The King is Dead, Long Live the King: Hakimullah Mehsud Takes Power in the TTP

September 8, 2009

 

Pakistani military outpost on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border (Photo by talkradionews, available at Flickr)

 

·         I. iNTRODUCTION
·         II. THE NEW POWER DYNAMIC IN THE TTP
·         III. DISSENSION IN THE RANKS
·         IV. THE ELDER AND THE YOUNGER
·         V. THE HURDLES TO CONSOLIDATING POWER
·         VI. Conclusion

 

INTRODUCTION

On 25 August 2009, Taliban leaders Hakimullah Mehsud and Wali-ur-Rehman called several news agencies and acknowledged that Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) founder and chief Beitullah Mehsud had died as a result of the U.S. drone strike on August 5.[1]  On the heels of that admission, both leaders confirmed that Hakimullah Mehsud would now lead the TTP and that Wali-ur-Rehman would lead the South Waziristan Agency branch of the group.[2] The announcement aimed to dispel rumors of infighting between the two leaders.[3]

The TTP, founded by Taliban leader Beitullah Mehsud in December 2007, is an umbrella group of Taliban factions operating out of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), particularly Beitullah Mehsud’s native South Waziristan Agency, an administrative division within the FATA.

The declaration ends weeks of speculation, confirmations and denials regarding Beitullah’s death and succession. The Pakistani government from the start maintained that Beitullah died in the August 5 strike.[4] The Taliban, until now, vociferously rejected such claims, stating that Beitullah was gravely ill but alive.[5] In this most recent statement, both Hakimullah and Rehman admit that Beitullah was in fact hit in the drone strike but claim he only succumbed to his wounds on August 23.[6] Either way, it appears the TTP released a statement only once a successor to Beitullah Mehsud had been agreed upon, possibly in a bid to avoid an open fractionalization of the movement.[7]

Although it appears that Hakimullah and Rehman have reached some level of accord, evidence suggests that this display of unity is merely cosmetic and that deep divisions continue to exist within the organization. The precarious new power-sharing formula, continuing dissension in the ranks and the multitude of other challenges that now face the TTP mean that the group may continue to be unstable into the near future.

 

THE NEW POWER DYNAMIC IN THE TTP

The power-sharing agreement, as outlined by the two commanders, grants overall leadership of the TTP to Hakimullah Mehsud while Wali-ur-Rehman is to be the head of TTP forces in South Waziristan Agency.[8] Hakimullah was the TTP commander in charge of operations in Orakzai, Khyber and Kurram Agencies.[9] Rehman, a trusted aide to the late Beitullah, will likely also reprise his role as manager of the group’s organizational and financial affairs, a position he reportedly filled through Beitullah’s last years.[10]

Rehman will likely “wield considerable influence as the TTP [leader] for South Waziristan” given that the Agency is the organization’s main stronghold and houses its headquarters;[11] Rehman’s close ties with Beitullah will likely further bolster his position. While Hakimullah is the overall head of the organization, Rehman’s position is strong enough that Hakimullah will likely be “heavily dependent on Wali-ur-Rahman for both manpower and resources to run the TTP,”[12] a fragile situation if their pattern of interaction mirrors the rocky lead-up to the final succession agreement.[13]

 

DISSENSION IN THE RANKS

 The joint telephonic announcement by Hakimullah and Rehman attempted to present unified and harmonious intra-TTP relations, but the lack of cooperation and coordination between the two leaders in the period following Beitullah’s death belies this depiction.[14] A “senior TTP commander” who spoke to reporters talked of serious differences between the frontrunners for the TTP leadership–differences that were apparently only resolved once the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda stepped in to mediate the dispute.[15] The high-ranking commander said:

The Taliban from Afghanistan played a key role in resolving differences among various TTP commanders. They continued their talks with the Mehsud Taliban Shura and then negotiated with each and every commander[16]

The virtual breakdown of the TTP’s public relations apparatus during the succession struggle following Beitullah’s death is further evidence of infighting between the factions.[17] The squabbling claimants poorly coordinated their public statements[18] and made few displays of unity to counter persistent claims by the Pakistani government of disarray in the Taliban ranks. Immediately following news of Beitullah’s death, various media outlets reported a shootout between Hakimullah and Rehman at a shura to determine Beitullah’s successor.[19] Some news sources reported that Hakimullah had died in the shootout and that Rehman was gravely wounded. While subsequent events have seriously called into question whether any such shootout took place,[20] there is still much to suggest that the succession dispute between the two was very real.[21]

On August 19 Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, the chief deputy to Beitullah, further complicated the succession situation by announcing that he would assume the position of TTP leader due to Beitullah’s incapacity from illness.[22] Faqir Muhammad concurrently denied reports that Hakimullah Mehsud or Wali-ur-Rehman had taken control of the TTP saying that neither of them had the authority to do so unilaterally. While praising their contributions to the group and their leadership potential, Faqir Muhammad declared “The congregation of Taliban leaders has thirty-two members and no important decision can be taken without their consultation.”[23]

Three days later, Faqir Muhammad appeared to retract earlier statements by announcing that a Taliban shura in Orakzai Agency had unanimously selected Hakimullah as the new leader of the TTP and that he would retain the position of chief deputy for himself.[24] At the same time that Faqir Muhammad was announcing Hakimullah’s leadership, Wali-ur-Rehman was giving an interview near Makin in South Waziristan during which he claimed that the Taliban leadership had not yet chosen a new chief, though “one would be chosen within five days;” he made no reference to Faqir Muhammad’s statements.[25] Rehman claimed that Beitullah had, as a result of his illness, bequeathed control of the TTP to him over two months ago.[26] It was not till the joint statement delivered three days after the conflicting statements that the Taliban appeared to speak with one voice, and Hakimullah was unanimously declared the TTP’s chief.

 

THE ELDER AND THE YOUNGER

Hakimullah has some very large shoes to fill and a long way to go in order to live up to the legend of his predecessor. Beitullah was unique in his ability to bring together an array of diverse groups tightly knit under singular leadership.[27] Mullah Omar saw Beitullah as the primary Taliban actor in Pakistan,[28] despite his refusal to shift the focus of his operations to Afghanistan.[29] Beitullah was also able to redress his falling-out with two other key Waziristan Taliban commanders, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir,[30] while continuing to play host to a number of Al Qaeda-linked Uzbek militants,[31] the initial cause of the dispute between the three.[32]

Hakimullah’s resumé is long and astonishing for someone who is now only on the cusp of thirty.[33] He has frequently been described as hot-headed, reckless and having a penchant for ruthless, “pitiless violence”.[34] He first distinguished himself in 2007 after a number of “spectacular raids” against the Pakistani military.[35] Most notably Hakimullah is credited with carrying out a raid in October of that year in which his men captured over three-hundred Pakistani soldiers, including some senior officers, in a single action. In 2008 Hakimullah masterminded the Taliban campaign targeting NATO supply convoys in Peshawar and Khyber Agency and was responsible for the destruction of hundreds of vehicles in the NATO supply chain.[36] He once took journalists for a joyride in a stolen Humvee as part of a media stunt.[37] His men were also allegedly behind a massive hotel bombing in Peshawar in June of 2009 and the infamous attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in March of the same year.[38] Beitullah later gave him primary command of TTP forces in Orakzai, Kurram and Khyber Agencies. Hakimullah is from the Shabi Khel clan of the Mehsud tribe,[39] as was Beitullah, and was reportedly Beitullah’s friend and close aide.[40] This background provides him with the pedigree along with the litany of accomplishments to support his claim for leadership over the TTP.

 

THE HURDLES TO CONSOLIDATING POWER

Hakimullah will need to draw upon all of his previous experience and acumen to address the significant challenges facing the TTP. The recent assassination of Beitullah in conjunction with the Pakistani military’s operations and blockades, have left the TTP in a very fragile state.[41] Clearly a talented operational commander, Hakimullah has yet to demonstrate the alliance-building skill that Beitullah possessed. Serious rifts remain within the TTP’s senior leadership. The current power sharing agreement appears to be a superficial one directed at shaping a media image rather than actually establishing an undisputed leader. Hakimullah – the most dominant individual in the TTP hierarchy – will likely be apprehensive about relinquishing much power to Rehman.[42]

The positions of TTP deputies also remain in question. Reports have also surfaced of serious differences between Rehman and Qari Hussein,[43] Hakimullah’s cousin and a senior aide and commander of suicide bombers in the TTP.[44] Faqir Muhammad’s brief and unsuccessful attempt to seize control has likely left him feeling slighted.[45] Not only did other commanders dissuade him from pursuing the top post,[46] but he was also forced to retract his TTP Swat comrade Muslim Khan’s promotion to official spokesman for the TTP when Hakimullah declared his backing of a different candidate, Azam Tariq.[47] Faqir Muhammad was a clear loser in the succession struggle and likely remains “an unhappy man;”[48] it is unclear what relationship he will maintain with Hakimullah’s TTP into the future.

The Uzbek fighters Beitullah hosted may play the spoiler role for the TTP: after news of Beitullah’s death surfaced, a number of Maulvi Nazir’s men moving through Mehsud territory were ambushed and killed, allegedly by Uzbek fighters looking to settle old scores.[49] Little information is available on Hakimullah’s relationship with Nazir; however, should Hakimullah fail to establish control over the troublesome Uzbeks early on, a renewed Uzbek-Wazir conflict might emerge and seriously jeopardize Nazir’s relationship with the TTP.[50]

Recent events have taken their toll on the wider Taliban movement as well. The main reason the TTP leadership long denied Beitullah’s death and waited to make a joint statement on the succession outcome was almost certainly because they considered the news of Beitullah’s demise and subsequent factional hostility to be potentially severely destabilizing to the morale of their fighters.[51] With the strain the military’s operations were putting on the group, such news may have proved disproportionately damaging.

Hakimullah has his work cut out for him so far as consolidating control is concerned. Preventing the above issues from bubbling to the surface, and nursing the wounded TTP back to strength, will depend on Hakimullah’s ability to nurture his rapprochement with Rehman, mollify other commanders who may have been disaffected by the succession outcome to establish control over other actors in the movement or hosted in his area of influence (such as the Central Asians), reach out to the wide spectrum of Taliban actors across the FATA and, crucially, to establish a relationship with the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda. Hakimullah is an independent and extremely ambitious young man whose views regarding attacks against the Pakistani state mirror those of Beitullah’s.[52] He will likely attempt to consolidate control of, and establish his primacy in, the TTP through a show of force and the execution of “ruthless acts.”[53] Hakimullah recently told reporters “We will take revenge and soon….The effects of our attack will go up to Washington.”[54] These promises to avenge Beitullah’s death may be the excuse for exactly such acts. Hakimullah will need to carefully measure his retaliation, however, lest the attacks spur the Pakistani military into a full-fledged operation against the TTP before it has adequately recovered from its recent setbacks.[55]

 

CONCLUSION

Hakimullah and Rehman appear to have put aside their differences for now, but questions remain regarding the longevity of this collaboration. The TTP’s clear lack of coordination is indicative of a failure to communicate effectively within the group, let alone with the outside world, and is “symptomatic of real divisions in the TTP.”[56] Such sudden cordiality between the two competitors is likely more a papering over of the cracks within the organization rather than the resolution of real differences and power rivalries.[57] Hakimullah will either need to learn to live with having Rehman in a position of significant influence, or he will need to manufacture a relationship in which he is able to assert his dominance. The fractures within the TTP leadership are real and potentially lethal and will require sober, calculated diplomacy in order to manage the now more complicated power dynamic within the TTP hierarchy.

While Hakimullah has demonstrated himself to be operationally brilliant and a highly skilled fighter,[58] he has yet to be tested in a strategic and diplomatic theater. The coming months will serve as a litmus test for whether Hakimullah can hold the TTP together and again make it into an effective threat. It remains to be seen whether his ambition and brash nature can be bridled or whether they will retard the resurgence of the TTP.

Hakimullah’s rise to power, and his accord with Rehman, may signal the emergence of a renewed, potentially more dangerous, threat to the Pakistani state.[59] There is a long way to go, however, before Hakimullah can turn that potential into capacity.

 


[1]Ishtiaq Masud, “Pakistani Taliban admit Mehsud killed in US strike”, AP, August 25, 2009. Available at http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hkiMxbHNH0BqgpWA2ZG6VD6wVTmAD9AA09300
[3] Mushtaq Yusufzai, “Baitullah’s death finally confirmed by Taliban”, The News, August 26, 2009. Available at http://thenews.com.pk/top_story_detail.asp?Id=24094
[4] Ishtiaq Masud, “Pakistani Taliban admit Mehsud killed in US strike”, AP, August 25, 2009. Available at http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hkiMxbHNH0BqgpWA2ZG6VD6wVTmAD9AA09300
[5] Some Taliban leaders had, however, already admitted that Beitullah was killed in the strike, further adding to the confusion.
“Baitullah Mehsud is dead: Maulvi Omar”, Dawn News, August 18, 2009. Available at http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/04-baitullah-mehsud-dead-maulvi-omar-qs-16
Ayaz Ahmed Khan, “Mehsud's death”, The Nation, August 13, 2009. Available at http://www.nation.com.pk/pakistan-news-newspaper-daily-english-online/Opinions/Columns/13-Aug-2009/Mehsuds-death
Dean Nelson, “Al-Qaeda leader: Pakistan is the main battleground”, The Telegraph, August 28, 2009. Available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/pakistan/6106380/Al-Qaeda-leader-Pakistan-is-the-main-battleground.html
[6] Lehaz Ali, “Pakistan Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud dead: militants”, AFP, August 25, 2009. Available at http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5hslzq5SB_vZ392DU2-n7M8WWo5cw
[7] Arif Rafiq, “Weekend at Baitullah’s”, Foreign Policy Online, August 24, 2009. Available at http://afpak.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/08/24/weekend_at_baitullah_s
Rahimullah Yusufzai, “Power-sharing formula to maintain TTP unity”, The News, August 26, 2009. Available at http://thenews.com.pk/top_story_detail.asp?Id=24095
[9] Zahir Shah Sherazi, “Hakeemullah a fiercely ambitious militant”, Dawn News, August 27, 2009. Available at http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/03-hakimullah-a-fiercely-ambitious-militant-ss-01
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[11] Rahimullah Yusufzai, “Power-sharing formula to maintain TTP unity”, The News, August 26, 2009. Available at http://thenews.com.pk/top_story_detail.asp?Id=24095
[12] Rahimullah Yusufzai, “Power-sharing formula to maintain TTP unity”, The News, August 26, 2009. Available at http://thenews.com.pk/top_story_detail.asp?Id=24095
[13] Arif Rafiq, “Weekend at Baitullah’s”, Foreign Policy Online, August 24, 2009. Available at http://afpak.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/08/24/weekend_at_baitullah_s
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[59] “Pakistan Taliban name new chief”, BBC, August 22, 2009. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8216553.stm