Saturday, August 08, 2009

How Will Baitullah Mehsud's Death Affect Pakistan And Its War Against The Taliban?

It is worth considering in some detail the repercussions of Baitullah Mehsud's death. While I don't claim to have all the answers, I will attempt to highlight here what I consider to be the most important questions in the aftermath of this event.

1. How significant is the potential for a succession struggle?

Any time an organization has a leader to replace -- whether it be a terrorist organization or an investment bank or a law firm -- there exists the possibility of succession disputes and splintering. This is particularly true for organizations that are opaque and secretive in their business, such as insurgent organizations or mafia groups, because there is a greater probability that signals are missed, misinformation is spread, jealousy is improperly and violently channeled, and power struggles within the organization take precedence over the organization's external dealings. With teachers unions or modern democratic parties, for instance, all members are privy to the same information -- even if they don't share the same goals -- and as such there is less room for misperceptions leading to escalating internecine conflict. This is patently not the case for the TTP.

In the TTP's case, there have been three names bandied about: Waliur Rehman (who is said to be the favorite at this point), Hakeemullah Mehsud (think Sonny Corleone in terms of disposition and character) and Azmatullah Mehsud (the darkhorse). We don't know as yet how this will play out, but there is a chance that elements within the TTP turn on themselves. We must recall that the TTP, as it is presently constituted, is a very new entity -- it was formed no more than two years ago as an umbrella organization for the various factions and tribes that make up what we nominally refer to as the Pakistani (and Afghan) Taliban. It is widely acknowledged that Baitullah's forceful and charismatic leadership played an integral role in ensuring a fair degree of unity within the TTP's ranks; with his departure, it is unclear how strong the bonds that tie the many elements of the TTP together will be.

In short, though by no means overwhelmingly likely, there exists a fair possibility of short-term power struggles and splintering, even if the underlying reasons for the TTP's formation have not significantly changed.

2. How, if at all, will this affect the way Pakistan battles the Taliban?

The answer to this question is contingent on a number of other questions. For instance, if the TTP does splinter, then it makes Pakistan's ability to fight the war at once more difficult and easier. It becomes more difficult because instead of facing one centralized enemy, it could conceivably face attacks from various mini-organizations, concomitant with a compromised ability to gather information and intelligence about its foes. On the other hand, with splintering comes great opportunities for divide-and-conquer; in particular, Pakistan's leadership and military would have a greater likelihood of playing off various groups against each other -- which is how Pakistan, for better or worse, prefers to fight this war.

One must also consider the possiblities if there isn't an organizational reshuffle within the TTP. Suppose, for instance, that the TTP remains intact, exactly as before -- with the same capabilities to wreak destruction. What then? The answer depends on how Baitullah's death affects their intentions, or goals. Will Baitullah's death change what the TTP wants to do?

Maybe. One possible change that could occur is a greater focus on Afghanistan, which Arif Rafiq alludes to as well. Baitullah's geographic roots lie closer to Pakistan than Afghanistan; the region closer to the Afghan border is more under the control of the rival Waziri tribe than the Mehsuds. Combined with the various possibilities of a directional change in leadership, it could be the case that the TTP, in effect, sues for peace with Pakistan to direct its resources against US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Such a change in organizational goals, it must be noted, would take a while to be instituted.

Conversely, the TTP could become more aggressive against the Pakistani state and its civilians. Consider that since the wide-ranging offensive undertaken against the Taliban began in May this year, the Taliban have been generally muted in their response. The levels of violence that Pakistani civilians have been subjected this year have been considerably lower than the highs of 2007 and 2008. The killing of their popular (popular to them, it must be emphasized) leader might lead the TTP to launch a series of reprisal attacks designed to intimidate the Pakistan military and sow the seeds of disunity amongst the public.

3. What will be the impact on public opinion?

One of the big foreign policy questions in Pakistan over the last eighteen months has been what role, if any, American drones should play in Pakistan's war against the Taliban. Under the rule of Presidents Musharraf and Bush -- removed from office five months apart -- CIA-operated drones were introduced but limited in the extent to which they were deployed. Under Presidents Zardari and Obama, the use of drones has increased precipitously, all the while maintaining a disingenuous public stance on their use (the Americans don't say anything about them, the Pakistanis publicly denounce them and privately back them). The controversy over the drones has been two-fold. First, they are accused of violating Pakistan's sovereignty. Second, their efficacy has been disputed; it is not at all clear that they don't create more terrorists with collateral damage than they actually kill.

The first issue, in my view, is overblown. As mentioned, the government of Pakistan has given the U.S. the green light to use the drones. As the freely and fairly elected representatives of the Pakistani population, it is fair to presume that the government speaks for the people in interactions with other states. In addition, the violation of Pakistan's sovereignty in the tribal areas was first committed by the Taliban. As I have mentioned before, sovereignty is like virginity: it can logically only be violated once. As soon as the Taliban set up shop and challenged the state in FATA, the state could no longer claim to exercise a monopoly on the legitimate use of force on its territory. Put differently, the state could no longer claim sovereignty in those areas.

The second issue is more worthy of consideration. With every innocent life lost, Pakistan's counter-insurgent strategy risked greater failure. Despite the fact that the drones promised (and, for the most part, delivered) greater accuracy, collateral damage is never completely avoidable when force is used. When combined with the rampant anti-Americanism in the country, the use of drones and their claiming of civilian life meant that Pakistan's leaders would have greater difficulties in convincing their population that this was "their" war, and a war worth fighting. In turn, this made it more difficult to fight the war at all, since any counter-insurgency war depends greatly on local and popular support.

Baitullah's death should help the government in this regard, if they use it correctly. The leadership must frame Baitullah's death as a success for Pakistan, not for the U.S. The government should mount an all-out informational regurgitating campaign, tying Baitullah to the death of thousands of Pakistanis, including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. For once, Asif Zardari can prove useful to Pakistan. He must remind Pakistanis that it was his wife that was killed by Baitullah in the midst of a vicious campaign of violence to destabilize Pakistan in the years of 2007 and 2008. Him and his government must make the case, again and again over the next few days, that Baitullah was an enemy of Pakistan, and his death -- however unpopular the methods that brought it about may be -- is an unmitigated victory for Pakistanis.


AKS said...

Good stuff. The fact that the TTP has not yet appointed a successor - its been three days since Baitullah's death alludes to their being a possible disagreement between the various Taliban leaders.

One should also consider the role Al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban leaders will play in the TTP power struggle. A major reason Baitullah being so effective was the support he received from groups outside of the core TTP, including Al-Qaeda.

The Pakistani government seems to recognize this, in Dawn's interestingly titled lead "Good riddance, killer Baitullah" an unnamed government official states "I think the Haqqani-Al Qaeda network will play a pivotal role in the whole [leadership] process."

In terms of the consequences of a change in leadership I don't think that this is going to result in policy change by the TTP; I don't see the TTP refocusing its energies on Afghanistan. However, whoever the new leader is they'll have really huge shoes to fill - Baitullah Mehsud was perhaps the most charismatic militant out there, he had a meteoric rise and he managed to consolidate power ruthlessly. In many ways he was the true successor to Mullah Omar.

The thing that scares me, and which you point out, is what the Pakistani government does next. They've been very good in framing his death as a success for Pakistan, and have referred to the drone attack as a joint operation. But they need to keep this focus and use the goodwill to go after the TTP and other groups in Waziristan; no more deals, no more wasting time, the TTP is unsettled and the Pakistani Army (with assistance from US drones) needs to go in after them.

Bm said...

I think that it's almost inevitable there would be rifts among the deputies. Differences in strategies, disagreements with Baitullah himself, and as many visions to the organization as there are possible successors. I've posted something similar here:

Xeb said...

Err, assuming he's dead ofcourse. Also assuming he actually existed to begin with. Speaking of actually existing, whatever happened to our friend Osama?

Anonymous said...

Jeez... WHAT a boring post

takhalus said...

i love the sov is like virginity line haha.. the worry is that the army wont take this opportunity to make headway in FATA. As Kamran Shafi has written recently there are concerns the establishment is holding on to people like Fazlullah as assets again

ibteda. said...

Members of a Mehsud tribe Jirga held here in Islamabad, believe that Mehsud is alive and has only been taken off the scene.
While the combined effort in launching the Drone attack is not disputed, the White House still refuses to confirm the news directly, preferring only to say that they have found out from 'reliable' sources.
I don’t really believe that Behsud has been killed. Anyways, Fazlullah is still alive and kicking. I don’t think this whole death hype is anything but a distraction.

ibteda. said...

Members of a Mehsud tribe Jirga held here in Islamabad, believe that Mehsud is alive and has only been taken off the scene.
While the combined effort in launching the Drone attack is not disputed, the White House still refuses to confirm the news directly, preferring only to say that they have found out from 'reliable' sources.
I don’t really believe that Behsud has been killed. Anyways, Fazlullah is still alive and kicking. I don’t think this whole death hype is anything but a distraction.

Butters said...

I don't know what to make of it.

Ahsan said...


I'm pretty sure he's dead. I'm not surprised they're trying to cover it up, but they waited too long in doing so. With previous attempts on his life, the Taliban denied it IMMEDIATELY. Here they took about 3-4 days to do so.

And yeah, Osama's disappeared into thin air.


I'm sorry.


It's all about tactics vs. goals for me. The distinction of good/bad Taliban is fine with me ONLY insofar as operational considerations are concerned. That is, if they're trying to divide and conquer and knock them out one at a time, that's fine. The danger arises when the good/bad Taliban distinction carries into broader strategic goals, which is what I think you're referring to.


As I told Xeb, I think he's dead. But you may be right in the sense that this episode may be nothing other than a distraction in the wider war.

saesneg said...

I've no idea how reliable he is, but I read on Twitter that Hamid Mir on GEO is saying he is alive.

Take from that what you will.

FZ said...

gut tells me he's dead...The News is reporting that Hakimullah (supposed successor) just got killed in an intra-terrorist shoot'em up...may be somebody will do a Betullah-Hakimullah comedy routine ala Sami-ullah - Kaleemullah from the 80s...

Tan said...

Hakimullah Mehsud dead too?

"A Pakistani government official and an intelligence official said Hakimullah Mehsud, a young and aggressive aide to the former Taliban leader, had been shot dead in a fight with Waliur Rehman, another commander who was seeking to become the leader, during a meeting in a remote mountain region near the Afghan border."

Hira S. said...

seems the dispute's underway.

err...should i say "YEAY!"?

(excuse the rhyme)

Ahsan said...


When you combine the bastions of reliability that are Twitter and Hamid Mir, there's no option BUT to believe it.

FZ, Tan and Hira S:

Yes, occasionally I get a prediction right. Not that this was a particularly hard one, mind.