January 15, 2012

Hakimullah’s Loss Could Be TTP’s Gain

TTP deputy Wali-ur-Rehman lurks behind its chief, Hakimullah Mehsud

For the second time in as many years Hakimullah Mehsud has been reported dead at the tip of a Hellfire missile. Targeted by Predators on January 14th, 2010 after ordering a precision suicide bombing inside FOB Chapman, a CIA compound in Afghanistan's Khost province, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) chief would emerge four months later by taunting America. Now the CIA claims to have intercepted militants discussing the aftermath of January 12th’s drone strike near Miran Shah, the first since U.S. forces air-raided two Pakistani border camps.

"Six to seven TTP members were talking to each other through wireless radio in the conversations we heard, talking about Hakimullah Mehsud being hit by a drone when he was heading to a meeting at a spot near Miranshah," said one intelligence official.

Another official identified this spot as in Nawa Adda, a village in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan. Datta Khel is roughly 20 miles northeast of Miran Shah.

TTP spokesman Asimullah Mehsud quickly denied that the insurgency has lost its head, standard procedure during the heat of speculation. Hakimullah’s main spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, responded more colorfully by reasoning, "There is no truth in reports about his death. However, he is a human being and can die any time. He is a holy warrior and we will wish him martyrdom.” Ehsan’s bravado contains a large measure of truth for U.S. policymakers who presumably view Mehsud’s death as a small victory.

“We will continue jihad if Hakimullah is alive or dead,” he promises. “There are so many lions in this jungle and one lion will replace another one to continue this noble mission."

Having reached the temporarily conclusion that low-level militants aren’t worth the political cost after Salala ridge, U.S. officials clearly knew who they had in their sights as the Predators swarmed above Miran Shah. Taking out Mehsud was personal, as the jihadi warlord battled Washington with the same mindset. After orchestrating the bombing at FOB Chapman through Jordanian double-agent Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi - and drawing a quick missile strike by boasting - Hakimullah proceeded to inspire Faisal Shahzad’s unsuccessful Times Square bombing. Beyond his status as an enemy of America, the Pentagon and CIA make a special point of killing those who style themselves as invincible.

Removing the TTP’s chief should also benefit Islamabad by eliminating the group’s most hostile personality, a move that could help stabilize U.S.-Pakistani relations.

Passing up a high-value target like Hakimullah is generally inadvisable, however his final dividends in Afghanistan appear to swing in the opposite direction. The TTP chief’s relative isolation within his own group suggests that he’s wanted dead. Although serving as deputy to former TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud, the young and brash Hakimullah antagonized TTP commanders by overseeing the group’s relative decline. Too many Pakistani institutions and civilians had been targeted by Mehsud, the TTP’s most fervent al-Qaeda ideologist, and his forces are increasingly coordinating with rogue splinter groups.

Pakistan’s military response resulted in a significant reduction in tribal support by displacing over 300,000 people from Waziristan.

Anticipating the internal demand for Hakimullah’s death is a safe bet; regional commanders Wali-ur-Rehman, Maulvi Nazir, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Faqir Mohammed all want him expelled from the TTP’s hierarchy. Rehman in particular believes that he should lead the TTP as a loyal branch of the Afghan Taliban, and has campaigned for the job since Baitullah was killed by drone in August 2009. Bahadur (the commander in North Waziristan) removed himself from the TTP’s umbrella in protest of Hakimullah’s behavior - he doesn’t enjoy the “emir” riding around his own territory.

All of these figures (and elements in Pakistan’s ISI) want the TTP to devote its focus towards U.S. troops in Afghanistan, not Pakistani soldiers and civilians. Mehsud stands as a main block in the pipeline between Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.

Given that Hakimullah’s death remains conjecture, a more detailed account of the situation and the TTP’s reaction should await his confirmed demise. The strategic environment, though, is relatively basic. Removing Hakimullah would eliminate a dangerous disciple of al-Qaeda’s original core, potentially reducing the TTP’s campaign inside Pakistan. Replacing him with a “friendly” proxy - Rehman or Bahadur - should boost Islamabad’s leverage to minimize drone strikes and shift the TTP’s focus across the Durand Line.

A more daring strategy would allow Mehsud to walk while continuing to target his pro-Taliban deputies.


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