January 3, 2012

Mullah Omar Makes Latest Power Play

Hakimullah Mehsud sits with Wali-ur-Rehman

A guerrilla’s weakness is usually converted to his strength: a lack of armor or infrastructure. The cell-based structure of netwar offers the same double-edged sword, diversifying an insurgency’s hierarchy and preventing its wholesale destruction. The price of this natural reaction often comes out of the insurgency’s chain-of-command and its potential to escalate operations.

The Taliban’s branches in Afghanistan and Pakistan are currently negotiating with al-Qaeda’s remaining leadership to correct this organization flaw, according to leaks from two recent summits. Confronted with America’s relentless blitzkrieg and waning popularity inside Pakistan, the commanders of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) hosted meetings on November 27th and December 11th to realign with their Afghan overseers. The audience included TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud and deputy Wali-ur-Rehman (commander in South Waziristan), Maulvi Nazir (South Waziristan deputy) and Hafiz Gul Bahadur (commander in North Wazirstan).

Sirajuddin Haqqani, one half of the border-straddling Haqqani network, supposedly chaired the meeting at Mullah Omar’s request. Senior al-Qaeda commander Abu Yahya al-Libi, now acting as the group’s number two, also attended to deliver a special message:"For God's sake, forget all your differences and give us fighters to boost the battle against America in Afghanistan.”

These developments are sure to spin in both directions. Some mainstream media hedged their bets appropriately, questioning whether the outreach “indicates that the militants are struggling... or conversely, that they want to make sure they hit U.S. forces hard as the Americans accelerate their withdrawal this year.” The reality is that both networks suffered extensive territorial, numerical and leadership losses heavy losses over the last three years. Unfortunately for Washington, the Taliban’s regional umbrella remains a potent guerilla force with little immediate need to seize territory or launch large-scale operations (intense activity remains ongoing in the eastern provinces).

Nor should the TTP be labeled as weak when divided, then weak when attempting to unite.

The Taliban and TTP have experienced chronic fragmentation since the 2004 death of TTP forerunner Nek Muhammad Wazir, America’s first drone kill inside Pakistan. While TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud initially attempted to assist the Afghan Taliban as Muhammed intended, Mehsud’s increasingly radicalized attacks on the Pakistani state eventually turned the TTP’s sympathizers against the group. The loss of force, provocation of the Pakistani army and alienation of local tribes prompted Mullah Omar to stage numerous interventions, including a high-profile attempt in 2009.

Yet divisions persisted when Hakimullah, Baitullah’s deputy, seized power after his boss's death-by-drone in August. Rehman and Gul Bahadur would vie for the TTP’s leadership before reluctantly ceding to Hakimullah, who styles himself as a fearless field commander. Although his charisma may be perfect for his job, most of the TTP’s sub-commanders have endured relentless operations (Pakistani and U.S.) due to his shift into North Waziristan. Radicalized by al-Qaeda beyond the other players, Hakimullah alienated some of his own lieutenants by attacking mosques and purely civilian targets, and angered older jihadists by participating in the 2011 killing of Colonel Imam.

The TTP’s incongruous stance towards Islamabad has also produced diverging accounts over whether a ceasefire was recently declared, and by whom. In retrospect December’s information battle coincides with the Taliban’s first meeting in late November. According to Pakistani media, “Following the intervention of one-eyed Omar, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban formed a joint five-member shura or council with other Pakistani militant groups on Sunday to oversee an end to attacks on Pakistani forces.”

Since the TTP’s numerous branches haven’t operated in sync for years, any increased cohesion can produce quick dividends on the Afghan battlefield. If its leadership truly aligned politically and militarily, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban (and terrorist nodes across the region) will ensure a stalemate when U.S. forces march into 2015. Mullah Omar also remains the only Taliban figure that could patch the political, ethnic and territorial differences in the TTP.

Somewhat oddly, Hakimullah is the only actor refusing even though he’s the most hardened al-Qaeda ideologist.

“Yes, we signed an accord with three other major Taliban groups of Maulvi Nazeer, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and an Afghan Taliban faction to avoid killing of innocent people and kidnapping for ransom, but we did not agree with them to stop suicide attacks and our fight against Pakistani security forces," said TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan in response to Monday’s reports.

One TTP commander spilled the real juice: Hakimullah and Waliur “were at each other’s throats.” Although Rehman pledged his loyalty to al-Qaeda in 2010 and quickly countered “there are no differences between us,” South Waziristan’s commander reportedly “ordered his fighters to kill Mehsud because of his increasing closeness with al Qaeda.” A
Taliban favorite, Rehman's cool headed temperament also clashes with Hakimullah’s brash personality.

As the Taliban’s equation stands, Mullah Omar still presents a fundamental dilemma for the U.S. because he is viewed differently than Osama bin Laden. Killing the Taliban’s undisputed leader by drone or raid would alienate too many Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line, and Washington needs Omar to preserve any semblance of a negotiated settlement after 2014. A potential truce within the TTP, even if temporary, would also give Islamabad leverage to reclaim its sovereignty, as the government has used U.S. drones to deplete Hakimullah’s ranks.

Washington, in turn, is determined to attack those groups - Rehman, Gul Bahadur and Nazir - that remain loosely allied with Islamabad. Pakistani officials may begin to react differently if these groups focus their energy into Afghanistan, creating leverage to declare a ceasefire on U.S. drones.

The odds of a total shift in the TTP’s operational direction remain low due to these challenges and many more, however Mullah Omar’s latest attempt to connect the TTP’s hydra with his own cannot be underestimated. The stakes are rising as 2014 approaches and most of the TTP wants to concentrate on Afghanistan. Hakimullah may be eliminated and replaced within the next 1-3 years, increasing the Taliban’s influence. November’s meeting also coincided with NATO’s November 28th raid on Salala ridge, a belligerent act that might have inspired the Taliban to close ranks as Washington and Islamabad separate.

As unpopular as the TTP is, America remains Pakistan’s public enemy due to the Obama administration’s politico-military interference and abysmal diplomacy.

"From here on in we want a very formal, business- like relationship," military spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas told The Associated Press from Rawalpindi. "The lines will be drawn. There will be no more of the free run of the past, no more interpretation of rules. We want it very formal with agreed upon limits."

These vast networks appear to be drifting in opposite directions: the Taliban and TTP inching closer together, America and Pakistan shaking apart. Washington’s relationship with Kabul remains tenuous beyond the security realm, while its alliance with NATO will gradually unravel over the next three years. In this type of stalemate, a substantial increase in the Taliban’s organization could dictate the terms of a post-2014 settlement with the U.S.


  1. It's another of the interesting parallels with Algeria 1954-62 and aftermath. By the early 60s different factions claimed to speak for the FLN with whom the TTP and Afghan Taliban have much in common. The French government in their stupidity negotiated with the wrong ones. I wouldn't be surprised to see the US/NATO do the same. The faction with the most firepower will prevail. That rarely bodes well for short-term, exigency-driven agreement. In the case of Obama, the exigency being his re-election (which I think is inevitable in any case incidentally).

  2. Washington can only entertain thoughts of negotiating with the Afghan Taliban. The TTP has its own agenda against Pakistan and is purely anti-American, and no progress of any kind will be made. As for Obama's campaign, we're more likely to see firepower cover his exit than a political settlement.