Drone Kills Top Taliban Leader and al Qaeda Ally Wali-ur-Rehman

May 30, 2013

Wali-ur-Rehman (center) speaks to a group of reporters in Shawal town, Pakistan on July 28, 2011 (Reuters)
 
Introduction

Wali-ur-Rehman, top Pakistani Taliban leader and al Qaeda ally, was reportedly killed on May 29 in a U.S. drone strike. His death is a serious blow to the enemy and will have a significant impact on the Pakistani Taliban's leadership. It may also suggest a changed view of the nature of the Pakistani Taliban among U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agencies.

Details of the Strike

The strike reportedly occurred on the morning of May 29 in the village of Chashma, some three kilometers from Miram Shah, the district headquarters of Pakistan's tribal areas' infamous North Waziristan agency.[1] Seven people were reported killed in the strike, Rehman included, and four were wounded. The other six killed were reportedly members of the main Pakistani Taliban faction, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or allied Uzbek militants.[2] Rehman's death has been “confirmed” by several Pakistani intelligence officials and other tribal sources, but the TTP's own official spokesperson so far denies having received reports of his death.[3] The Pakistani government condemned the drone strike, saying that it violated Pakistani sovereignty; the condemnation was issued before reports of Rehman's death emerged, however.[4] The strike was the first inside Pakistan since April 17 and the first since Pakistan's historic general elections on May 11.[5]

Wali-ur-Rehman and the TTP

Wali-ur-Rehman joined the Pakistani Taliban in 2004 and was a founding member of the TTP in 2007.[6] He was its chief military strategist, and had publicly declared the group's loyalty to and cooperation with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.[7]  His stature and long experience within the organization means his loss will be keenly felt and his shoes difficult to fill.

Rehman was the second-in-command of the TTP, serving as principal deputy to the TTP's overall leader, Hakimullah Mehsud. Rehman was also the head of the Mehsud faction, the largest group within the Taliban umbrella organization, which traditionally hails from the group's South Waziristan stronghold.[8]  He reportedly also managed the TTP's finances.[9]

Rehman first came to prominence following the death of the TTP's founder, Baitullah Mehsud, in a drone strike in August 2009. He had served Baitullah as a senior deputy.[10]  Rehman was a top contender to lead the movement after Baitullah's death, but lost out to Hakimullah Mehsud in a reportedly heated succession process.[11] Rehman had since served as Mehsud's deputy, and the two continued to work together despite frequent reports of falling out over negotiations with the Pakistan government and Mehsud's general bloody-mindedness: Pakistani intelligence officials claimed that, while Mehsud refused to negotiate with the Pakistani government, Rehman was more collected and calculating, supportive of talks with the state, and opposed to Mehsud's wanton pursuit of violence that was reportedly causing fissures within the group.[12]

Despite these reports, no split ever materialized. Both leaders were usually quick to issue joint communiques or appear in videos side by side to deny reports of fresh infighting and reaffirm the organization's integrity and commitment to overthrowing the Pakistani state.[13] In a video released on May 14, just days after Pakistan's general elections, Rehman condemned democracy in the country.[14] In a video released in February 2013, Rehman reaffirmed his loyalty to Mehsud and both leaders reaffirmed the group's common cause with al Qaeda.[15]

Impact and Reactions

Wali-ur-Rehman's death will be keenly felt within the TTP. Few in the movement possess Rehman's credentials or could serve as a counterweight to Hakimullah Mehsud’s strong personality. While reports of disputes between the two leaders were likely overwrought, any moderating influence Rehman might have had on Mehsud will now likely evaporate and be difficult to replace. If Rehman was a strong proponent of talking to the Pakistani government, his death is only likely to embolden the more intransigent factions within the TTP. His death may also be a boon for Mehsud, who will now be able to extend greater control over the network; Mehsud is likely to have the most influence in selecting his new deputy and Rehman's successor to lead the group's Mehsud faction.

Rehman's death will also likely affect the nascent Pakistani government's plans to open negotiations with the TTP. Both the leading parties in Pakistan's recent elections campaigned on platforms of opening a dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban.[16] Rehman's death means the new Pakistani government will be less likely to find a willing partner for talks in the TTP. The TTP may launch fresh attacks across Pakistan to avenge Rehman's killing, which would create new pressures on a Pakistani government preoccupied with other crises, such as critical power shortages and macroeconomic instability.[17]

The strike may also have an impact on Pakistan's relations with the U.S. The Pakistani government has frequently condemned drone strikes on its territory as counterproductive and a violation of its sovereignty.[18] The Peshawar High Court recently ruled drone strikes in Pakistan to be illegal and a war crime and ordered the government to take action against the intruding aircraft or possibly face charges of contempt.[19] Successful strikes against top TTP leaders have met little criticism inside Pakistan in the past and the 2009 strike that killed Baitullah, then public enemy number one, was lauded. Given the strong anti-U.S. and anti-drone sentiment that has developed in Pakistan over the past few years, however, particularly in the lead-up to Pakistan's 2013 general elections, the reaction may now be different.[20]

The incoming Pakistani government, particularly the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led provincial government taking control in militancy-struck Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, campaigned on promises to negotiate with the TTP and oppose U.S. drone strikes. Given the complicating effect Rehman's death may have on the government's ability to pursue peace negotiations, its response to the attack may be cooler than might otherwise be expected.

The strike is unlikely to lead to a wider fissure between the U.S. and Pakistan, however. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)-led federal government, while still officially opposed to drone strikes, is more pragmatic and may therefore look the other way on this occasion. The strike will, on the other hand, likely increase pressure on the government to come to new terms with the U.S. on drone strikes. The PML-N has said it plans to renegotiate all agreements with the U.S., including secret ones signed by previous governments.[21] This strike, coming right as the PML-N forms a new government, will likely cause drone opponents to redouble calls for the government to take a stronger line with the U.S.

A Changed Perception of the TTP?

The strike on Rehman may also be indicative of a changed perception of the TTP within the U.S. and/or Pakistani intelligence communities. Much of the reporting claiming that Rehman was a more reasonable interlocutor and amenable to peace talks came from sources within the Pakistani military and intelligence communities and may have been reflective of their desires and attempts to use Rehman to splinter the TTP and bring a major faction in out of the cold.[22] The split never took place, however, and the reporting, in hindsight, looks to be more reflective of the military's wishful thinking than of the realities of Rehman's position on talks. The strike on Rehman, then, could be the manifestation of a revised perception of the TTP as more cohesive than previously hoped for, and Rehman as a target worth striking rather than preserving for strategic effect.

Rehman's high position in the TTP made him an obvious mark for drone strikes. He was a U.S. specially-designated global terrorist with a $5 million bounty on his head, responsible for the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of Pakistani civilians and involved in planning and executing attacks against NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.[23] The Pakistani military, which has suffered thousands of casualties at the hands of the TTP, is probably quietly rejoicing at news of his death and, given its history of cooperating with the U.S. on strikes on top TTP leaders, may have helped provide intelligence for the strike.[24] The Pakistani military has not shown the same enthusiasm for negotiating with the TTP as the government-in-waiting.[25] The death of a leader who might otherwise drag on the charade of negotiations with a green government probably suits many in the military just fine.

Conclusion

The death of Wali-ur-Rehman is a coup for both the Pakistani and U.S. governments. A murderer of thousands, Rehman will be little mourned. Rehman's death is a serious blow to the TTP and al Qaeda, though it will probably not drive a wedge between the groups, since TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud has also affirmed the relationship between the TTP and al Qaeda.[26] Furthermore, given the TTP's experience in bouncing back from the death of its senior leaders, Rehman's death should not be looked upon as a death blow to the organization, though his absence will have a serious impact on the TTP and may sharpen the voice of more intransigent figures within the movement. This change should make it even clearer to Pakistan's leaders that the TTP is not a group that can be easily bargained with or sated. Any destabilizing impact the death of a leader as senior as Rehman is likely to have on the TTP should be taken as a chance to redouble efforts against a group that violently rejects state authority and allies with some of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the region, including al Qaeda. It should not be mourned as the loss of an opportunity to appease a bunch of murderous thugs.         


[1] Zahir Shah Sherazi, “US drone strike kills TTP number two Waliur Rehman, six others,” Dawn, May 29, 2013. Available: http://beta.dawn.com/news/1014506/us-drone-strike-kills-four-in-north-waziristan
“US drone strike kills Pakistan Taliban number two: officials,” Reuters, May 29, 2013. Available: http://tribune.com.pk/story/556015/us-drone-strike-kills-pakistan-taliban-number-two-officials/
[2] Zahir Shah Sherazi, “US drone strike kills TTP number two Waliur Rehman, six others,” Dawn, May 29, 2013. Available: http://beta.dawn.com/news/1014506/us-drone-strike-kills-four-in-north-waziristan
[3] Zahir Shah Sherazi, “US drone strike kills TTP number two Waliur Rehman, six others,” Dawn, May 29, 2013. Available: http://beta.dawn.com/news/1014506/us-drone-strike-kills-four-in-north-waziristan
“US drone strike kills Pakistan Taliban number two: officials,” Reuters, May 29, 2013. Available: http://tribune.com.pk/story/556015/us-drone-strike-kills-pakistan-taliban-number-two-officials/
Tim Craig, “Pakistani officials: U.S. drone strike strike kills 4 militants near Afghan border, first strike since election,” Washington Post, May 29, 2013. Available: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/pakistan-officials-us-drone-kills-4-militants-near-afghan-border-first-strike-after-election/2013/05/29/24ef335a-c834-11e2-9245-773c0123c027_story.html
[4] “US drone strike kills Pakistan Taliban number two: officials,” Reuters, May 29, 2013. Available: http://tribune.com.pk/story/556015/us-drone-strike-kills-pakistan-taliban-number-two-officials/
[5] Tim Craig, “Pakistani officials: U.S. drone strike strike kills 4 militants near Afghan border, first strike since election,” Washington Post, May 29, 2013. Available: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/pakistan-officials-us-drone-kills-4-militants-near-afghan-border-first-strike-after-election/2013/05/29/24ef335a-c834-11e2-9245-773c0123c027_story.html
[6] Mansur Khan Mehsud, “The New Face of the Pakistani Taliban?” ForeignPolicy, April 30, 2010. Available: http://afpak.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/04/30/the_new_new_face_of_the_pakistani_taliban
[7] “Wali Ur Rehman,” U.S. Department of State Rewards for Justice flier, accessed May 29, 2013. Available: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/146936.pdf
“TTP releases video interview with Hakimullah, Wali ur-Rehman,” SITE Intel Group, February 8, 2013. Available: http://ent.siteintelgroup.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=11328:ttp-releases-video-interview-with-hakimullah-wali-ur-rahman&catid=9:multimedia&Itemid=880
[8] “Wali Ur Rehman,” U.S. Department of State Rewards for Justice flier, accessed May 29, 2013. Available: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/146936.pdf
[9] Mansur Khan Mehsud, “The New Face of the Pakistani Taliban?” ForeignPolicy, April 30, 2010. Available: http://afpak.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/04/30/the_new_new_face_of_the_pakistani_taliban
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Mansur Khan Mehsud, “The New Face of the Pakistani Taliban?” ForeignPolicy, April 30, 2010. Available: http://afpak.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/04/30/the_new_new_face_of_the_pakistani_taliban
“US drone strike kills Pakistan Taliban number two: officials,” Reuters, May 29, 2013. Available: http://tribune.com.pk/story/556015/us-drone-strike-kills-pakistan-taliban-number-two-officials/
[13] “Feeling the heat? TTP ready to negotiate but not disarm,” Express Tribune, December 29, 2012. Available: http://tribune.com.pk/story/486201/feeling-the-heat-ttp-ready-to-negotiate-but-not-disarm/
“TTP releases video interview with Hakimullah, Wali ur-Rehman,” SITE Intel Group, February 8, 2013. Available: http://ent.siteintelgroup.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=11328:ttp-releases-video-interview-with-hakimullah-wali-ur-rahman&catid=9:multimedia&Itemid=880
[15] “TTP releases video interview with Hakimullah, Wali ur-Rehman,” SITE Intel Group, February 8, 2013. Available: http://ent.siteintelgroup.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=11328:ttp-releases-video-interview-with-hakimullah-wali-ur-rahman&catid=9:multimedia&Itemid=880
[16] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Democracy is on Ballot in Pakistan,” Wall Street Journal, May 10, 2013. Available: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324059704578474992307148844.html
[17] Parvez Jabri, “Nawaz Sharif vows to end power crisis; urges for tolerance,” Business Recorder, May 28, 2013. Available: http://www.brecorder.com/top-news/108-pakistan-top-news/121376-nawaz-sharif-vows-to-end-power-crisis-urges-for-tolerance.html
Declan Walsh, “Drone strike is said to kill top Pakistani Taliban figure,” New York Times, May 29, 2013. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/30/world/asia/drone-strike-hits-near-pakistani-afghan-border.html?pagewanted=all
[18] “Pakistan Condemns Drone Strikes,” AFP, May 24, 2013. Available: http://www.enca.com/world/pakistan-condemns-drone-strikes
[19] Elizabeth Palmer, “Will Pakistan Court Ruling against U.S. Drone Strikes Force New PM to Stick to Promises?” CBS News, May 13, 2013. Available: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57584130/will-pakistan-court-ruling-against-u.s-drone-strikes-force-new-pm-to-stick-to-promises/
[20] Madiha Afzal, “Drone Strikes and Anti-Americanism in Pakistan,” Brookings, February 7, 2013. Available: http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2013/02/07-drones-anti-americanism-pakistan-afzal
[21] “PML-N will revisit foreign policy: Sharif's aide,” The Hindu, May 13, 2013. Available: http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/south-asia/pmln-will-revisit-foreign-policy-sharifs-aide/article4710904.ece
[22] Mehreen Zehra-Malik, “Exclusive: Emerging Pakistan Taliban chief to focus on Afghan war,” Reuters, December 6, 2012. Available: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/12/06/us-pakistan-taliban-idUSBRE8B50G920121206
Bill Roggio, “Pakistani officials promoting false split in Taliban leadership cadres, again,” Long War Journal, December 6, 2012. Available: http://www.longwarjournal.org/threat-matrix/archives/2012/12/pakistani_officials_promoting.php
[23] “Wali Ur Rehman,” U.S. Department of State Rewards for Justice flier, accessed May 29, 2013. Available: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/146936.pdf
[24] Declan Walsh, “Drone strike is said to kill top Pakistani Taliban figure,” New York Times, May 29, 2013. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/30/world/asia/drone-strike-hits-near-pakistani-afghan-border.html?pagewanted=all
[25] Omar Waraich and Andrew Buncombe, “Pakistan's incoming prime minister Nawaz Sharif reaches out to 'Godfather of the Taliban' Sami ul Haq for help in negotiations with Islamists,” The Independent, May 28, 2013. Available: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/pakistans-incoming-prime-minister-nawaz-sharif-reaches-out-to-godfather-of-the-taliban-sami-ul-haq-for-help-in-negotiations-with-islamists-8634971.html
“Nawaz Sharif calls for Taliban talks,” Dawn, May 20, 2013. Available: http://dawn.com/2013/05/20/nawaz-sharif-calls-for-taliban-talks/
[26] “TTP releases video interview with Hakimullah, Wali ur-Rehman,” SITE Intel Group, February 8, 2013. Available: http://ent.siteintelgroup.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=11328:ttp-releases-video-interview-with-hakimullah-wali-ur-rahman&catid=9:multimedia&Itemid=880