January 3, 2013

U.S. Drones Target TTP's Maulvi Nazir, Pakistani Negotiations

A vivid contrast between the light shone on civilian casualties and militant commanders reflects off a MQ-9 Reaper's wing. In Pakistan's case, this light often comes from the numerous intelligence sources deployed to see and hear everything in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Around 12:30 AM in Islamabad, a pair of U.S. drones fired four missiles at a compound located in South Waziristan's Angor Adda. The first international reports surfaced 4-5 hours afterward; less than 12 hours later, the target had been identified as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander Maulvi Nazir and his deputies, Atta Ullah and Rafey Kkan. The Hellfire missiles struck Nazir's convoy in the Sra Kanda area as it was traveling from Angor Adda to the local capital of Wana. One Pakistani official said Nazir and his fighters were caught swapping vehicles after their "double cabin pick-up encountered a mechanical fault."

Nazir's death has reportedly been announced over Wana and Angor Adda's mosque speakers, while the TPP has yet to issue a statement as of this moment. One will presumably be released shortly.

Nazir's death, if confirmed, will yield positives and negatives for Washington, along with a bundle of negatives for Islamabad. He's certainly a veteran player in the TPP and a name to throw at Americans, if that counts for anything 11 years into Afghanistan's war. He also keeps in line with al-Qaeda's general ideology despite chafing under Uzbek influence; the Long War Journal notes that "Ilyas Kashmiri, Abu Khabab al Masri, Osama al Kini, Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, and Abu Zaid al Iraqi were killed while being sheltered by Nazir." Now these types of personalities will need somewhere else to live and train. Moreover, Nazir enjoys relations with the Haqqanis and facilitates their movement through his territory.

Eliminating Nazir rather than his rival, TTP chieftain Hakimullah Mehsud, is the correct strategy for instigating the group's self destruction. Mehsud's divisive leadership has kept its regional commanders split into factions since assuming power in August 2009, and targeting him first would be counterintuitive. Instead, Nazir and those TTP commanders focused on Afghanistan - namely South Waziristan's Waliur ul-Rehman and North Waziristan's Hafiz Gul Bahadur - should be targeted in place of Mehsud until the group collapses on itself. Problematically, this strategy runs contrary to Pakistan's containment policy towards both branches of the Taliban.

Nazir also remains a second or even third tier target and his absence won't alter the battlefield in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Although a leading advocate of concentrating TTP resources on NATO forces in Afghanistan, his death alone is insufficient for drying up TTP activity along the border and largely turns another COIN into whack-a-mole. As a result, the Obama administration's handling of Afghanistan will see a negligible bump in U.S. polls, and the war's trend will continue as is.

A second strike in North Waziristan reportedly targeted an Uzbek commander, however civilian casualties have been reported after villagers closed around the scene.

Unless more high-level targets soon experience Nazir's fate, his assassination brings more risk than reward to Washington and Islamabad's tables as they attempt to negotiate a more solid grip on the region. Nearly all of Nazir's details remain to be shaked out over the coming days (perhaps Islamabad ran out of use for him) but the timing appears extremely volatile. Nazir had allegedly made enemies with Hakimullah's camp for keeping open relations Islamabad, which theoretically needed his presence within the TTP's council.  Now the government must explain through backchannels why Nazir was targeted during a potentially new phase of interaction with Hakimullah and Rehman.

The Obama administration and its supporters in Afghanistan have invested a noticeable amount of energy reviving their prospects on the back of Islamabad's recent diplomacy - Thursday's drone strike runs against this grain.

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