By Brig Asif Haroon Raja
Prior to and during general election campaign in 2013, the TTP militants stepped up attacks against pro-US and anti-Taliban liberal political parties and spared the conservative parties like PML-N, PTI, JUI and JI that were soft towards the Taliban and were desirous of peace talks to end the war. When liberal parties excepting MQM were routed in May 11 elections and PML-N formed governments in the centre and Punjab and coalition government in Balochistan and PTI led the coalition government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), apparently the ground looked leveled for talks between the government and TTP. However, death of pro-peace Waliur Rahman, deputy of Hakeemullah Mehsud, along with his six close companions by a drone on May 30 vitiated the atmosphere. It was a setback for the pro-talks elements within TTP and for the government since it further hardened the stance of anti-peace hardliners in TTP led by Hakimullah to avenge Wali’s death.
Nawaz Sharif’s offer of talks to the militants sharpened the division between pro and anti-peace elements within TTP. When TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan, Punjabi Taliban leader Asmatullah Muawia and Khan Said, alias Sajna who had replaced Wali as Hakimullah’s deputy welcomed Nawaz’s offer of dialogue, Hakimullah in a huff sacked them. He replaced Sajna with Latif Mehsud, but none complied with his orders, which indicated his loosening grip.
Nawaz government realizing that economic health of the country couldn’t be revitalized without peaceful conditions organized APC on September 9, 2013 to push the peace process. Much to the chagrin of anti-peace lobbies, the APC passed a unanimous resolution seeking dialogue with the militants without pre-conditions. Positive response from the TTP welcoming the outcome of APC gave reason to believe that chances of peace talks had brightened. Encouraged by TTP’s friendly gestures, the KP government on September 14 announced withdrawal of troops from Upper Dir, Malakand and Buner but the euphoria dashed on the following day when Fazlullah led men killed Maj Gen Sanaullah Niazi and two other soldiers with IED in Upper Dir and TTP jubilantly claimed responsibility.
Soon after, a church was attacked by two suicide bombers in Peshawar, followed by a bomb blast in a bus carrying government employees, terrorist attack in Kissa Khawani and murder of PTI MPA. Notwithstanding that the TTP disowned these attacks, the incidents did rattle the peace process and gave heart to anti-peace brigade to censure PML-N and PTI for advocating talks with anti-Pakistan forces. They said that Khurasani led group and Jundullah group which claimed attacks on church and on Kissa Khawani respectively are parts of TTP. Their argument became weighty when TTP spokesman stated that from Shariah point of view, attacks were not illegal.
The TTP further complicated matters by coming out with pre-conditions. It demanded release of prisoners, withdrawal of Army from FATA and cessation of drone attacks before ceasefire and negotiations. Of all the issues, drone became the main bone of contention. Ceased with this problem, Nawaz raised this issue during his address to the UN General Assembly in end September and also during his meeting with Obama on October 23. Although Obama didn’t give any firm commitment but he assured him that the US would support peace dialogue. This was interpreted as an assurance that no drone attack would take place during the talk’s process. Interior Minister Ch Nisar doubled his efforts to achieve a breakthrough and according to him a delegation of three Ulema acceptable to both sides was to fly to North Waziristan (NW) at 10 a.m. on 01 November to hold talks with TTP delegation the same evening and all modalities had been tied up. Hakimullah had agreed to hold talks and had come to his village in NW to tie up final details of the planned meeting.
However, on October 31, Hakimullah who carried USA’s $ 5 million head bounty was killed by a drone in his newly constructed house in Danda Darpakhel close to Miranshah. Both Nisar and Imran consider the drone attack as murder of peace process and hold the US responsible for it. JUI-F, JI and other religious groups are also of the same view and maintain that the US is not a friend of Pakistan and is against peace talks. They have asked for reviewing relations with USA. Imran went a step ahead by stating that if the government failed to come out with proper strategy to deal with American vandalism, his government in KP would halt NATO supplies through Torkham. His party says that US aid has reduced Pakistan to a slave country and it is time to get rid of this fatal addiction. Pro-talks parties are urging the government to redouble efforts to start peace process to foil designs of the enemies.
The Acting Chief of TTP Shura Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani and TTP spokesman Shahidullah have stated that no talks will be held with the puppet government beholden to USA and threatened that Hakimullah’s death will be avenged since the attack couldn’t have materialized without government’s connivance and provision of ground intelligence. They said so in the backdrop of confirmed reports of Musharraf and Zardari regimes secretly colluding with the US in drone war. But most fingers are pointing at arrested Latif Mehsud, or pro-peace elements within TTP. PML-N could become the future leading target of TTP, alleged to have played a double game and betrayed the trust.
Gen Musharraf and anti-peace brigade have rejoiced the death of Hakimullah. They say that a serial killer has ultimately been dispatched to hell. They are criticizing Nisar and Imran for their overreaction and those giving status of Shaheed to Hakimullah whose hands were drenched in blood of thousands of innocent people. They are also highlighting dangerous implications arising out of halting of supply lines and breakup of relations with USA at a time when Pakistan’s economy is gasping for life. The PPP, MQM and ANP have opposed KP government’s resolution to block supply lines after 20th. A visible split has emerged on the issue of blockage of supply lines.
Some are of the view that Hakimullah’s death may help in removing differences and in unifying militants. However, split has occurred within TTP ranks which may widen. Apart from the altercation between pro-peace and anti-peace talks in which the balance is tilted heavily towards the former, the TTP took one week to elect the new chief. The leading contenders were Maulana Fazlullah, Hafiz Saeed Khan (leader of TTP chapter Orakzai Agency), Maulana Gul Zaman from Orakzai tribe (TTP Ameer in Khyber Agency), Khan Said and Khurasani. Although Khan Said has a bigger following among tribal chiefs in South and North Waziristan and is pro-talks, however, Fazlullah who is the most aggressive and ruthless TTP leader among them has been nominated as the new chief of TTP and Sheikh Khalid Haqqani as his deputy. His election has changed the whole scenario.
Hakimullah was targeted by CIA after obtaining ground intelligence under the premise that his death would be widely hailed in Pakistan and that the US would have another scalp in its bag to brag about. CIA had a personal score to settle since Hakimullah had masterminded the deadly suicide attack against CIA Camp in Khost in December 2009 in which seven CIA agents were killed. With only one year left in ISAF’s pullout from Afghanistan and with mounting world pressure against use of drones, the US seem to be in a hurry to eliminate all the high profile terrorists on both sides of the Durand Line. Hakimullah was useful to USA and its allies as long as he was fighting Pak security forces and playing no role in war within Afghanistan. The moment he got inclined to peace talks, he turned from a good guy into a bad guy and was bumped off at a time when peace process in Pakistan was about to take off. His death is a reminder to prospective TTP leaders to do as told to do or else be-prepared for a horrible death.
Hakimullah’s death and Latif’s arrest are losses for dwindling Karzai regime and to India since the two were helping Indo-Afghan covert war to keep the western border, FATA and KP in turmoil. However, Fazlullah’s appointment as Ameer of TTP must have delighted Afghanistan and India since he has been following their instructions devotedly. Possibility of the two countries having played a role in Fazlullah’s selection cannot be ruled out. I have a hunch that he may preside over the disintegration of TTP.
Irrespective of the October 31 incident and impediments created by anti-talks lobbies, option of dialogue must be pursued. Political and religious leaders as well as Army and ISI must be on one page and all should jointly evolve a realistic strategy for conducting negotiations with TTP. Hope of a breakthrough with Fazlullah at the helms of affairs seems impossible. Current flux within TTP should be exploited by wooing and winning over pro-talks groups and isolating hardliners remote controlled by Fazlullah from Kunar. Selection of runaway Fazlullah as TTP chief fully in the grip of several foreign agencies and ignoring those who have preferred to stay within the battle zone should also be exploited. Till Fazlullah’s elevation, none from outside FATA had worn the crown. Out of four Ameers, three were from Mehsud tribe and one from Wazir tribe. While it will be problematic for Fazlullah to assert his authority over more than 50 groups operating under the wings of TTP, the Mehsuds in particular may sooner than later replace Fazlullah with another leader from their tribe.
Law enforcing and intelligence agencies must be prepared to counter upsurge in revengeful acts of terror during Muharram abetted by CIA-RAW-CDS nexus. Sudden rise in target killings in Karachi on 6 September by a militant wing of a political party is a warning call that coming days will witness increase in terrorism. Punjab government should also be prepared to face the onslaught of TTP in the wake of warning sounded by Bhittani that Punjab will be their primary target. It will be difficult for NW based TTP groups to target Punjab but easier for Punjabi Taliban to do so. GHQ should give finishing touches to their contingency plan of launching a major operation in NW to flush out anti-Pakistan groups.