Thursday 11 February 2010

Uncertain future for Pakistan Taliban

The death of Hakimullah Mahsud, confirmed earlier this week, will have a significant impact on the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the bloodthirsty gang he led until succumbing to injuries caused by a US drone missile strike in mid-January.
The organisation's future is uncertain and it is likely to become increasingly irrelevant, with its remaining members either joining forces with the al-Qaeda remnants still operating in the harsh borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, or lapsing into criminality.
Hakimullah and his lieutenants Qari Hussein and Waliur Rahman - both of whose fate is still unknown - presided over a period of bloodletting that is almost without precedent in modern Pakistan history. Little if any of this was achieved by either conventional military attacks or even by guerrilla warfare. Their main weapon was the suicide bomber.
Qari Hussein in particular developed an expertise in training young boys to blow themselves to pieces. Sometimes these attacks were aimed at the Pakistan military, but mostly they happened in crowded public places as a way of striking terror into the heart of Pakistan. The bombers killed far more innocent Pakistani civilians than soldiers.
At the time of its formation three years ago, the TTP, under the leadership of Baitullah Mahsud, had the potential to cause considerable problems for Pakistan. Created with strong support from Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda and with tacit support from sections of the Pakistani intelligence community, it capitalised on the growing insurgency in Afghanistan, but tried to extend that struggle into Pakistan itself, particularly after the government's attack on the Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad.
Surprisingly, the Musharraf regime appeared oblivious to this possibility and willingly conceded territory and political power to the organisation. The Army made tentative moves against militants in South Waziristan, but after hundreds of soldiers were captured, it withdrew its forces and left the TTP to get on with it.
In 2009 the full consequences of this policty of laissez faire became clear, particularly in the Swat Valley, where the Taliban established a state-within-a-state, only a hundred miles or so from the capital. Brutal killings, public beatings, the banning of education for girls, forced abductions of young men to fight or become suicide bombers, followed one after the other.
Finally, in late spring 2009, the Army moved against the militants in the Swat Valley. The TTP fighters, despite their swagger, were by then deeply resented by most Swatis. They had no political programme other than a vague idea of a bastardised sharia law and were unable to win support other than from a minority of landless peasants who had longstanding grievances against their landlords.
More than a million residents of the Valley were forced to leave their homes as the Army moved in to clear out the TTP, many of whose fighters were from South Waziristan and were regarded as 'foreigners' by the locals. Many of the militants were as much motivated by plunder as they were by any religious ideology.
With the death of the founding TTP leader Baitullah Mahsud in a drone strike in early August, the organisation was plunged into crisis. The succession was not clear, with different factions allegedly shooting it out.
Hakimullah came out on top of the pile, mainly because he was seen as an effective and experienced guerrilla leader, having cut his teeth ambushing NATO convoys in the Khyber Pass. It is said that al-Qaeda played a major role in securing his position.
But there were always tensions beneath the surface, not least because many tribal militants from FATA were unhappy with the decision to target the Pakistani state itself. Even the Afghanistan Taliban of Mullah Omar tried to distance itself from the TTP, saying it no longer wanted to be known as the Taliban.
As the TTP campaign against the Pakistani state gathered momentum - aided and abetted by an influx of fanatical Punjabi militants - the Army made its move into South Waziristan last October.
Despite the rumoured 15,000 TTP fighters, the Army encountered little opposition as it advanced into areas where government soldiers had never before been allowed to operate. More than a quarter of a million new refugees were created.
The Army trashed dozens of villages and destroyed the family homes of most of the TTP leaders and still they met little opposition. Long-standing sanctuaries for Uzbek and Chechen sympathisers were destroyed and massive amounts of arms and ammunition seized.
Hakimullah and his henchmen moved further into FATA, accepting the reluctant hospitality of the Haqqani clan in neighbouring North Waziristan. When asked where all his fighters were, Waliur Rahman, from a secret hideout, told AP he had sent them all to fight in Afghanistan. This was a lie. By December many of the less committed TTP fighters could see where things were going and had silently melted away. Even the elders of his own tribe, the Mahsuds, turned against Hakimullah and offered to hand him over if they caught him.
And as the Pakistan military consolidated its positions in South Waziristan, the CIA drone attacks increased in intensity - and in accuracy. So when it became clear that Hakimullah had played a major role in training the Jordanian suicide bomber who killed seven CIA officers in Afghanistan on 30 December, it was only a matter of time before he would run out of luck.
The unprecedented storm of drone attacks that followed the CIA killings - with a dozen strikes in less than three weeks - shattered the TTP leadership and its aura of invincibility. Now no-one is safe. There are no longer any safe havens. This lesson will not have been missed by the remaining TTP militants in the tribal territories of Pakistan.
They will have to decide if it is worth being martyred for the crazed and delusional rantings of idealogues like al-Zawahiri. Most, it can be guaranteed, will prefer returning to their old trades of drug smuggling and car theft.

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