The Death of Hakimullah Mehsud: Implications for Pakistan
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  • On November 1, the leader of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed in an American drone strike in Miranshah, North Waziristan. The town is known to be a stronghold of the Al-Qaeda and ISI linked Haqqani group. He was reported to have been in a car, about to enter his palatial villa in Miranshah1 when the drone struck, killing at least five in the car. The compound is located close to a Pakistani army installation. The strike was precise, with no known collateral damage. Unconfirmed reports suggest two key commanders and close aides, Abdullah Bahar Mehsud and Tariq Mehsud, were killed along with an uncle and a cousin of Hakimullah’s2. The TTP vowed revenge and the Khyber Pakthunkhwa government immediately took measures to protect Peshawar and areas abutting the FATA3. Asmatullah Shaheed Bhattani was appointed as an interim replacement for Hakimullah. Over the next few days, rumours were rife that Khan Syed ‘Sajna’ had been appointed chief after a resounding shura vote, but this was later dismissed as speculation by the TTP4. On November 7, Mullah Fazlullah, the head of the TTP in Swat, was announced as the new leader of the TTP. He is considered a hardliner and less moderate than Khan Syed. His group had claimed responsibility for the September 15, 2013 IED blast that killed Major General Sanaullah Niazi in the Upper Dir district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and for the shooting of 2013 Sakharov Prize awardee Malala Yousufzai. This indecision on the part of the TTP could indicate discord among the ranks; before the appointment of Fazlullah, Omar Kharasani, the TTP’s Mohmand chief, was also reportedly unhappy with Khan Syed as a replacement.

    The drone strike that killed Hakimullah Mehsud comes at a critical juncture. Pakistan was on the “eve” of talks with the TTP (in the words of Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan), with the government set to fly “respected ulema” to Miranshah to handover a formal invitation. Mr. Nisar Khan has said talks with the Taliban were “unfortunately” no longer possible5. According to him, “This is not just the killing of one person, it's the death of all peace efforts”6 .

    One on a list of many

    The US State Department put out a boilerplate response, saying Pakistan and the US shared a strategic interest in ending extremist violence. It also reiterated that dialogue with the TTP was an internal issue. Secretary of State John Kerry said the US was “sensitive to the concerns” of Pakistan7. While talks with the TTP might well be an internal issue for Pakistan, the US definitely saw Hakimullah Mehsud as their problem in the larger context of capturing or eliminating High Value Targets (HVTs). The FBI had put a $5 million dollar reward out for the man; it believes he orchestrated a bombing on a US Military base in the Afghan-Pakistan border town of Khost in December 30, 2009 in which a CIA team was killed. On August 20, 2010, according to the FBI website, “Mehsud was charged federally with conspiracy to murder a United States National while outside the United States and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction against a National of the United States while outside the United States. That same day, a federal warrant was issued by the United States District Court, District of Columbia, for Mehsud's arrest”8. He is also believed to be behind the Times Square bombing plot in New York9.

    The strike is in many ways a repeat of when US commandos covertly captured Al-Qaeda leader Abu Anas al-Libi10 in Tripoli on October 5, 2013 and of a failed raid on Al-Shabab operatives in Southern Somalia on the same day. After the raids, Kerry spelt out its no-boundaries policy when it comes to HVTs: “Those members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations literally can run, but they can't hide”11. In practice alone, the US, be it with covert SEAL Team VI operations or with the CIA’s drone programme, has made it abundantly clear that they will carry out operations without warning and with no heed for sovereignty to protect their core security interests. Hakimullah Mehsud was, therefore, just another on a list and the incident should be seen in that light by Pakistani politicians and commentators who have been quick to claim that that the drone attack was a move to intentionally sabotage the dialogue process.

    A dialogue that was born still

    That paranoia that this may derail the impending peace dialogue was reflected in Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Chairman Imran Khan’s statements to the BBC on November 6, 2013. “Absolutely deliberate - this was a deliberate targeting of the peace process (…) We'd been waiting for two months for this peace process to start and then finally when everyone had come to a consensus for peace, they destroyed the peace process”, he said12. Mr. Khan’s view is based on a popular and deep-seated antipathy towards the US, fuelled by unilateral drone strikes and what is perceived as disregard for Pakistani sovereignty. While it might be politically expedient to take this stand, it shrouds the bitter reality of talks with the TTP. The government and the militants never shared common ground. In response to the government’s overtures, the TTP demanded that the government withdraw from tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the FATA, release all TTP prisoners, impose Sharia and, in Hakimullah’s last known interview (with the BBC), stop drone strikes. These demands logically, leave no room for negotiations. The demands are against the idea of Pakistan itself, a clear challenge to the writ of the state. Since the All-Parties’ Conference on September 9, 2013, in which the government confirmed its intention to pursue dialogue with the TTP, the outfit has carried out some of its most audacious attacks yet. It carried out an attack in Upper Dir which left Major General Sanullah Niazi and other army officers dead, and is thought to have carried out three major attacks on Peshawar in the span of a week: an attack on All Saints Church that left 85 dead, an attack on Qissa Khwani Bazaar that left 38 dead and a bombing on a crowded bus that killed 21, mainly government employees13. Therefore, one can conclude the much-hyped peace talks had very little chance of realistically bearing fruit, much like talk of talks during the time of the Pakistan People’s Party.

    Where did the intelligence come from?

    The more important question is where the intelligence came from. Judging by the information that emerged since the strike, it seems clear the drone operators were operating on very precise information: Hakimullah was supposedly waiting for the gates to his compound to be opened after returning from a mosque in a car with two top commanders and two relatives when the drone struck -no nearby civilians were killed14. During Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington in October, The Washington Post ran a report explicitly detailing how Pakistan had “endorsed the drone programme and routinely received classified briefings on strikes and casualty counts”15. The grapevine and the opinion pages in Pakistan have long talked of Pakistan handing over a wish-list of drone targets to the US. When the Abbottabad Commission Report was leaked in early July this year, former ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha was quoted as saying Pakistan had reached an unwritten understanding with the US on drones and that the programme had its “utility”16. The army has already taken a clear line on talks; at a Corps Commanders meeting on September 4, 2013, immediately prior to the APC declaration, the army top brass with Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani at the helm said army operations in the restive tribal areas would not be affected by talks17. These facts make it entirely possible that intelligence for the strike came from within the Pakistani state apparatus or, at the very least, that there was tacit approval from the state. If that assumption is taken seriously, it means there are major differences in what the army and the government believe is the best way to tackle the threat posed by the TTP. Prime Minister Sharif made it clear to his electorate that he had raised the issue of drones with President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry during his trip to Washington. However, the joint-statement that was issued made no mention of drones. The intelligence could also have come from Latif Mehsud, believed to be second-in-command of the TTP and a close confidante of Hakimullah Mehsud until he was whisked away to Bagram by American forces on October 10. He was being taken to meet with Afghan security forces on the Afghan side of the border to allegedly negotiate a prisoner exchange18.

    Domestic reactions: playing to the gallery

    The single most drastic reaction to the strike has come, as mentioned earlier, from PTI chief Imran Khan. On November 4, the Khyber Pakthunkhwa Assembly unanimously passed a resolution to block NATO supply lines. In the National Assembly, Mr. Khan said supply lines would be blocked on November 20 if the US did not agree to stop drone strikes by then19. This might well fling Mr. Sharif into a diplomatic crisis with the United States that he can ill-afford. The agreement that allows for supply lines to run through Pakistan to NATO and ISAF forces in Afghanistan is between the Federal Government of Pakistan and the US. Therefore, Mr. Khan will have no legal basis or power to annul or stop the agreement. Also, given the composition of the National Assembly at the moment, there is little he can do on the legislative front to disallow the transit of supplies. This kind of posturing from Mr. Khan is nothing new. He was one of the chief proponents of the closure of NATO GLOCs (Ground Lines of Communication) through Pakistan after the 2011 NATO helicopter raid on a border check-post in Salala that left 28 Pakistani soldiers dead. He also fiercely protested the reopening of those lines in 2012, saying he would work with other parties to ensure the lines stayed closed, but to no avail20. The army will play possibly the most important role in deciding whether the supply lines remain open, as it did after the Salala incident. Mr. Khan’s opinion is not as important.

    It will be interesting to observe how Mr. Sharif handles the current situation; he will have to walk a tightrope by appearing to agree with the broader sentiments of Mr. Khan for public consumption while siding, in actual fact, with the US. His short trip to Washington towards the end of October represented a significant thawing of a troubled relationship between the two countries, limping along after diplomatic nightmares such as the 2011 Salala and Abbottabad incidents. The US Overseas Private Investment Corporation has recently agreed to increase its investment support for Pakistan from half a billion to $1.5 billion21. Advisor to the Prime Minister on National Security Sartaj Aziz announced the US had agreed to invest $1 billion in the energy sector, money it desperately needs22. Also, on the first day of his visit to the US, as Mr. Sharif met with Mr. Kerry, Congress was being asked by the US State Department to release more than $300 million in blocked security assistance to Pakistan23. Mr. Sharif will be keen to continue to make progress with the US and step around the political and diplomatic mess Mr. Khan seems insistent on creating for him. The Interior Minister’s statement that relations with the US will be reviewed may not be as dire a warning as it sounds24.

    Other domestic reactions have been along expected lines. Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the Jammat-e-Ulema-Fazl and Munanwar Hassan of the Jamaat-i-Islaami have both supported the PTI’s plan to block the supply lines. Fazlur Rehman also expressed for the need to take stock and create a new plan to address the internal security situation. Mr. Hassan went a step further and called Hakimullah Mehsud a martyr. The statement was widely condemned, most strongly by the army, the Muttahida Quami Movement and the Pakistan People’s Party. Sardar Hussain Babak of the Awami National Party has criticized the PTI government for publicly mourning the death of talks, saying they were showing solidarity with the Taliban. Interestingly, Arbab Akbar Hayat, a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz lawmaker in the KP Assembly, said his party would support the PTI resolution as it was an issue of national interest. Qamoori Watan Party Chairman Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao strongly condemned further drone strikes. Members of the Ulema also condemned the strike and killings.25 It appears that these parties are playing to the gallery. It makes political sense to get mileage out of the deeply unpopular drone strikes. A very indicative Pew Research Global Attitudes Research Project report from 2011 points out why:

    “About three-quarters of those surveyed had an unfavorable opinion of the United States, basically unchanged from those surveyed earlier. (…) About 7 in 10 said they considered the United States more an enemy of Pakistan than a partner. More than two-thirds said they were worried the United States could become a military threat. About 6 in 10 said the United States pays little or no consideration to the interests of countries like Pakistan when making international policy decisions. And only about 10 percent had confidence that President Obama would do the right thing in world affairs.”26

    A delicate situation

    On November 4, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged Pakistan to keep supply lines open to NATO forces. He said the routes were in Pakistan’s interests and contributed to stability in the region. While that may be contentious to many, it is a fact that shutting down the supply routes by force will destabilize the security framework of the region as well as damage the US-Pakistan relationship. Such shifts might have far reaching effects on the drawdown of NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2014. From the reaction of the Interior Minister to that of Imran Khan, there is a pervasive, and perhaps deliberate, lack of acknowledgement that Hakimullah Mehsud was responsible for many of the most horrific incidents of terrorist violence in the country. The inflamed rhetoric and the apparent unwillingness to approach events and opinions from a standpoint grounded in realism makes the situation particularly volatile. These strikes are pushing the electorate into more frenzied anti-Americanism that will further complicate Mr. Sharif’s and General Kayani’s strategic policy decisions vis-à-vis the US, on whom Pakistan is dependent for investment, aid and a smooth transition through the 2014 Afghanistan drawdown.

    If reports about the TTP’s leadership selection procedure before the appointment of Fazlullah are to be believed, there could be different visions for the TTP competing for space in the upper echelons of the umbrella group. Hardliners might have suspected Khan Syed to be more amenable to talks and more pragmatic on the possibility compromise. Fazlullah, with his bloody track record in Swat and his commitment to the Taliban’s ideology, seems to be more likely to stick to “core values”. A day after his appointment, the TTP announced that it would carry out revenge attacks by targeting “security forces, government installations, political leaders and police”, in the words of Taliban shura head Asmatullah Shaheen Bhattani27. TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said the new leader perceived talks as “a waste of time”28. While talks might not actually catalyze peace, the very idea of impending talks might have led to polarization within the organization, with radical hardliners on one side and dialogue pragmatists on the other. Perhaps all the hemming and hawing before the announcement of Fazlullah as the new leader and, by that logic, the appointment of a known hardliner over a slightly more moderate face are manifestations of that polarization. The appointment of Fazlullah as chief and Khalid Haqqani as his deputy are also significant because this is the first time power at the very top has shifted away from the Mehsud clan.

    While these events may not bring more peace to the ordinary Pakistani in the short to medium-term, the drone strike has presented the government and the army with a tactical advantage. As Fazlullah settles in, he will have to negotiate with and assert power over the numerous ragtag groups that make the TTP. As he does this, he will have to deal with the fact that he most likely will not be operating from Pakistan (he was last reported to be in Nuristan in Afghanistan and is thought to be based there). Transition periods are tricky for most organisations, especially those with weak organizational structures. Whether the army and/or the government decide to capitalize on this moment to further weaken the TTP will reveal whether the grand spectacle of dialogue was merely a tactical move in a gory counterinsurgency or a leap of misguided earnestness.

    Prepared by Aditya Valiathan Pillai, Research Intern, IDSA