by Maryyum Mehmood
Following the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leadership has come under the control of Mullah Fazlullah. In the past week since the decision was announced, much analysis has been made of this in both the domestic Pakistani and international press, painting a mixed picture for the future of this already tumultuous region. This piece seeks to briefly assess the effect of Fazlullah’s induction on the TTP’s internal structure, and the wider implications this will have on the Pakistani government’s security policy and ultimately, the prospects of the already long-stalled peace talks.
38 year old Fazlullah, like the overwhelming majority of his TTP comrades, has had no formal education. A one time ski-lift operator in his native Swat valley, Fazlullah was notorious for his fervent hate speeches directed towards the Pakistani state, which were broadcast around local villages through the interception of private radio stations. Fazlullah flourished under the leadership of Sufi Muhammad, founder of the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), a banned outfit whose aim it was to coerce the Pakistani state into implementing a violent, tribal-brand of Sharia law to govern the whole of Pakistan. It was here that Fazlullah’s role as Sufi’s right-hand man enabled the TNSM to wreck havoc in the once quaint Valley of Swat. Soon after, this relationship was cemented with familial ties, with Fazlullah marrying one of his leader’s daughters. Fazlullah took complete control of the Swat region, in February 2009, when the Pakistani government appeased the TNSM, by signing a pact which would restrict the activities of the Taliban to Swat alone. It was not long before Fazlullah broke the established ceasefire, leading to the Pakistani army operation Rah-e Rast (Right Path) in May 2009. While countless TNSM members were captured during the operation, the near-fatally wounded Fazlulluah, managed to escape across the border to Afghanistan.
Interestingly, in the four years since the operation, Fazlullah has established strong connections inside of Afghanistan, where he has set up bases in both the Nuristan and Kunar provinces. Despite this, alarmingly, Karzai and Afghan authorities seem unconcerned and will most likely be willing to engage in talks with Fazlullah. Moreover, this shift in the locus of power from North Waziristan, Pakistan to the Eastern provinces of Afghanistan would have grave repercussions for the TTP. If he decides to hold base in Afghanistan, while it means that Fazlullah would evade the Pakistani army, the physical absence of an authoritative leader could mean the weakening and eventual collapse of the outfit as we know it. Furthermore, Fazlullah’s reign might be short-lived considering that he is the TTP’s first leader selected from outside the Mehsud tribal clan, from which the majority of its members belong. This again, might give way for inter-group rivalry and signal a split within the TTP, causing it to disperse into smaller (and weaker) factions.
Fazlullah’s propulsion into the forefront of the TTP must give the Pakistani government a sense of déjà vu. Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N led government will, like its PPP predecessor, defiantly call for the halt of drone strikes, demanding that Pakistan can defeat the TTP menace on its own accord. However, Sharif‘s government will probably be less keen to call for army action in the region of Waziristan, in a similar operation that we saw in Swat (2009). Military action seems a highly unlikely move at this moment in time, not just because of the fragile situation, but also because Sharif is not one to make such risky moves until he is driven to the brink. The events of past few weeks have certainly put a dampener on the already slow-paced ‘peace talks’ that were set to be negotiated between the Pakistan government and the TTP under Hakimullah Mehsud. Unlike the TTP’s founder Baitullah, Hakimullah hinted at the possibility of non-violent engagement, by declaring his interest in conducting peace talks with the Pakistani government, just days before his killing. With the entrance of Fazlullah, it appears that peace talks are again back to square one and the Pakistani government has been put back into an-all-too-familiar stalemate situation.