Twice in recent years the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was forced to look for a new leader after losing its founder Baitullah Mehsud and his successor Hakimullah Mehsud to lethal US drone attacks and in both cases the succession was far from a smooth affair.
In fact, it proved divisive instead of unifying the different militant factions that Baitullah had brought together on the TTP platform in December 2007. The TTP was not only weakened by the loss of its two ameers (leaders) and several commanders in drone strikes and Pakistani military operations, but the elimination of strong leaders made it difficult to keep it united and focused on its agenda.
Following Baitullah’s death in 2009, two clear factions emerged in the TTP under the stewardship of Hakimullah, who was more of a fighter than anything else despite having studied at various madrassas, and Waliur Rahman who was primarily a cleric and had been an activist of Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s JUI-F before turning to armed militancy. Though Hakimullah eventually became the new TTP head, which remains probably the most dangerous job in the world, and Waliur Rahman was made the leader of its most powerful South Waziristan chapter in what turned out to be a compromise solution of the leadership tussle, the factionalism in the militant organisation couldn’t be overcome.
However, the media, the political parties and civil society didn’t focus much on the TTP succession and factionalism at the time and the issue remained a less talked about subject.
The situation was different when Hakimullah was killed as a lot was at stake this time around due to a host of factors. The continuing drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas had become a much more contentious issue in Pakistan’s uncertain relationship with the US due to the victory of Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and Imran Khan’s PTI that had promised to do everything to bring the attacks by the CIA-operated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to an end while seeking votes during their campaign for the May 2013 election. Besides, the drone strike that killed Hakimullah happened at a time when the newly-elected PML-N federal government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was preparing to hold peace talks with his group after having obtained the mandate to do so from all significant political parties as well as the military hierarchy whose support for the process was critical for its success. His death effectively ended any hopes of holding peace talks, at least for the time-being.
Rather, there is now concern that revenge attacks by the militants as threatened by the TTP and its various front organisations and allies could further destroy any chances of resuming the peace process. Though there has been until now only one significant attack that was declared as a revenge for Hakimullah’s death, it doesn’t mean that the TTP has shelved all such plans even if its capacity to do so appears to have been diminished. The little-known Ansarul Mujahideen linked to the TTP claimed responsibility for this revenge attack in which two Frontier Corps personnel were killed and seven were wounded when their roadside checkpoint on the Bannu-Mir Ali road came under the suicide attack. It was after some time that such a suicide bombing took place and there was fear more could happen.
Something intriguing happened in recent days when Qari Saifuddin, the commander for Frontier Region Janikhel (Bannu) loyal to the non-TTP Taliban commander from North Waziristan, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, was killed along with seven of his men in a car-bombing attack near Mir Ali town. This could be the result of internal disputes between the militant groups as his faction isn’t fighting the Pakistani state and has a long-standing peace agreement with the government.
One would have to see if such attacks are resulting from infighting between the pro- and anti-peace militant groups. The Hafiz Gul Bahadur group despite its wish has been unable to stop the TTP cadres displaced from other tribal areas and districts to seek refuge and use North Waziristan as a base to launch attacks against Pakistani security forces and government installations.
With regard to internal TTP politics, it is true that Khan Said, also known as Khalid Mehsud and Sajna and successor of TTP deputy head Waliur Rahman who was also killed in a US drone strike some months ago, was reluctant to become TTP head. One reason could be that he isn’t a qualified cleric and another is perhaps he didn’t want to divide the TTP as the Hakimullah faction was opposing him. The fact that he is reportedly pro-peace process puts another dimension to the issue as even now he could put pressure on other militants to agree to peace talks but he would have to wait for some months to do this as right now most TTP fighters are angry and in a vindictive mood due to Hakimullah’s death.
The Waliur Rahman faction and its allies would have wanted Khan Said to become TTP head while the Hakimullah faction and its allied groups reportedly backed Hafiz Saeed Khan, head of TTP in Orakzai Agency, or Shahryar Mehsud to become the head in late Hakimullah’s place. Due to the differences, it seems the search began for a third candidate not belonging to any of the main factions and thus Fazlullah was chosen as a compromise candidate to head the TTP. As he is in Afghanistan, so a deputy head was also chosen (Khalid Haqqani) who is living in North Waziristan and is available for day-to-day decision-making.
Other factors in favour of Fazlullah were that he is a cleric so it went well with the religious elements. Also he has given personal sacrifices because he was wounded in the Swat fighting, his mother was arrested and died in custody of the army, and his brother Maulana Liaqat and his children were killed in a US drone attack in Bajaur earlier. Also, Fazlullah showed his strength by killing the Pakistan Army’s Maj Gen Sanaullah Niazi and other soldiers and his men are still able to carry out attacks in Swat and elsewhere.
It is true the Mehsud tribe has suffered the most in the conflict and has now also lost the TTP leadership, but the Mehsuds would still be able to control the TTP in one or the other way as even now the TTP’s real strength are the Mehsud and also to a lesser extent the Wazir and Dawar tribes in South and North Waziristan.
It also needs to be mentioned that no individual, even if he is head or deputy head can formulate the TTP policy, because the shura makes the important decisions. Besides, Fazullah would be a relatively weak TTP head compared to his predecessors as he had to shift to Afghanistan’s Nuristan province after suffering defeat in Swat. Also, he is from the settled district of Swat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and not from Fata where the TTP has its real strength and would therefore have to depend on his tribal assets to assert his power.