By Mayuri Mukherjee
14 November 2013 |
In the run-up to 2014, rival groups are re-aligning themselves, against the backdrop of clashing intelligence agencies and competing political interests. Can the US and Afghanistan seize on this to scuttle the groups from within?
When Latifullah Mehsud, a senior Pakistani Taliban leader, was taken by US forces in Afghanistan in October, a few eye-brows were raised in the strategic community, but overall it got little attention. Then, less than a month later, on November 1, his boss and group chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed in a US drone strike in the tribal areas of North Waziristan, leading to much political drama in Pakistan. Now, another top leader belonging to the powerful Haqqani network which is allied to the Taliban and also operates out of North Waziristan, has been shot dead in Islamabad.
It is difficult to establish if these incidents are related but there is little doubt that they point to an internal upheaval within the greater Taliban. In the run-up to the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, rival groups are lobbying for more power and influence, against the backdrop of clashing intelligence agencies and competing political interests.
For instance, when Latifullah Mehsud was taken in October by US forces in Afghanistan’s eastern Logar Province, he was returning from a meeting with Afghan intelligence officers on a prisoner swap deal. His capture angered Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who viewed it as an impediment to the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban. Similarly, the Pakistani Government threw a fit when Hakimullah Mehsud was killed. The strike came just one day before a state delegation was scheduled to meet Taliban leaders to initiate a dialogue, and Islamabad blamed the US for disrupting the talks. In fact, given its shrill response, one would not be faulted for assuming that it was just one step away from inking a peace deal with the insurgents. In reality though, the talks had not even begun and there was no guarantee that the deliberations would lead to any kind of truce.
On the contrary, there is reason to believe that the Taliban never cared for the talks but were just playing for time. They wanted to stave off a Pakistani military operation in Waziristan at this time, and they have been successful. The fighting season for this year is over and the next window will open only in the Spring of 2014. At that time, American troops will be withdrawing from Afghanistan while the country prepares for presidential polls. In other words, there will be instability in the region and the group can take advantage of that to seek shelter across the border in case the Pakistani military moves into Northern Waziristan.
Against this backdrop, Mullah Fazlullah elevation to the top job within the Pakistani Taliban is interesting. A hardliner even by Taliban standards — he ordered the hit on Malala Yousafzai — he established his leadership credentials during the Pakistani military’s operations in the Swat valley in 2007 and 2009. Afterwards, he fled to Afghanistan and now operates from Kunar Province. His recent exploits include the bomb attack that killed the Pakistani Army’s commander in the Swat valley, Major General Sanaullah Niazi.
Although Kabul has denied his presence in the country, Pakistani analysts have alleged that Mullah Fazlullah is supported by the Afghan intelligence. Either way, the consensus is that Mullah Fazlullah brings strategic depth to the Pakistani Taliban. This explains why the group picked him, cutting crossing tribal and regional faultlines. The mullah is a lowlander Pakhtun while traditionally the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban has rested with the Mehsud tribe from the highlands. Also, with Mullah Fazlullah at the helm, the Pakistani Taliban may move to his native place in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province — in which case, it will be the first time that the group sets up base in the settled areas of Pakistan. Conveniently, here Mr Imran Khan’s PTI is in power, and it has no qualms in supping with terrorist groups.
In fact, in these past weeks, the surreptitious relationship of the Pakistani establishment with the terror groups has once again been highlighted.
If Mehsud was killed just a few kilometres away from the Pakistani military’s fortress in Miranshah, the young Haqqani was shot in Islamabad, bringing back memories of Osama bin Laden’s safe haven in Abbottabad. Nasiruddin Haqqani, son of Haqqani network founder Jalaluddin and brother of current chief Sirajuddin, was the group’s chief financier. He maintained a permanent residence in Islamabad, often travelled to the Gulf to secure funding and represented the Haqqanis at the disastrous Doha talks. It is not clear who is responsible for his death — rumour has it that it was the result of a fallout with his cousin who was talking to the Afghan intelligence — but it is a blow to the Pakistan-based group which is losing control over its stronghold in Afghanistan where the Zadran tribe of Khost may have broken ties with the group.
The situation is in a flux. The question here is: Will state agencies (Afghans, Pakistanis and Americans) take advantage of the shifting dynamics to scuttle the groups from within. Before you answer that, factor this in: In 2012, after Malala was shot, the Americans refused to hunt down Mullah Fazlullah in Afghanistan, as they viewed him as an ‘other-side-of-the-border’ problem.