The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has yet to confirm the death of its head Maulana Fazlullah and the US that killed him hasn’t formally made the claim, but it is widely believed that he was among the six men eliminated in the drone strikes in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province on June 13.
If this wasn’t true, Fazlullah or his spokesmen would by now have spoken to the media and denied the killing. On at least one occasion in the past, he personally phoned a journalist to prove that he was alive after reports emerged that he had been killed.
It is possible the fractious TTP Shura is still holding consultations to choose the new ameer of the outlawed militant organisation and the announcement of Fazlullah’s death would be made along with the name of his successor. As for the US, it may want to seek further evidence before officially announcing that Fazlullah was killed in the missiles fired from the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that targeted at least six vehicles on a road in Kunar’s Marawara district after they were returning from an iftaar dinner. It is being cautious apparently in view of past incidents when false claims were made on a few occasions that Fazlullah had been killed.
A video available on social media claiming to be of the US strike that attacked Fazlullah’s convoy shows multiple missiles raining on the six vehicles and also on the men who disembark and try to escape. All the vehicles and men are on fire as only one vehicle being driven ahead of the convoy manages to escape a hit.
Pakistani Taliban sources and Afghan officials have confirmed Fazlullah’s death. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani phoned Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to convey the news and claim that it was the result of a joint operation in which the tireless human intelligence made available by the Afghan authorities led to the tracking down of Fazlullah. The Afghan defence ministry had also confirmed Fazlullah’s death in the drone strike. Obviously the US would have shared with the Afghan government the information that Fazlullah had been targeted and eliminated. In this manner, it would get the feedback from the TTP and other stakeholders before formally making the claim about his killing.
Fazlullah’s death is certainly a huge loss for the TTP, which has been weakened due to a split in its ranks and its defeat at the hands of the Pakistani military in 2009. The military operations against TTP in Pakistan forced it to relocate to neighbouring Afghanistan. In fact, Fazlullah was the first TTP head to be chosen while based outside Pakistan. It showed the decline in the power and influence of the TTP that once controlled considerable territory in Pakistan’s erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and Malakand division of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and fought pitched battles with Pakistan’s security forces and exploded bombs at the time and place of its choosing all over Pakistan.
Fazlullah is the third ameer of the TTP to have been killed in a US drone strike. The TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a drone attack in South Waziristan in 2009 while his successor Hakimullah Mehsud lost his life in a hit in North Waziristan in 2013. Other important TTP figures killed by US drones include Qari Hussain, Waliur Rahman and Khan Said Sajna. South Waziristan’s Mulla Nazeer, a top non-TTP Taliban commander was also killed in a US drone strike. Unlike his predecessor TTP heads, Fazlullah was assassinated in the US drone strike in Afghanistan.
That the US drones have proved effective in killing Pakistani, Afghan and other militants is borne out by the figures and the high status of several of those killed. However, there has also been collateral damage as civilians, including women and children, also got killed. Besides, most of those killed by the drones were foot soldiers rather than high-profile wanted figures.
There were unconfirmed reports that the TTP Shura (council) met in Kunar and reportedly chose top militant commander Umar Rahman aka Fateh as the new ameer of the outlawed organisation. Like Fazlullah, Umar Rahman also belongs to Swat and is wanted in Pakistan for his involvement in several acts of terrorism. He originally belonged to Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the militant group founded by Maulana Masood Azhar, and joined the TTP along with Fazlullah and other Swati Taliban. He had fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation forces. He also led the invasion of Shangla and Buner districts after having overrun Swat.
The delay in announcing the new leader could also be due to possible consultation with the TTP factions led by Mehsud militants based in Afghanistan’s Paktia and Khost provinces, or the groups scattered all over eastern Afghanistan.
Due to the splintering of the TTP, it would be more appropriate to say that Fazlullah’s successor would be heading the main faction of the organisation rather than the whole of the once united and dreaded organisation.
One faction that broke away is the Jamaatul Ahrar, headed by Abdul Wali aka Omar Khalid Khorasani whose fate too has been a matter of speculation after reports emerged that he may have been killed or wounded in an attack in Afghanistan. It had objected to Fazlullah’s leadership and gone its own way. It is now operating independently, though its members could be cooperating with the mainstream TTP or even with the Islamic State, or Daesh Khorasan chapter while carrying out terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
Another faction that opposed Fazlullah’s elevation as the head of the TTP was the one headed by Khan Said Sajna aka Khalid Mehsood until his death in a US drone strike in Afghanistan in February this year. This faction of Mehsud tribal militants wanted Sajna to succeed Hakimullah Mehsud, but Fazlullah was preferred even though the TTP suffered splits like never before under the latter’s leadership. If Sajna had been alive, he would have been the foremost candidate to become the new TTP head.
Another candidate for the ameer could be Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, a cleric and author who last year published a 688-page book titled, The Mehsud Revolution. Given the inability of the TTP to function as a well-knit group due to differences and security and logistics reasons, it is clear that there would be factional heads operating autonomously and forging their own alliances and links with anti-Pakistan intelligence agencies.
Fazlullah’s killing by the US has in a way obliged Pakistan because he posed a major threat and was one of the most wanted men for ordering scores of terrorist attacks in the country. Pakistan in a statement noted that Fazlullah’s death would bring relief to the families of those who were martyred in the Army Public School Peshawar attack and other terrorist assaults. However, Pakistan’s reaction was restrained as if reminding the US and the Afghan governments that many other Pakistani militants were still based in Afghanistan and planning attacks in Pakistan. Besides, Islamabad would be keen to remind Washington and Kabul that it had done and sacrificed more than its share in the war against terrorism and it expected the US and Afghanistan to match its sacrifices.
However, the US and Afghanistan are far from satisfied regarding Pakistan’s role in the war against terror. The US wants Pakistan to do a lot more. Its relations with Pakistan won’t improve unless Pakistan fights this war to its satisfaction. By eliminating Fazlullah, the US would be hoping that Pakistan would do something similar to reduce the threat facing American and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.
As for Afghanistan, it was keen to remind Pakistan that its most wanted man had finally been taken out and it was now time for Islamabad to reciprocate and take action against Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network leaders present in Pakistan. Or the least Kabul expected from Pakistan was to use whatever influence it had on the Afghan Taliban to make them stop fighting and join the peace process.