Taliban Tracker

TTP under Mullah Fazlullah: What Next for the Pakistani Taliban?

14 Feb, 2014    ·   4308

D Suba Chandran analyses the implications of Mullah Fazlullah's accession as the head of the Pakistani Taliban leadership, for the outfit.

Almost two months after the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, the former head of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), by a drone attack in the Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where does the TTP stand today? Is it demoralised, or renewed, under the leadership of the new head, Mullah Fazlullah? More importantly, how would the TTP evolve from here, under the leadership of its new leader, who is believed to have been personally chosen by Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban?

Will Fazlullah make the TTP a more “veritable arm” of the Afghan Taliban and fight for its political cause in Afghanistan? Or will he convert it into a jihadi organization, fighting for a religious cause within Pakistan?

TTP Today: Has it Become Weak after the Assassination of Hakimullah Mehsud?
On the first question, today, the TTP has certainly not been weakened. Despite losing several of its leaders (more due to drone attacks, instead of Pakistan’s anti-militancy operations), the TTP remains a deadly organisation. Recent attacks, even after the assassination of Hakimullah Mehsud late last year, proves how active the TTP has remained.

Mullah Fazlullah’s measured response to the Pakistani State’s offer for talks also highlights the absence of panic and/or anxiety in the TTP ranks. In a calculated move, it has announced a committee consisting Maulana Abdul Aziz,  Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-S) leader Maulana Sami ul Haq, and Jamat-e-Islami (JI) leader Professor Mohammad Ibrahim; two more nominated members, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) leader Mufti Kifayatullah, refused to be a part of this committee.

The fact that the TTP has chosen leaders of political parties as its representatives illustrates the confidence it has. On the other hand, the political leadership in Pakistan has displayed a lot of angst and undertaken extensive preparation, cutting across party lines.  The All Parties Meeting for the umpteenth time recommended initiating a talk about talks with the Pakistani Taliban, again.  Clearly, the TTP still thinks it is not weakened vis-à-vis the State.

The second set of questions – on the implications of Mullah Fazlullah reportedly being chosen by Mullah Omar himself – warrants a larger discussion, not just in Pakistan, but also in Afghanistan, India, and the rest of international community.

Ever since its creation, the TTP’s leadership remained with the Mehsuds in North and South Waziristan. Former leaders such as Baitullah and Hakimullah belonged to the Mehsud clan of the Pashtun ethnic group. They were chosen by the Shura, or imposed themselves over the latter, due to their clout and fighting power. Today, it is widely believed that the Mehsuds in general and the TTP leadership in Waziristan in particular, were supported by the al Qaeda and its affiliates such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

TTP Tomorrow: Will it Become Deadly Under Mullah Fazlullah?
Mullah Fazlullah, who has taken over as the new leader of the TTP is no ordinary militant. The previous leaders of the TTP – both Baitullah Mehsud and his successor Hakimullah Mehsud – were more aggressive in nature, using violence as a strategy against the Pakistani Establishment. Neither of them were trained in religious discourse; and nor did they use religion even in a crude form. They imposed their own version of Islam.

Mullah Fazlullah is completely different in this context. He is a ‘Mullah’; in fact, he is referred as “Radio Mullah” for his effective use of FM to propagate his own version of Islam. As a leader of the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, (TNSM) which later became the Swat Taliban, he propagated his own version of Islam. Unlike Baituallh and Hakimullah, Fazlullah believed in a religious cause for implementing the Shariah. As a leader of the TNSM, one of his as well as his father-in-law and TNSM founder, Sufi Muhammad’s, main demands has been to implement the Shariah law in Pakistan. Mullah Fazlullah has also been anti-women; he had girls’ schools bulldozed and imposed a strict code on women, restricting their movements in public places in Swat. From polio vaccination to music CDs, he has had an extremely narrow interpretation of religion.

This is where one could expect the main difference in the TTP’s focus under Fazlullah, as compared to that of the Mehsuds. Neither Baitullah nor Hakimullah Mehsud attempted to impose their version of Islam. In fact, it would not be wrong even to state that both the Mehsuds did not even have a version of Islam that they attempted to impose. They were ruthless more in carrying out a violent vendetta against the State of Pakistan, than attempting to change its society. The sectarian attacks were perpetrated by the TTP franchisees rather than the main group in Waziristan.

Operationally, Mullah Fazlullah is equally ruthless as the Mehsuds have been vis-à-vis the Pakistani Establishment. In fact the military had to fight a bloody battle to recapture Swat valley from Fazlullah. 

Furthermore, under Fazlullah’s leadership, the TTP is likely to undergo a major transformation in terms of its linkages with the Afghan Taliban and Mullah Omar. Since Fazlullah himself has been fighting in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province, it is unlikely that his focus would remain focussed only against the Pakistani State.

The above suppositions need a deeper and wider analysis. More importantly, it is highly likely that Fazlullah might become a bridge between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. What would that mean? To use Admiral Mike Mullen’s phrase, “will the TTP become a veritable arm of the Afghan Taliban?” What would be the implications if that happens?