The South Asia Channel

The succession question

By Imtiaz Gul

By confirming Baitullah Mehsud's death in an August 5 drone attack on the house of his father-in-law in the Zangara village of South Waziristan, his apparent successor Hakimullah Mehsud has finally put to rest the confusion and speculation surrounding the fate of the amir.

A couple of days after the August 5 attack on Baitullah, Hakimullah had claimed he would soon release a video of the TTP chief to prove that he was alive. But on August 25, Hakimullah called some Peshawar-based journalists to confirm the death of Baitullah Mehsud.

In this phone call, Hakimullah insisted the drone attack had left Baitullah Mehsud critically injured and sent him into a coma. He could not recover and eventually died "two days ago," Hakimullah told reporters over phone from an undisclosed location.

Hakimullah also insisted he had been unanimously made the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief by its shura, or leadership council, while Maulana Wali ur-Rehman was named leader of the Mehsud Taliban in South Waziristan.

He denied that there are any differences between himself and Wali ur-Rehman over the TTP leadership, contradicting the last few weeks of confusing announcements and proclamations from different spokesmen and leaders.

Although Wali ur-Rehman, another Mehsud contestant for the top slot, also confirmed Hakimullah Mehsud as the new TTP chief, based on some intelligence and confidential sources -- and in light of the extremely limited access to the embattled area -- I can tell you, the issue of succession remains shrouded in controversy.

(Read on)

Succession rumors

The issue remains somewhat contentious and doubtful on two counts; firstly, Maulvi Faqeer Mohammad, the TTP chief of the Bajaur agency -- one of the seven tribal regions bordering Afghanistan -- had claimed on August 20 that he had taken over as the head of the organization. Although he apparently withdrew from the contest soon thereafter, it remains to be seen whether he will throw his weight behind the new TTP leader.

And on August 26, a senior unnamed TTP commander called up a correspondent for the Pakistani daily The News to give his account of the circumstances that resulted in Baitullah's death. "Baitullah Mehsud, his wife and some of his close bodyguards died on the spot and their mutilated bodies were later recovered," said the Taliban commander. "We did not want to confirm his death earlier as it could have disheartened our people present everywhere in the country."

This account varies from what Hakimullah told reporters over the phone, and provides a glimpse of differences within the TTP. Some skeptics doubt that Hakimullah is alive, pointing to reports that emanated out of South Waziristan in the days following the initial news of Baitullah's death. Those reports talked of a fatal shootout between Hakimullah and Wali ur-Rehman during a shura meeting. Although TTP officials denied this the next day, some believe a look-alike brother of Hakimullah has actually been brought forward to head the organization. Independent confirmation of all these conflicting reports remains a challenge.

In the August 26 story in The News, the correspondent also quoted the unnamed commander as saying, "The Afghan Taliban played a key role in resolving differences among various TTP commanders...they negotiated with each and every commander to settle matters." Pakistani intelligence officials in Islamabad agreed the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda operatives might have helped prevent a vicious fight over the top TTP position, but they still sound a little skeptical as to whether the issue has been settled once for all.

These officials, and those familiar with the militant scene, however, agree that regardless of who eventually prevails as the TTP top leader, the successor had to be a Mehsud from South Waziristan for the simple reason that the Pakistani Taliban originated in that rugged and mountainous Mehsud-dominated area (similarly, most of the Afghan Taliban leaders also come from Kandahar and its vicinity, which was the birthplace of the Taliban movement).

"Baitullah's fellow Mehsuds in the TTP would not have agreed to pass on the leadership to anyone else. Neither Maulana Faqeer Muhammad... nor Maulana Fazlullah from Swat, Tariq Afridi from Darra Adamkhel and Abdul Wali alias Omar Khalid from Mohmand Agency had any fighting chance to head the organisation after Baitullah's death," wrote Rahimullah Yusufzai in The News on August 26.

Who is Hakimullah Mehsud?

The 27 year old close confidante of the erstwhile Baitullah Mehsud was responsible for TTP operations in Khyber, Orakzai, where until recently he spent most of his time. Additionally, he was also heading the anti-Shia campaign in Kurram agency, where the presence of TTP zealots was wreaking havoc on the Shia minority Pashtuns.

Some journalists who met him at an undisclosed location in Orakzai in the last week of November 2008 already viewed Hakimullah as the emerging deputy to Baitullah Mehsud.

The TTP militant invited journalists from Peshawar for that meeting, during which he said his targets included President Asif Ali Zardari and his allies for their ‘pro-American' policies.

Hakimullah, over six feet tall, radiates a certain charisma, and has also threatened on occasion to cut off supplies to American forces in Afghanistan if U.S. drone attacks continued. His people also displayed one of the two American Humvee military vehicles they had hijacked in Khyber Agency on November 10, 2008.

He also accused members of the central and provincial governments of "working to break up Pakistan in collaboration with the US." That is why Hakimullah's men not only unleashed a string of vicious attacks on the US-NATO military cargo vehicles destined for Afghanistan, particularly between November 2007 and March 2009, but also conducted several suicide attacks across Pakistan. Hakimullah owned up many of these attacks, which involved TTP-trained bombers.

Hakimullah, who studied in a madrassa for some years but didn't graduate as a mullah, has been commanding  a couple of thousand fighters in Orakzai, Kurram and Khyber agencies but would probably have to rely on Wali ur-Rehman for both manpower and resources to run the TTP in the Waziristan region.

Wali ur-Rehman is a Mehsud, cousin to both Baitullah and his close aide, and is likely retain control of the organizational matters in South Waziristan as he did for the last several years, when Baitullah was ailing. He thus should enjoy considerable clout as the local TTP amir.

Only the coming weeks and months will tell to what extent Wali ur-Rehman helps Hakimullah Mehsud consolidate his grip over the TTP and whether Hakimullah will be able to unify all the disparate TTP components like Baitullah did.

As far the Pakistani security agencies go, they still appear to be working to benefit from the visible disarray within the TTP and keep them divided as possible. It will be interesting to see who succeeds -- the Pakistani agencies, who see a fragmented TTP as a more manageable threat, or al Qaeda and its Afghan affiliates, who would leave no stone unturned to reunify all TTP factions into the same lethal entity that it was under Baitullah Mehsud. 

In essence, the so-called TTP-led "Jihad against the Americans" is likely to continue under Hakimullah Mehsud. Wali ur-Rehman also made this clear in his August 23 interview with the AP. But only time will tell to what extent has Baitullah's death dented this resolve and made the job easier for the Pakistani and U.S. forces in their struggles to whittle them down through a precise intelligence-based campaign in the Waziristan region.

Imtiaz Gul heads the Independent Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. He is the author of a recently released book called The Al-Qaeda Connection - Taliban and Terror in Tribal Areas. 

CHAND KHAN/AFP/Getty Images