May 8, 2011

Hakimullah Mehsud: A Thorn in the TTP's Umbrella

[Note: This analysis was completed the day of Osama bin Laden's death and only slightly modified. Though it may seem dated at certain points, it also captures how little has changed before and after.]

Information has always been a potent weapon, whether in the 21st century B.C.E or C.E. As when operating a weapon, information’s effectiveness depends on the user in addition to its inherent qualities. The Associated Press inputs all the raw information it can process, something we have less access to, but its analytical deficiency demonstrates how symbiotic the two elements are.

After discussions with anonymous Taliban and Pakistani government sources, the AP recently concluded, “Crumbling unity among militants could provide the Pakistan army an opening to conduct a limited offensive against a particularly vicious Taliban group in a strategic tribal region, according to analysts and a senior military official.”

No analysts are cited in the report so we’ve taken the task upon ourselves.

The AP only indirectly describes the events of March 26th, 2010, when a squad led by Sultan Amir Tarar (known as Colonel Imam) was abducted by an unidentified armed group. Former ISI officer Khalid Khawaja, BBC journalist Asad Qureshi and Qureshi's driver, Rustman Khan, had been traveling with Tarar in North Waziristan, supposedly preparing a documentary of his exploits. “The Colonel,” a U.S.-sponsored operative who enjoyed his publicity, helped train the Taliban during its formative years and maintained an ISI line to Taliban chief Mullah Omar.

Qureshi and Khan were released in September 2010. Khawaja was found dead on April 30th, 2010, near Miranshah. Tarar was executed in January 2011, according to a video released by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Citing interviews with the involved parties, the AP describes how Tarar’s killing sent shockwaves throughout the Afghan Taliban, parts of the TTP’s umbrella and into Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). A senior Pakistani military official confirmed that Hakimullah Mehsud, the TTP’s chief, defied pleas from Mullah Omar and Sirajuddin Haqqani to spare their trusted contact. While the Afghan Taliban would logically react to Tarar’s death in such a manner, his story runs deeper than the AP lets on.

Only at the report’s end is the real hint dropped: “Mehsud's close affiliation with Lashkar-e-Janghvi, a Punjabi-based Sunni Muslim militant group blamed for dozens of attacks against minority Shiite Muslims, has also provided him with a reservoir of suicide bombers.”

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, otherwise known as the Punjab Taliban, opens the door to Pakistani’s shadowy underworld. But somewhere in this chaos lurks the truth - at least more than the AP is capable (or willing) to provide.

According to leaks over the last year, Tarar and his “filming” crew had been deployed to North Waziristan in 2010 to finish an ISI cleaning job. Khawaja first traveled to North Waziristan in mid-March with Tarar and former mujahideen-turned-politician Shah Abdul Aziz, where they met with Mehsud, Haqqani and Waliur Rehman, the TTP’s commander in South Waziristan. Their job was to remove “bad Taliban” from the TTP’s ranks, as sections of the group direct their attacks against the Pakistani military and civilian targets. These “bad Taliban,” including commanders the ISI suspects of being funded by India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), had dispersed throughout Hakimullah’s network and broken off into the Punjabi Taliban.

A Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman was quoted by the Asia Times as saying, “They tried to convince Hakimullah Mahsud and Waliur Rahman Mahsud to stop attacking the Pakistan army and discussed a mechanism to target NATO supply lines only. They offered to help Hakimullah set up pockets in different parts of the country from where they could attack NATO supplies going to Afghanistan.”

Hakimullah refused to cooperate and Khawaja promised to return in force to interrogate him, at which point he was abducted along with Tarar. Khawaja was disposed of during the next month, and an unknown group calling themselves the Asian Tigers later distributed five video clips which contained “confessions” of the former ISI agents. Hakimullah subsequently boasted of killing both agents.

Two general theories exist as to why Tarar and Khawaja were eliminated. The first contends that Hakimullah, operating through the Punjabi Taliban, eliminated them to send a political message to ISI leadership. The faction, which isn’t recognized by the TTP as a whole, sees a contradiction between operations in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and the taboo against targeting the Pakistani military. Rejecting the ISI’s policy of strategic depth, the Punjabi Taliban has condemned Islamabad for allying with the “infidel forces” in Afghanistan - U.S. and NATO forces. The group claims that Khawaja referred to its fighters as terrorists and the Afghan Taliban as mujahideen.

A second theory posits the Asian Tigers as a radical offshoot directed by ISI hard-liners, who staunchly oppose Indian hegemony and potentially harbor dreams of an Islamic caliphate. In light of bin Laden's location, ISI complicity in the murder of its own agent cannot be ruled out completely. All possibilities must be considered in warfare.

However both options appear to lead to the same conclusion. While the TTP has suffered extensive damage since 2009, when Pakistani’s military launched an invasion into South Waziristan, the effects of Hakimullah’s personal divisions are exaggerated. The Afghan Taliban and oppositional forces within the TTP, such as Rehman and North Waziristan commander Maulvi Gul Bahadur, are united against the lightning rod that is Hakimullah. He’s young, rich, hot-tempered, brash, loves his picture taken - and he’s irritated many Taliban leaders as a result. Challenging for the TTP throne after Baitullah Mehsud’s death spawned immediate opposition within the group's subcommanders, while the Taliban backed Rehman or Gul.

We speculated at the time that they allowed Hakimullah to occupy the throne in order to remove him with a Predator. He was wounded in a strike shortly after his suicide attack on FOB Chapman, only to reemerge months afterward.

It’s possible that hostile parts of the Taliban would step back from Hakimullah’s defense. Hakimullah sent up camps in North Waziristan after the invasion of South Waziristan and brought with him all of his own troubles. Elsewhere the Punjabi Taliban supposedly attempted a suicide attack on Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), after which Bahadur ordered an investigation. He certainly has reason to eliminate Hakimullah and replace him with an ally - or himself.

However help cannot be expected either. It makes more sense to let the Pakistani military wear itself down.

Were he eliminated, Hakimullah's replacement might restore a semblance of balance to the TTP and cool tensions with Pakistan, further complicating future military operations in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA). Bahadur, Rehman and possibly Maulvi Nazir's allegiance to Islamabad and concentration on supporting the war in Afghanistan has stalled an expanded Pakistani operation and accelerated U.S. drone strikes. According to a count by Khalid Azizg, chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research in Peshawar, 236 drone attacks have been distributed over the following targets: 70 strikes against Bahadur’s group, 56 against the Haqqani group, 35 against the Al Iraqi group, an Al Qaeda offshoot in North Waziristan, 30 against Mullah Nazir in South Waziristan, and 29 against Waliur Rehman Mehsud in South Waziristan, with the remaining targeting other splinter groups.

Over two-thirds of the attacks have targeted groups tacitly allied with Islamabad, which makes short-term sense from a U.S. standpoint but counteracts a genuine counterinsurgency in the FATA. A recent White House report on Afghanistan acknowledged the resiliency of these networks. Sensing a political striking point, Pakistani military officials had begun a recent push to curtail drone activity entirely, a possible bargaining chip to acquire the technology themselves. This sense of urgency spiked after the raid on bin Laden's compound in Abottabad.

The most optimistic assessment of Hakimullah’s death envisions another power-struggle, and thus a temporary advantage to strike the TTP as a whole. The immediate drawback is a deeper splintering of rogue groups beyond the TTP or ISI's control. Hakimullah's leadership is also easily replaceable - perhaps a half dozen candidates are more capable of the task - and this lesson must be applied to drone strikes in the FATA and beyond. Bin Laden's death has amplified the belief that counter-terrorism can replace full-spectrum counterinsurgency, that more U.S. troops can return home as Special Forces, CIA and drones keep playing whack-a-mole around the world. This strategy will never resolve the roots of conflict - and maybe that's the plan.

The means to divide and conquer a terrorist or insurgent group are representative governance, economic opportunity and cultural preservation. Bombing and raiding from afar yields more conflict.

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