COMMENTARY
 
With Baitullah Gone, What Lies Ahead for Taliban
Weekly Pulse
August 14-20, 2009
Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, was reportedly killed on August 5 in a US drone attack in South Waziristan. Conflicting media reports since then suggest a war of succession has begun in Taliban ranks, with claims that two of his possible successors, Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman Mehsud may have been killed in a shootout during a Shura meeting held on August 8 to choose the next TTP leader. Whatever may be the case, the death of Baitullah is a mortal blow to Pakistani Taliban and their terrorist allies, particularly al-Qaeda. It is a major counter-terrorism victory for the United States in the region, and a morale booster for Pakistani security forces currently engaged in a resolute counter-insurgency campaign in Swat and South Waziristan.

Since becoming the Emir of TTP in December 2007, Baitullah had emerged as an unrivalled leader of the Taliban movement in Pakistan’s tribal areas. A successor to Nek Muhammad Wazir and Abdullah Mehsud, who were killed in 2004 and 2007, respectively, Baitullah quickly turned TTP into the most vicious terror group in the country, using suicide bombings as its primary tactic as part of an al-Qaeda strategy, which was already in vogue in Afghanistan and Iraq. While he instilled terror in the minds of Pakistanis, by orchestrating scores of spectacular terrorist acts across its main cities, he was also ruthless in enforcing his command of the terror group. Baitullah’s claim to TTP leadership rested on the surgical elimination of almost all of his potential tribal and jihadi challengers in South waziristan, including the killing of some 300 tribal elders in the last over two years and the assassination of Qari Zainuddin as recently as June this year. So much so that in its December 2007 annual issue, Time magazine listed him among “its 100 most influential individuals” around the globe. However, if the news about the war of succession following his death is correct, then this only confirms that his ruthless nature rather than personal charisma was indeed the factor in making him the unrivalled leader of the terrorist organization. Otherwise, the very edifice Baitullah led should not have started crumbling as soon as he was sent to hell by a Hellfire missile.

Relief to Pakistan

Beyond any doubt, Baitullah’s death is a sigh of relief for Pakistanis, who have suffered enormous physical loss and mental pain due to Taliban terror campaign orchestrated by him in the last nearly three years. He is reportedly responsible for taking the lives of nearly 3,000 Pakistani people, including both security personnel and unarmed civilians, in a terror spree beginning in the summer of 2007, in the aftermath of the Red Mosque operation in Islamabad. He claimed responsibility for several spectacular suicide terrorist attacks across Pakistan, including the terrorist attack on March 31 this year on a Police Academy in Lahore. In December 2007, the government of Pakistan also accused him of murdering former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Baitullah’s elimination from the terror scene certainly provides a rare window of opportunity to Pakistani security forces currently engaged in counter-insurgency operation in tribal areas to exploit the evolving disarray in TTP ranks and undertake a decisive action to decapitate the remainder of its leadership and its hardcore followers. Baitullah is also believed to have provided refuge to thousands of so-called Punjabi Taliban, including Sipah-e-Sehaba Pakistan commander Ilyas Kashmiri, who allegedly played a lead role in inciting violence against Christians in Gojra recently. With his death, their fate also hangs in balance, if the security forces engage in a decisive campaign in South Waziristan in coming weeks.

Blow to al-Qaeda

Baitullah’s death is a bad news for thousands of al-Qaeda, Afghan and Uzbek terrorists hiding in South Waziristan—as they may not be able to enjoy the same hospitality in the region’s safe haven, as they did under him as TTP leader. Baitullah owed his allegiance to Taliban Emir-ul-Mo’omineen Mullah Omar, and hosted Afghan Taliban, including Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, in the area for their cross-border terrorism against international forces in Afghanistan. A UN report released in September 2007 blamed Mehsud for almost 80 percent of suicide bombings in Afghanistan. He provided refuge to IMU leader Tahir Yaldashev along with thousands of Uzbek militants, who are known for introducing the practice of beheading among local terrorist groups.

It is believed that Baitullah was a personal choice of al-Qaeda’s number two Ayman al-Zawahiri, when the decision to choose the Emir of TTP on the eve of its creation in December 2007 was made. Zawahiri and bin Laden are believed to be hiding in the same area. Known al-Qaeda leaders like Abu Laith al-Libbi worked closely with Baitullah, and the global terror network is believed to have financed his terrorism in Pakistan through Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of Afghan commander Jalaluddin Haqqani. That is why Baitullah’s ambitions were not restricted to terrorizing Pakistanis alone; their scope went far beyond. And he was never shy of disclosing them.

"Our main aim is to finish Britain and the United States and to crush the pride of the non-Muslims. We pray to God to give us the ability to destroy the White House, New York, and London. Very soon, we will be witnessing jihad's miracles," Baitullah told Al-Jazeera in an interview in January 2008.

Without him, it is quite uncertain whether al-Qaeda will be able to find a TTP Emir as committed and loyal to regional ambitions of the terror network as Baitullal personally proved to be in the last few years.

Window of Opportunity

His death, in fact, provides a rare window of opportunity for both the United States and Pakistan to reverse the al-Qaeda-led terror campaign in the borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the region. That he was killed in a drone attack may also help reduce the level of public opposition in Pakistan to such strikes, if they are perceived to be eliminating the domestic terrorist threat. If indeed the success of this drone attack was realized through intelligence provided by Pakistan, then we might see an enhanced level of counter-terrorism cooperation between the two countries in the days ahead, encompassing both intelligence sharing and operational coordination aspects.

The drone attacks in South Waziristan will most likely gain momentum now. On August 11, one such attack in the same area where Baitullah was killed claimed another 10 militant lives. The coercive pressure from US and NATO forces on Taliban forces across the border in Afghanistan, especially in Helmand, has significantly increased in recent weeks. On the Pakistani side of this border, the security forces after achieving significant success in their counter-insurgency operation in Swat Valley have started to mount a series of air and ground assaults in South Waziristan during the same period. In fact, the tide had started to turn against Taliban forces both in Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s border tribal belt well before the death of TTP leader.

The need of the hour is to effectively build upon these successes, especially the demise of Baitullah. However, as it is quite clear from the recent terror events in Indonesia, al-Qaeda and its local terrorist affiliates are resilient enough to absorb all counter-terrorist attempts and resurface with a vengeance. It is quite interesting to note that the killing of Pakistan’s ‘Public Enemy No. 1 almost coincided with the death of Indonesia’s ‘Most Wanted Terrorist,’ Noordin Mat Top, who had orchestrated the terrorist attack in Bali in 2002. Obviously, the terror problem in South-East Asia pales in comparison with the same in South-West Asia. Given that, unlike the Indonesians, Pakistanis or Afghans may not have the luxury of even celebrating the death of one of the most notorious terrorist leaders like Baitullah—for the terror odds confronting them are much heavier than any other people or country in the Muslim world.

The Task Ahead

Baitullah may have died, but the Taliban terror infrastructure he led remains considerably intact. TTP is still believed to have close to three dozen top commanders and an army of some 25,000 fighters, including a couple of thousands of young suicide bombers along with their trainer Qari Hussain. His death may, in fact, reinforce the very ideology that is a binding force among other disparate local terrorist organizations such as Tehrik-e-Nifaze-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi in Swat under ‘Maulana’ Fazlullah or Qari Ziaur Rahman, the Taliban leader in Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan and Bajaur Agency and Mohamand Agency in Pakistan. If Hakimullah Mehsud is still alive, he can pose a major challenge to security forces in places such as Dera Adam Khel in the suburbs of Peshawar and the Orakzai and Kurram agencies of tribal areas.

All of these local terrorist leaders will be ready to serve the cause of al-Qaeda, Afghan or Uzbek terrorists—that of providing them a sanctuary in tribal areas for sponsoring or undertaking acts of terror in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region. They may not have the same coercive power or terror clout as Baitullah had, but al-Qaeda and its foreign affiliates and sponsors can renew their channels of support for the purpose. Additionally, it is easier to deal with an organization which is knitted strongly around one leader. The situation becomes quite anarchic when the strongman disappears suddenly. Even otherwise, TTP is believed to be a nexus of independent groups, targeting whom should be quite a difficult task for our security forces, especially if they independently start to vie for power.

There are, however, Taliban groups out of the TTP flock—such as the one led by Maulvi Nazir Wazir and Hafiz Gulbahar in South and North Waziristan, respectively, with each of them having an army of 5,000 insurgents. The former had killed hundreds of Uzbeks in 2007 in South Waziristan as part of a strategic understanding with our security command. Both of these enemies of Baitullah must be celebrating his death. It would be realistic to use their respective hatred for Baitullah to target the TTP, al-Qaeda and Uzbeks forces in South Waziristan, but with a creative strategy aimed at preventing their potential emergence as a bigger nuisance for the country in future. Our aim should be to restore the traditional Pashtun tribal structure in the area and re-establish the writ of the state there fully. Without the full employment of force and planning about the follow-up political and economic incentives, such essential national goal will never be accomplished.

Access column at weeklypulse.org