Sharad Joshi
Associate Fellow, International Security

The new leader of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Mullah Fazullah, takes over as apprehension grows in Pakistan, following the killing of previous chief Hakimullah Mehsud in a drone strike by the US.

The death of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Hakimullah Mehsud in a drone strike by the US has increased the sense of apprehension in Pakistan. After succeeding Baitullah Mehsud, who was also killed by a drone strike in 2009, Hakimullah had intensified the group’s attacks in Pakistan and on US targets in Afghanistan. Under his leadership, attacks were carried out on US airbases in Afghanistan, as well as on the Pakistan Naval Station Mehran, Karachi in 2011 and the Pakistan army general headquarters, Rawalpindi in 2009, to mention just a few high-profile instances. Mehsud also expanded the TTP’s strategy to include sectarian and minority targets in Pakistan.

The most immediate concern following Hakimullah Mehsud’s killing is the likelihood of TTP reprisal attacks. However, his death is a demoralizing blow to the organization, which views itself as equivalent (and a contender) to the Pakistani state. Although the TTP is a fractious network of ambitious leaders, Mehsud had emerged as the top one. In the immediate aftermath of his death, simmering rivalries among the TTP’s faction leaders have come back to the fore, leading to the announcement that the new chief is the hardline Mullah Fazlullah, who was reportedly behind the shooting of Malala Yousafzai. Unless there is an outright challenge to his leadership, the TTP is likely to consolidate under Mullah Fazlullah, and resume its violent campaign on an intensified level.

The most striking response to Mehsud’s killing has been the extent of anger toward the US from Pakistan’s government and political parties, who regard the drone attack that killed him as a violation of the country’s sovereignty. They also argue it has wrecked the prospects for talks with the Taliban – an election promise by PM Nawaz Sharif’s party, the PML(N) (Pakistan Muslim League [Nawaz]). However, the proposed peace talks ran the risk of giving free rein to the TTP in the tribal areas – an unwanted outcome for Pakistan and the United States. The manner of Mehsud’s demise thus risks posthumously rehabilitating his reputation in the country. What remains conspicuously unmentioned by the government, though, is the violation of Pakistani sovereignty by the TTP for almost a decade.

In Pakistan, the Mehsud killing has been framed primarily in the context of the drone strikes campaign rather than as a major counterterrorism milestone, thus contributing to the deterioration of US-Pakistan relations. Mehsud was the most dangerous security threat to Pakistan; anger over his killing shows the pervasiveness of anti-American sentiment within the political establishment – an anger that has been fuelled by the drone strikes campaign.

Mehsud’s killing has intensified the rhetoric in opposition to drone strikes in Pakistan in general despite reports in recent weeks of a secret protocol signed during the Musharraf government allowing them. This opposition does not extend, however, to some communities in the tribal areas that are supportive of drone strikes and have excluded militant leaders such as Mehsud who terrorized the areas.

Peace deal unlikely

The peace moves that Pakistan’s government is viewing as collateral damage to Mehsud’s death were fairly uncertain in the first place. Even if they take place, they are unlikely to lead to any concessions by the TTP since it is operating from an advantageous position. It is Pakistan’s political establishment that has been pushing for talks, not the TTP. The TTP was also not going to budge from its absolutist demands for the overthrow of the government and the imposition of Sharia law in the country. And the government and political parties have not been publicly clear about the agenda and scope of talks, insisting on talks without any concessions from the TTP, including a cessation of violence. Thus, Islamabad had not learnt from previous rounds of ceasefires and negotiations with the TTP in 2008–09, which allowed the organization to regroup and expand its violent campaign.

There are also strong differences among various TTP factions on whether to pursue talks, making such a prospect even more unlikely. The TTP is unlikely to negotiate seriously unless its ally, the Afghan Taliban, succeeds in imposing its demands in Afghanistan. Thus, the argument that Mehsud’s killing has wrecked any chance of talks is shaky. 

Pakistan’s military is more realistic than the political class about how serious the continued threat from the TTP is, but that has not yet led to a comprehensive campaign against the group, allowing the TTP to maintain its bases in the tribal areas, including North Waziristan, while expanding its terrorist activities across the country. The army belatedly formulated a new military doctrine earlier this year, which elevated domestic militant groups as the main security threat, but it has not resulted in any major operational changes in the anti-TTP campaign.

In the meantime, despite its terrorist attacks in Pakistan over the last five years, the TTP still managed to increase its number of sympathizers among Islamist political parties (such as the Jamaat-e-Islami), and even in mainstream parties like Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf and the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, which have accorded it the legitimacy that is now evident in the aftermath of Mehsud’s killing. But this appeasement of militants with no meaningful concessions from them in return is hardly an effective counterterrorism strategy, and will embolden not just the TTP but also other terrorist groups operating in Pakistan.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback