elimination would potentially create opportunities for Pakistan to reconcile with TTP militants. But before the teams at Langley pop the champagne, policymakers should consider the possible downsides, as they could be many. If Washington is serious about negotiating an end to the war, it should suspend the drone assassination campaign and take its chances talking to existing Taliban leaders, instead of trying to kill its way toward more pliable negotiating partners that may not exist.

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