After several weeks travelling through the remote mountains and valleys of Kyrgyzstan with little contact with the outside world, I return to find that Baitullah Mahsud, leader of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) appears to have been killed in a US drone attack on 5 August, along with his wife and two others, in the Zangra area of Waziristan. According to reports he was staying at the house of his father in law, Malik Ikramuddin Mahsud, and four of his children were injured in the attack
Three days before his death I wrote on this blog that it would either be a US missile or an assassin's bullet that killed Baitullah; Pakistan's ISI considered him an asset and their much-trumpeted offensive in South Waziristan aimed at dislodging him has still yet to take place.
Mahsud's death is a serious blow to the whole TTP project. There are few, if any, leaders capable of holding this loose amalgam of tribal militants together. Unity in the name of Wahhabi Islam may be of interest to some factions, but tribal factionalism is stronger still.
The ragbag of factions will have much to ponder in the wake of Mahsud's death. Foremost in their minds will be an appraisal of what happened in Malakand and the Swat Valley, where the TTP has suffered a significant defeat. With hundreds of thousands of people returning to their homes, there is little sympathy for the remaining militants still sheltering in the hills. Even the revelation of extra-judicial killings of TTP fighters by Pakistan's security forces has caused little stir.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says it has come across "credible accounts of extrajudicial killings and complaints of reprisal attacks by the security forces during the operation in Swat". It singles out the death of militant leader Maulvi Misbahuddin and says credible evidence shows he had been held by the security forces shortly before his body and that of his son were found in Bacha Bazar. The government claims that they were killed in an encounter, while eyewitnesses maintain they were arrested by the police in Mardan.
In another case, Amir Izzat, spokesperson for the Swat militants, was arrested in Amandara. Two days later the authorities claimed that he was killed, allegedly by militants who tried to rescue him when they attacked the vehicle taking him to jail. HRCP says "Independent journalists claim that the targeted vehicle shown to them did not even have an engine."
The Commission adds: "The most harrowing reports were of dead bodies strewn upside down by the military with notes attached to the bodies warning that anyone supporting the Taliban will meet the same fate." Clearly the militants had taken a step too far. Instead of concentrating on Afghanistan, they were attempting to spread their influence and control into the Pakistan heartlands and some sections of the military decided that enough was enough.
The issue of where the TTP chooses to fight will continue to create problems for the movement. Some of the factions are only interested in fighting the Americans and their allies in Afghanistan, while others have set their sights, rather ludicrously, on Islamabad. There are also divisions over the question of foreign fighters and the relationship with al-Qaeda.
In the wake of Mahsud's death - which has still not been officially acknowledged by the TTP - a 42-member shura held in south Waziristan is said to have appointed Hakimullah Mahsud as its new emir. However, even this is uncertain. The Pakistan military say Hakimullah was killed in factional fighting following Baitullah's death and that they new leader is in fact one of his brothers, disguised to look like him. Whatever the truth, these are clear signs of disarray.
It would be foolish to predict the demise of the TTP too soon. And even if it now sinks into fratricide, the Quetta-based leadership of the Afghan Taliban will not give up its fight. One obvious question - if the US is able to strike with impunity at targets in South Waziristan, why can't it hit Mullah Omar and his cronies in Quetta? My bet is that there is a deal between the US and Pakistan that rules out drone attacks in Baluchistan. Any views?