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Archive for February 11th, 2010

The Question of Taliban Succession

In the last few weeks, it appears Tehreek-e-Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, died and came back to life several times.

According to some claims, Mehsud died from injuries sustained from a U.S. drone attack on North Waziristan on January 14. A local government official, citing paramilitary sources, told CNN that Mehsud was seriously injured and subsequently moved to the Orakzai region, where he died and was buried more than a week ago. Pakistan’s state broadcasting agency, PTV, further confirmed this story, reporting the TTP commander was wounded in a drone strike, died, and was buried.

Although TTP spokesman spokesman Azam Tariq rejected reports about the death of Hakimullah Mahsud, calling it “a part of the propaganda by the enemy,” CNN reported that at least three Taliban sources and a government official confirmed his death on Tuesday. However, sources differed on when he died. According to Samaa Television, Taliban sources noted that “Mehsud died on February 9, 2010 while he was being transferred to Karachi. The banned outfit stated that their leader succumbed to his injuries near Multan. His body was then taken back to tribal areas.”

So in all likelihood, Hakimullah Mehsud is dead. But behind every Taliban leader is another 50 raring to take his place. So the question of the hour is, what now? Will the next leader be yet another member of the Mehsud tribe or will the new leader  represent another strategic area in the militant network? Although some reports claim that Maulvi Noor Jamal (also known as Mullah Toofan) has been appointed the new TTP leader, other sources note that he has merely assumed control for the time being, until “the leadership decides its next course of action.”

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan umbrella organization was founded in 2007, by a shura of 40 senior Taliban leaders.  Hassan Abbas wrote in the January 2008 Counterterrorism Center (CTC) Sentinel, “The shura not only has representation from all of FATA’s seven tribal agencies, but also from the settled North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) districts of Swat, Bannu, Tank, Lakki Marwat, Dera Ismail Khan, Kohistan, Buner and Malakand.” The late Baitullah Mehsud was appointed the new TTP leader, reportedly bringing together 13 extremist groups.

Although the TTP appeared to be a united front under Baitullah, the power struggle that reportedly ensued after his death emphasized the fragility of this alliance. Last summer, reports surfaced that Baitullah’s deputy Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rahman were killed in a dispute over who would succeed the Taliban leader. Although these reports were trumped when Hakimullah appeared before reporters as the new TTP chief, news agencies and analysts suggest that the question of succession did spark a power struggle within the organization.

Back in August, McClatchy News’ Saeed Shah reported that the final decision was made in order to avoid bloodshed, since Hakimullah “had threatened to form a breakaway group if he wasn’t given the title of leader.” Saifullah Mehsud, an analyst at the FATA Research Center, told the news agency, “The real power is in Waziristan, and Waliur Rehman will run things there. Its a clever compromise formula. Waliur Rehman has the real power.”

If this is still the case, then it is likely that Mullah Toofan has only assumed power for the time being, despite being the Taliban commander of the Orakzai and Kurram agencies, and those areas  becoming “more important to the Taliban because they are two key tribal districts to which militant leaders and fighters have been escaping after fleeing South Waziristan,” (according to the LA Times). The current (or soon-to-be) military operation in Orakzai ultimately means that fighters have or will be fleeing from those areas as well, potentially diluting the area’s strategic importance to the Taliban.

Not much will be known until the TTP shura makes their final decision, a scary thought given the wave of violence and revenge operations that occurred soon after Hakimullah assumed power. However, given that the last shura produced the “thug-like” and “ferocious” Hakimullah, who reportedly handled both a Kalashnikov and a Toyota pick-up with “legendary skill,” I actually wonder how senior Taliban leaders choose their amirs. Do wannabe TTP commanders duke it out, reality competition style? Is a non-Mehsud considered the underdog, the Karate Kids (if you will) of the tournament? Do they wax on/wax off incessantly in hopes of breaking the Mehsud stronghold? Do they speak in quiet whispers to their posters of Boom Boom Afridi on their ceiling, dreaming out loud? I guess we’ll never know…

Image from Dangerroom: You gotta train if you wanna beat out those damn Mehsuds.

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