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After Baitullah, what?

Last updated on: October 02, 2008 20:24 IST

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a united front of  over 20 Taliban groups operating autonomously in different Pashtun tribal areas, was formed on December 14,2007, at a secret meeting held somewhere in South Waziristan, which was attended by  40 tribal leaders from the South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Aurakzai, Kurram, Khyber, Mohmand and Bajaur tribal agencies of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and from the  districts of  Swat, Buner, Dir, Malakand, Bannu, Lakki Marwat, Tank, Peshawar, Dera Ismail Khan and Kohat in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).

The TTP was projected as a joint resistance movement with three objectives --first, to help the Taliban of Afghanistan in its operations against the US and other NATO forces in Afghan territory; second, to undertake defensive operations against the Pakistani security forces and third, the enforcement of sharia in the entire Pashtun tribal belt.

Baitullah Mehsud of South Waziristan was nominated  as the Amir and  Hafiz Gul Bahadur of North Waziristan and Maulana Faqir
Muhammad of Bajaur as the deputy Amirs.  What brought them together was what they perceived as the divide-and-rule tactics of the Pakistan Army, which was accused by them of ostensibly making peace overtures to some Taliban leaders while undertaking military operations against others. It was reportedly agreed at the meeting that while each local Taliban group would be free to undertake operations against the security forces depending on the local requirements, there would be no unilateral peace negotiations by any group with the Government or the Army. The meeting decided that peace negotiations, if any, would be undertaken only after approval by the shura of the TTP as a whole.

Since then, the TTP has been engaged in two types of operations -- operations of a conventional nature which are confined to the tribal areas, with the tribal leader of each area heading and co-ordinating the operations in his area and operations of an unconventional nature such as acts of terrorism, including suicide terrorism, which are not confined to the tribal areas. Since the formation of the TTP, the conventional operations have been mainly confined to the Swat Valley of the NWFP and the Bajaur Agency of the FATA. The US suspects that many of the sanctuaries of Al Qaeda are located either in North and South Waziristan or in the Bajaur Agency.

There has been an unwritten and unacknowledged division of  responsibilities between the US and the Pakistani Armed Forces. While the US has restricted its operations to air surveillance of the two Waziristans and attacks by unmanned aircraft (Drones) on suspected  jihadi terrorist hide-outs in the two Waziristans, the Pakistan Army has been focusing its operations on the Swat Valley and the Bajaur Agency. In the past, the US undertook air attacks through Drones in the Bajaur Agency too, but it has refrained from such attacks in the Bajaur area for more than a year now. The US special forces undertook a ground action in South Waziristan unilaterally on September 3,2008, but have not undertaken any further ground operations following strong criticism by Pakistani leaders and military officers.

The local commanders of the TTP in the Swat Valley and in the Bajaur Agency proclaim their operations as defensive in nature provoked by the Pakistani Army attacks on the positions held by them at the behest of the US. The conventional fighting between the Pakistani forces and the local units of the Taliban initially started in the Swat Valley in November last year. The operations were co-ordinated by the then Maj.Gen.Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who was the Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO) at that time. He has since been promoted as a Lt.Gen. and posted as the Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) on September 29.

Faced with the offensive of the Armed Forces in the Swat Valley, Maulana Fazlullah, the Amir of the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), who controls the Swat Valley, followed the same tactics as were followed by the Taliban in Afghanistan when the US launched its operations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban under operation Enduring Freedom in October, 2001. To avoid suffering heavy casualties at the hands of the Pakistan Army and para-military forces (mainly the Frontier Corps) and Air Force, the Maulana and his men broke off engagement with the Pakistani forces and withdrew into the hills or went back to their villages and resumed their normal professions. The consequent decline in resistance by the TNSM was interpreted by Pasha as defeat of the TNSM. In fact, he proclaimed in January, 2008, that the TNSM had been defeated and the writ of the Government re-established in the Swat Valley. His claim proved to be premature and incorrect.

After a comparative lull, the TNSM staged a comeback and resumed the fighting. The newly elected government, headed by the Awami National Party (ANP), which came into office in Peshawar  after the elections of February 18,2008, proposed peace talks with Fazlullah. He agreed to it. Similarly, Rehman Mallik, the adviser to the Ministry of Interior, took the initiative for peace talks with Baitullah Mehsud, which caused concern to the US and criticism in the Pakistan People's Party because of the alleged involvement of Baitullah in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. While the move for peace talks with Baitullah was abandoned by the Federal Government, the peace talks initiated by the NWFP Government with the TNSM collapsed due to the government's inability to meet the demands put up by Fazlullah for the release of all his men arrested during the operations in the Swat Valley and the withdrawal of all the cases registered against the clerics and madrasa students after the commando action in the Lal Masjid of Islamabad in July last year. As a result, fighting has again resumed in the Swat Valley. While the TNSM has not been able to re-establish its territorial control in the Valley, it has undertaken a series of hit and run raids on the security forces and acts of suicide terrorism. A war of attrition has been going on in the Swat Valley and the security forces have not so far been able to damage effectively the conventional fighting capability of the TNSM. The TNSM forces fighting in the Swat Valley have reportedly been joined by a number of Punjabi cadres of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) headed by Maulana  Masood Azhar.

 The Pakistan Army, reportedly under pressure from the US, opened a second front against the followers of the TTP in the Bajaur Agency in the beginning of August, 2008, after the visit of Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani to Washington DC in the last week of July. Despite the use of helicopter gunships and repeated air strikes, the Army has not been able to subdue the Taliban forces fighting against it in the Bajaur Agency for nearly two months now. Here too, the immediate objective is not territorial control, but steady attrition. While the conventional fighting in the Swat Valley is commanded and co-ordinated by Fazlullah, the Taliban attacks in the Bajaur Agency are commanded and co-ordinated by  Maulana Faqir Mohammad, who was accused by US sources in January,2006,  of planning to host a dinner at his Damadola village in Bajaur Agency on January 13,2006, for Ayman al-Zawahiri, the NO.2 to Al Qaeda. A US attack with missiles killed a number of innocent civilians, but Zawahiri was not hit. It was not even known whether he attended the dinner or not. The Maulana rejected the allegations of his planned dinner for Zawahiri  as baseless and fabricated  by the US  to justify the killing of innocent civilians.

Faqir Mohammed, who was born in 1970 in the Bajaur Agency, started his career in the TNSM under Maulana Sufi Mohammad, its former Amir, and had fought against the invading US forces  in Afghanistan along with Sufi Mohammad in October,2001.

When a large number of TNSM cadres died in the US air strikes, Sufi Mohammad and Faqir Mohammad along with the survivors fled back into the FATA. While Sufi Mohammad was arrested by the Pakistani authorities and kept in detention for nearly six years, Faqir Mohammad escaped arrest and has been looking after the TNSM in the Bajaur Agency as its local Amir. He   is a member of the Mommand tribe. The TNSM in the Bajaur Agency is being helped by a large number of Punjabi cadres of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) of Qari Saifullah Akhtar, who was named by Benazir as possibly involved in the failed attempt to kill her at Karachi on October 18,2007, when she returned from political exile. Recent media reports in Pakistan had alleged that the HUJI is one of the principal suspects in the huge explosion outside the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on September 20,2008.

 While there are no reports of any largescale involvement of Arabs of Al Qaeda and Uzbeks of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) in the current fighting in the Swat Valley, there are reports of the involvement of many of them in the fighting in the Bajaur Agency. In addition to the TNSM cadres of Faqir Mohammad and the HUJI cadres, there are four other groups, which have been fighting against the security forces in the Bajaur agency. These are a splinter group of the TNSM headed by one Dr.Ismail, which is reportedly based in Damadola, a group of the Afghan Taliban based in Charmang, which is headed by Qari Ziaur Rehman, a group called Jaishul Islam headed by Qari Wali Rehman and a group headed by Maulvi Naimatullah based in the Salarzai area. Source reports say that the largest number of Arabs and Uzbeks are with the Afghan Taliban group headed by Ziaur Rehman.

The Pakistan Army claimed on September 24,2008, that Qari Ziaur Rahman and Qari Wali Rehman were injured in clashes with the security forces. While a spokesman of Wali Rehman confirmed this report, there has been no confirmation of the Army claim about injuries to Ziaur Rahman. The TTP is a conglomeration of nearly 20 different tribal groups, assisted by the JEM and the HUJI from the Punjab and they have been co-ordinating their autonomous operations against the security forces quite well. It is not clear what role Baitullah plays in this co-ordination and whether there is a common operational command and control assisting him in this.

Even more unclear is the line of command in respect of the acts of terrorism, including suicide terrorism, in the tribal and non-tribal areas. These terrorist attacks have targeted a large variety of hard targets -- many of them military establishments -- in Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Lahore, Sargodha, Kohat, Peshawar, Tarbella Gazi etc.It is also not clear as to how many of these strikes were undertaken by self-radicalised jihadis (Jundullahs or Soldiers of Allah) with no organisational affiliation and how many were undertaken by volunteers of different Taliban groups. Who selects the targets? Who trains the volunteers? Who co-ordinates the strikes? Many of these strikes would not have been possible without precise intelligence. Who collects the intelligence? How do suicide bombers repeatedly manage to avoid the security checks as was seen in the case of the bomb blast outside the Marriott Hotel?

A truck packed with 600 KGs of military-grade explosives and a large quantity of aluminia powder managed to reach Islamabad without being checked and detected at any of the security barriers on the road. How did it manage it?  What is the extent of complicity of the security personnel responsible for physical and road security? What is the role of Al Qaeda, the IMU and the IJU in this?  Are the various terrorist strikes being undertaken by the Amirs of each of the Taliban groups autonomously or are these being planned and organised by a common command and control? Where is this command and control located? What is the role of Baitullah in this command and control? There are no satisfactory answers to these questions.

In the meanwhile, rumours about his death have raised the question as to what will be the effect of his death, if it comes about, on the conventional as well as unconventional  operations of the TTP. In fact, two days ago, there were rumours of his death, but these were refuted by his spokesmen. The role of Baitullah has been similar to that of bin Laden in respect of Al Qaeda's global operations----inspiration, motivation and guidance, where necessary, and not day-to-day control. The various Taliban groups enjoy and have exhibited considerable autonomy of operation. It is, therefore, assessed that Baitullah's death will not have a major adverse effect on the operations of Al Qaeda and the various Taliban and Uzbek groups in the tribal belt.  One of his deputies may take over as the new Amir of the TTP.

B Raman