Drone Kills Taliban Leader Hakimullah Mehsud: Ramifications for Pakistan, the Taliban and the U.S.
The news that Hakimullah Mehsud, the head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), died in a drone strike on November 1 was hard to believe at first, given that previous widespread reporting of his death in such an attack had been embarrassingly falsified on at least two previous occasions. This time, however, the news rings true, and the most dangerous man in Pakistan is no more.
Hakimullah’s death will have important impacts on the TTP, Pakistan’s deadliest terrorist group, as well as on the Pakistani state’s approach to dealing with its militancy problem. The network will undergo inevitable flux as it adjusts to new leadership. But while Hakimullah’s death is an important blow to the group, it is essential to understand that the death of a single leader in a drone attack does not constitute a deathblow to the organization. The TTP will almost certainly recover and will remain an existential threat to the Pakistani state and a deadly enemy of the United States at home and abroad; losing focus of the group due to temporary, if important, successes will only increase the TTP’s lethality.
Reactions to Hakimullah’s Death
According to press reports, Hakimullah died when a U.S. drone struck a vehicle he was in on Friday night, shortly after attending an important meeting of Taliban leaders. Up to six militants were reportedly killed in the strike, including Hakimullah’s personal bodyguard and cousin, Tariq Mehsud, and his driver, Abdullah Mehsud. The vehicle was hit as it prepared to enter Hakimullah’s family compound in Dande Darpa Khel, a small town approximately three miles north of the North Waziristan district headquarters of Miram Shah, and adjacent to the main airport and Pakistani military base in the area. Dande Darpa Khel is a well-known stronghold of the al Qaeda-allied Haqqani Network.
The TTP was quick to confirm Hakimullah’s death, a stark contrast to the 2009 death of the movement’s founder, Baitullah Mehsud, which TTP leaders denied for weeks. Hakimullah was buried on November 2 at an unknown location and TTP leaders convened to choose a successor. The TTP’s central spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, ruled out the idea of peace negotiations with the Pakistani government—which he termed “U.S. slaves”—and said that the Pakistani government had given the Taliban a “present” in the form of “Hakimullah Mehsud’s dead body.” While the death of erstwhile top leaders has usually elicited more forceful rhetoric from the TTP, Shahid said “time will tell whether or not we take revenge for his martyrdom or not.” By contrast, a well-known TTP spokesman from South Waziristan, Azam Tariq, threatened that “every drop of Hakimullah’s blood will turn into a suicide bomber.”
Hakimullah’s followers were not alone in issuing condemnations of the strike and statements in support of him. The Afghan Taliban, under the name of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” condemned Hakimullah’s killing, calling his death a “big loss,” and urged the Pakistani government and people to take measures to stop the “barbaric and illegal drone attacks.” A spokesman for the Haqqani Network, Ahmed Yousuf, vowed to take revenge against the U.S. for killing Hakimullah.
Disconcertingly, perhaps the strongest reaction against Hakimullah’s death came from the Pakistani government, the institution that has suffered most heavily at the hands of Hakimullah and his movement. Senior government officials lambasted the U.S. for what they called a deliberate attempt to derail nascent peace talks that the government was pursuing with the TTP. The Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, called the strike a “drone attack on the peace process.” Religious and political opposition leaders in Pakistan, spearheaded by Imran Khan, the head of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party that forms the government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, have called for the central government to blockade NATO supplies heading into Afghanistan in revenge. While the central government has summoned the U.S. ambassador to lodge an official protest over the strike, it has ruled out calls for a blockade, which it deems ineffective, and said it will continue to make its displeasure known through conventional channels and avoid overreacting. Imran Khan has threatened to locally enforce the blockade if the central government takes no action.
U.S. officials have avoided confirming or taking responsibility for Hakimullah’s death in the drone attack. One U.S. official from the National Security Council said the news, if true, would be “a serious loss” for the TTP. Regarding the Pakistani view that the U.S. was interfering with the Pakistani peace process by ordering the strike, a State Department official said the U.S. and Pakistan had a shared interest in “ending extremist violence” in Pakistan and called Pakistani efforts to engage in dialogue with the TTP an “internal matter for Pakistan.” In fending off Pakistani protests, the State Department reportedly referred to “Hakimullah’s role in attacks on U.S. citizens.”
Public Enemy Number One
Hakimullah Mehsud came to power in 2009 following the death of TTP founder Baitullah after a brief leadership struggle with Wali-ur-Rehman, a senior deputy of Baitullah’s who would become Hakimullah’s second-in-command. Known for his ruthlessness and bloody-mindedness, Hakimullah soon became Pakistan’s “Public Enemy Number One.” When the Pakistani military launched a full-scale operation in South Waziristan, the region Hakimullah hailed from, Hakimullah prudently chose not to engage in battle and moved the majority of his network to neighboring North Waziristan where it continues to reside today, more or less untouched by Pakistani military forces. Hakimullah likely knew the Pakistani military would be unwilling to launch attacks into territory occupied by the Haqqani Network, a group with which Pakistani intelligence maintains close ties, for fear of disrupting the network’s ability to operate as a proxy for Pakistan in Afghanistan. During his tenure, Hakimullah deepened the TTP’s cooperation with al Qaeda and the Haqqanis, though he denied frequent urgings from Haqqani leader Sirajuddin Haqqani to make peace with the Pakistani state.
According to press reports, Hakimullah was battling constantly to maintain control of the fractious TTP umbrella group, most prominently against Rehman who was said to be more in favor of negotiating with the Pakistani state. None of the numerous reports of a split between the top leaders was ever substantiated, however, and Rehman and Hakimullah continued to pledge support for each other until Rehman’s death in a May 2013 drone strike. While many dismissed the TTP as losing relevance following increased reporting of internal strife and a lower tempo of attacks in Pakistan during most of 2012, the TTP under Hakimullah appeared to regain its lethality and unleashed a wave of high-profile attacks across the country starting in November 2012. The attacks continued into early 2013 and, during Pakistan’s election season, the TTP made a habit of targeting political parties that were seen as secular and part of the previous government against which it had fought. So effective were the TTP’s attacks that one party, the Awami National Party, essentially ceased campaigning after the deaths of senior leaders and party workers and was nearly wiped out at the polls. By contrast, parties such as the PTI and the victorious Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which espoused peace talks with the Taliban, were untouched by the violence and most successful in the election. From the start of its term, the PML-N has prevaricated on taking a hard line against TTP violence and has consistently pushed for peace talks with the Taliban. The impact the Hakimullah-led TTP had on Pakistan’s 2013 election is undeniable.
The TTP also rose to international prominence under Hakimullah’s stewardship. While Baitullah made the TTP the most feared domestic militant group in Pakistan, Hakimullah made the Pakistani Taliban a household name in the West following the TTP’s decision in 2009 to directly target U.S. citizens outside of Pakistan. In December 2009, the TTP conspired with Jordanian double-agent Humam al Balawi to conduct a suicide attack on a CIA facility in Khost, Afghanistan that killed seven U.S. spies and contractors, including the local station chief. A video released after the attack showed Hakimullah alongside Balawi calling for attacks on the U.S. In May 2010, Pakistani citizen Faisal Shahzad narrowly failed to detonate a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device in New York City. Shahzad admitted to meeting Hakimullah and receiving training from the TTP for the attack. Around the same time, Hakimullah released a video warning of further attacks on U.S. soil. The U.S. designated the TTP a foreign terrorist organization in September 2010, put a $5 million bounty on Hakimullah’s head, and tried and failed on at least two previous occasions to kill Hakimullah via drone strikes.
The Future of the TTP
Given Hakimullah’s outsize personality and the control he exercised on the TTP network, questions will emerge regarding the impact of his death on the group as a whole. While reports of the group’s factions splintering over differences under Hakimullah’s leadership were likely overblown, differences did exist and according to extensive media reporting, Hakimullah was strongly opposed to the views held by some other leaders and factions interested in negotiating with the Pakistani government. During his life, Hakimullah stated on several occasions that his objective was the overthrow of the Pakistani state and the establishment of a new one based on a narrow conception of Sharia law. While he was staunchly opposed to democracy or its offices in Pakistan, he had recently expressed a willingness to enter into “serious” talks with the Pakistani state, provided it fulfill almost certainly unattainable preconditions, such as revising the constitution to follow Sharia, releasing all Taliban prisoners and withdrawing all armed forces from the tribal areas. At the same time, while TTP factions continued to launch large-scale attacks across the country, the TTP began to deny responsibility for the attacks (while supporting their occurrence), a strategy that successfully sowed confusion in the Pakistani political landscape and helped prevent the formation of strong political consensus around taking action against the group.
Whether or not the TTP will now adopt a more genuine attitude towards peace talks with the government (and what such a new approach might entail) will depend, to an extent, on who emerges to replace Hakimullah as leader of the umbrella group. Soon after reports of Hakimullah’s death began circulating, news emerged that Khan Saeed Mehsud, alias Sajna, the successor to Rehman who also headed the TTP’s main faction in South Waziristan, had been appointed leader of the group. If true, commentators might speculate that the group would follow Rehman’s and subsequently Saeed’s greater openness to talks. Taliban leaders denied reports of Saeed’s appointment on November 3, however; new reports claim that Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani, a well-known TTP commander who served under Hakimullah, had been appointed to serve as interim leader of the group while its leadership deliberated on a successor. Reported frontrunners include Saeed; Umar Khalid Khorasani, a powerful commander and head of the TTP in Mohmand agency who has been serving since Baitullah’s leadership; Shehryar Mehsud, a commander from Hakimullah’s own group; and Mullah Fazlullah, the Nuristan, Afghanistan-based commander in charge of the TTP’s Swat faction. Khurasani and Fazlullah are said to be long shots given that they are not from the Mehsud tribe, the main Pashtun tribe based in South Waziristan from which the movement has drawn most of its strength. Conflicting reporting claims that the front runners for the leadership are indeed Fazlullah and a commander from Orakzai agency called Hafiz Saeed Khan.
Khan Saeed, Rehman’s successor, although vaunted for his reported bravery in battle, has even fewer religious or educational credentials than Hakimullah did. Should he come to power, it is questionable whether he will, at least in the early days, be able to exert significant influence over the group and some of its factions led by powerful commanders who maintain heavy autonomy over their operations. Earlier this year, Khurasani and Asmatullah Muawiya, the well-known and influential leader of the deadly Punjabi Taliban faction of the TTP, both publicly disagreed with the TTP’s central leadership on negotiating with the Pakistani state; Muawiya was in favor of talks, while Khurasani rejected even Hakimullah’s tepid outreach to the government.
This discord should not be taken as an indication that the movement has suffered an irreparable blow, however. The TTP has repeatedly shown an uncanny ability to absorb shocks to its leadership structure and losses of significant amounts of territory. Hakimullah came to dominate the TTP after Baitullah’s death, when insiders thought Baitullah’s loss irreplaceable and Hakimullah merely a violent upstart. The TTP has not shown any signs of crumbling despite losing other top leaders over the years to drone attacks, such as its head of suicide bombers, Qari Hussain Mehsud, and its second-in-command, Rehman, in May 2013. The new leader of the TTP will likely face an adjustment period, but given that the Pakistani military is not currently engaged in any significant military operations in the northwest, and drones have been operating at a much reduced tempo this year, nothing yet suggests that the TTP’s enemies plan on taking advantage of the movement’s temporary weaknesses.
Wherefore Taliban Peace Talks?
The Pakistani government’s strategy towards terrorism has been defined by its distinct lack of a unified approach. The PML-N-led government came to power following elections in May 2013 primarily on a campaign of economic reform. It had largely hoped to avoid the question of militancy in Pakistan by dragging out the prospect of dialogue with militants to buy itself more time to make advances in the economic sector early in its term. When the TTP declared an end to talks following the death of Wali-ur-Rehman, and a new wave of high-casualty attacks swept the country, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government were forced to address the militancy issue as it was stealing national attention away from the government’s economic agenda. After wavering between strong condemnations of militant attacks and terrorism in general and re-engaging with militants as part of a peace dialogue, the government held an all-parties conference in September where the expected outcome was reached: parties that were either sympathetic to the militants or cowed by their violence into deference towards them overwhelmingly tipped the sentiment in favor of renewed peace efforts. The PML-N-led government has taken refuge behind the conference’s consensus ever since, making repeated calls for peace talks with the same militants that it knows are conducting deadly attacks.
Given the categorical stance the government has taken on talks, and the strong pressure that the PML-N’s primary political opponents, the PTI, are putting on it to stick to the negotiations agenda, it is understandable why the government’s rhetoric condemning the drone strike that killed Hakimullah has been so vitriolic. So far, it seems the only institution in Pakistan happy to see the end of Hakimullah is the army, which has suffered heavy losses fighting, and in terrorist attacks by, the TTP and its allied factions. In September, the TTP’s Swat faction took responsibility for a bomb attack on a military convoy that killed the two-star general in charge of forces in Swat. Although the army’s chief, General Asfhaq Kayani, who is near retirement, has publicly pledged that the army will support government efforts, it is no secret that he and the rest of the army are skeptical of the government coming to any sort of lasting peace agreement with the TTP. That said, any celebrating is being done privately: jubilation among the army does not mirror public sentiment which continues to chafe at the perceived violations of sovereignty from U.S. drone strikes and conspiracy theories that the strikes are being conducted to sabotage peace efforts with the militants.
The theory is based on a valid assumption: Hakimullah’s death almost certainly spells the end of this round of dialogue between the militants and the state, at least until a new TTP leader has been selected and has corralled a significant portion of the group and, very likely, after the group has indulged itself in some vengeful bloodletting. Even if a new TTP that is more eager to negotiate with the government emerges, the government would be foolish to think talks are going to lead to some long-lasting solution that will end violence in Pakistan. The new leader will likely be cut from the same cloth as Hakimullah was, in that he will be ideologically opposed to the very foundation of a constitutional, democratic Pakistani state. New demands will likely mirror old preconditions, including the replacement of Pakistan’s democratic system with a “Sharia-compliant” one; the withdrawal of the army from the tribal areas and the granting of de facto governance powers to the TTP in its spheres of influence; an immediate end to drone strikes and the termination of any sort of partnership with the U.S.; and the release of hundreds of imprisoned Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, some of whom are responsible for the deaths of dozens, if not hundreds, of civilians. None of these conditions is compatible with the Pakistani state, or the majority of its polity, as it exists today. Any temporary agreement drawn, especially if it mirrors past peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban, will likely be overstepped by the TTP, be completely unenforceable in its terms, especially since militants have persistently refused to disarm, and allow militants time and space to augment their capabilities and make them more dangerous foes when the fighting inevitably restarts. There are enough spoiler groups among the TTP for whom Islamist militancy is a way or life or a means of making a living, and for whom a peace deal means a loss of influence and/or income. For such groups, the temptation to resume attacks against the state after a brief pause will be too strong to resist.
The Pakistani government should stop wasting its time blaming the U.S. for scuttling the so-called peace initiative it claims it was on the cusp of launching with the TTP. Hakimullah’s death may have saved the government from yet another fallacious peace deal; sadly, the domestic political environment at present appears geared towards some sort of engagement with the TTP and the government is likely to grasp onto any opportunities it finds that might delay dealing with the inevitable hard questions of how to tackle Islamist militancy in Pakistan.
The TTP is the principal enemy of the Pakistani state and is a key ally of al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network. Hakimullah Mehsud was its most important leader to-date. He oversaw and participated in the deaths of thousands of Pakistanis and facilitated attacks on U.S. interests and citizens in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the U.S. His death is an important blow to the TTP and its allies and a worthy victory for its enemies. The group has, however, demonstrated a remarkable resilience to decapitation strikes in the past and is likely to survive this latest one as well. Given that the group appears to be under no pressure from the Pakistani military at the moment, and U.S. drone strikes are taking place at a significantly tailored tempo, the group does not appear to be under duress and will likely not suffer debilitating flux in replacing its damaged leadership. Furthermore, there is no indication that the TTP or any of its future leadership intends to abandon its relationship with al Qaeda. Both Hakimullah and his long-time deputy, Wali-ur-Rehman, despite disagreeing on many topics, revered al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, sentiments likely shared by their followers.
The TTP-al Qaeda relationship is unlikely to change soon. Hakimullah’s death is not a fatal blow to the network. Peace talks with the Pakistani government are not likely to get far and even less likely to come to a lasting agreement. Both the U.S. and Pakistani governments would do well to take advantage of this temporary setback for the group and keep the TTP in their crosshairs.
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