Friday, August 14, 2009




    The elimination of the head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Baitullah Mehsud in a drone strike is without doubt a significant gain for both the US and the Pakistani security forces. But while no tears need be shed over the death of a monster like Baitullah, celebrating his end as though it is the end of the Islamist insurgency in Pakistan is trifle unnecessary. The fact of the matter is that the battle that Pakistan is fighting against the Islamists is much bigger than Baitullah and is not likely to fizzle out merely because one of the biggest icons of the insurgents has been removed from the scene.

This is not to say that Baitullah's death will not have an impact on the future course of the insurgency. If the reports of internecine warfare among the insurgents are true, then in the short run the military operations and terror campaign of the insurgents could be badly disrupted. A lot, including the choice of his successor and the trajectory of the insurgency as well as the impending Pakistan army operations in South and North Waziristan, will however depend on the circumstances surrounding the successful targeting of Pakistan's most wanted man.

    It was no secret that after Baitullah was declared public enemy No.1 by Pakistan, no effort would have been spared to take him out. Baitullah was well aware of how desperately he was being sought by the Pakistanis. After the Americans put a bounty on Baitullah's head, and started actively hunting for him using the drones, the TTP chief would have become even more secretive about his movements and whereabouts. For over a month before the drones finally found Baitullah, there were a number of attacks on targets where he was supposed to be present.

But all these drone strikes failed because Baitullah was not present when the drones struck. After so many attempts, even a novice would have known that the last place that someone like Baitullah should have gone to was the house of a close relative. And yet, he was caught literally with his pants down in the house of his second wife! Perhaps, Baitullah went to the house of his wife because he had received certain guarantees that he would not be targeted.

    Quite aside the fact that Pakistan army has often used the ploy of guaranteeing safe passage only in order to get their hands on an elusive adversary –for instance, Nawab Nauroz Khan in Balochistan and Nek Mohammad in South Waziristan – the real success of the Pakistanis and Americans is that they managed to gain real-time intelligence about Baitullah's movements. According to some reports, the drones struck within an hour of Baitullah reaching the house of his father-in-law. What is more, the precision with which the drones struck clearly indicates that someone sold Baitullah out. The big question is why was he sold out – was it done for the money, was it done for revenge or was it done as part of a larger strategic deal involving the Pakistan army, the Americans and the Taliban led by Mullah Omar and other commanders like Sirajuddin Haqqani, a deal for which Baitullah had to be sacrificed either because he was as an obstacle or because his head was the price that was demanded.

The answer to this question could become clear in the next few days and weeks. If the Pakistan army refrains from launching an offensive in South Waziristan and if Baitullah's successor is someone who is not averse to going along with a tactical deal aimed at easing the mounting military pressure, then it would suggest that Baitullah was sold out as part of a deal in which the Taliban will cease attacks on Pakistani troops, the Afghan elections will go through without too much disruption, and some sort of political negotiations will commence to provide an exit to the Americans and give the Taliban a stake in the power structure in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, if there is a spurt in attacks on the Pakistan army and suicide bombings in urban centres inside Pakistan, then it will indicate that the missile that hit Baitullah has blown apart the tenuous agreement that was being brokered between the TTP and Pakistan army and which led to a temporary halt in the suicide bombings in Pakistan over the past few months. In either event, the relief for Pakistan and the US will be temporary. The al Qaeda inspired ideological force propelling the Islamist insurgency, coupled with the involvement thousands of highly committed jihadists in this insurgency, are not going to disappear with the death of one man.

Of course, to the extent that all the groups and commanders in the TTP accepted Baitullah as the Emir, his death is a setback that could lead to a leadership struggle between the various claimants to Baitullah's mantle, which in turn could lead to the dismantling of the complex network of terror that Baitullah presided and which made him so powerful. This, at least, is what the Pakistani authorities would fervently be hoping will happen because then they will be able to exploit the differences between various commanders and make them fight against each other. A succession war in the TTP will weaken the commanders and make it so much easier for the Pakistani authorities to play them off against each other and then pick them off one by one and do all this without having to mount any major military operation in the tribal areas.

For the moment, however, reports of warring commanders appear to be more of psy-war than reality. On their part, Baitullah's commanders too have succeeded in sowing confusion over Baitullah's death by not announcing the name of his successor. But even if things were to come reach a point where Taliban warlords fight each other to gain supremacy over the movement, the dynamics of the severely disturbed conditions in Pashtun areas of Pakistan are not going to alter materially.

One big reason for this is that TTP is not a monolith which will crack because of infighting. The TTP is really a loose confederation of disparate groups bound together by a common ideology, purpose, and enemy. Each group is quite autonomous operationally in the area under its control. According to sources in Pakistan, even while Baitullah was alive, he would give a broad policy direction and leave the operational details to the local commanders. In fact, for quite some time now, because of bad health, Baitullah was not very active operationally and was more of a figurehead. The real strategising and execution of attacks was done by commanders like Hakimullah Mehsud, Qari Hussein and Waliur Rehman.

This organisational structure of the TTP is not going to change after Baitullah. In fact there is a very good chance that if the pressure mounts on the groups affiliated to the TTP, the commanders might close ranks and in the interest of self-preservation continue to cooperate and coordinate with each other, more so since most of Baitullah's commanders have no love lost for the Pakistan army and intelligence agencies and revel in targeting them. Aiding and assisting the TTP materially and militarily in this task will be the vast al Qaeda network, which will use its influence to paper over any differences between the commanders.

But more than the opposition, the big worry for Pakistan is the hubris of the Pakistan army, especially after the operations in Swat where the army has managed to re-establish state control with relative ease. This could easily lead the military brass to conclude that the Taliban are not the existential threat that they were being made out to be and therefore there is no need to review, much less change, the policy of using the 'reconcilable' Taliban for strategic purposes. This would be a terrible mistake. For one, Swat is not Waziristan. For another, the Pakistan army has so far fought and won only the conventional conflict in Swat; the dirty war remains to be fought because most of the Taliban fighters have escaped and are now engaged in guerrilla warfare. For a third, internecine warfare in FATA will not solve the problem of Islamist militancy; rather it will lead to total chaos and anarchy in that area, which will then spread into the settled districts. Finally, any negotiated settlement that brings the Taliban back in Afghanistan will in one way or another provide a fillip to Islamist movements inside Pakistan, just as they did when the Taliban first occupied Kabul in 1996.


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