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Reluctant fundamentalists


IN DISARRAY: The threat of drone strikes has led to a splintering of the Pakistan Taliban;Waliur Rehman (below right)

Waliur Rehman’s drone assassination on May 30 has left the Pakistan Taliban at its weakest since 2009. Most of its commanders are now war weary and want to find a political way out of the violence.

For a brief moment in May, Pakistanis held their breath at the fleeting prospect of a negotiated settlement with Taliban militants based in the northwest tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Throughout the campaign for the May 11 general election, Nawaz Sharif, now the prime minister, had voiced his determination to end the nine-year militant insurgency that has cost nearly 50, 000 lives through peace talks. Sharif also made a deft shift in his position by adopting the red lines army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had laid out in a rare public speech in April, in which he had said negotiations were only possible with militants who first laid down their arms and swore oaths of allegiance to the Pakistani state and constitution.

Subsequent silence from the military, and the perception that Sharif had the political pedigree and moral authority to seize the lead role in foreign and security policymaking from the generals, raised hopes of an end to terrorist attacks by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). "Sharif will impose the writ of the civilian government, and will initially try to gently push the military into accepting it. But if there's resistance, he won't accept it, " said Suhail Warraich, the political editor of Geo News, Pakistan's leading cable channel.

The ball for the talks was soon set rolling. Sharif and Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf party, which has formed a right-wing coalition in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province bordering the tribal areas, sounded out clericpoliticians Samiul Haq and Fazalur Rehman to see if they would be willing to act as intermediaries. Both had worked with the government in the 1990s to train young Pakistanis to fight for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Haq even boasted that the TTP's figurehead chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, was his former student, and that he could, given the authority, contact Mullah Mohammed Omar, the elusive Afghan Taliban chief, to arrange a grand tribal council meeting where talks could be initiated.

But the military's position remained unclear - until May 30, that is, when a CIA drone fired two missiles at a mud-brick house in North Waziristan, killing the TTP's operational chief, Waliur Rehman. The TTP was left with no doubt that Rehman's coordinates had been supplied by the Pakistani military. Nor were Haq and Rehman, who subsequently withdrew their offer to mediate. Analysts in Islamabad also agreed in private, since the military insists it opposes US drone strikes as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.

That dishonest national security narrative is mired, in part, in Afghanistan's impossible situation, ahead of the withdrawal of US and allied troops in December 2014. Pakistan's military dreads the prospect of a potentially antagonistic government in Kabul, because that would create a long-term strategic threat on its northwestern flank, weakening its ability to defend its eastern border with India. To that end, it has, to some extent, patronised the Afghan Taliban factions who relocated to Pakistan's tribal areas after Nato invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

The military discovered, in its operations between 2002 and 2004, and subsequently in 2006, that fighting both the Afghans and local Taliban in terrain suitable for guerrilla warfare was simply not possible. And so, in June 2004, the military signed a ceasefire agreement with Nek Mohammed, the first Pakistani Taliban leader, brokered by the head of the Afghan Haqqani network faction, Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Then the twist came. Mohammed was killed shortly afterwards in what became the first drone assassination, under an agreement brokered by Pervez Musharraf, the then military ruler of Pakistan. The pattern has continued since, with the first TTP chief, Baitullah Mehsud taken out by a drone in August 2009, followed by deputy leader Qari "The Bombmaker" Hussain Mehsud in October 2010. In fact, whenever the Haqqani network has refused to toe the line, or US pressure on cross-border attacks have built to breaking point, members of the Haqqani family and its top commanders have been eliminated in drone strikes.

Though the Pakistani military would hate to admit it, the threat of drone strikes had by 2010 led to a breakdown of the TTP command and control structure, and its splintering. Hakimullah Mehsud, its current leader, has lived in hiding with no more than 500 fighters, and in December he lost operational control of the Mehsud tribal faction of the TTP, the largest grouping.

Experts say that rather than weakening the prospects for peace, the death-by-drone on May 30 of Hakimullah Mehsud's de facto successor, Waliur Rehman, has left the terrorists at their weakest since 2009. "His death will create a crisis of leadership because there is no obvious successor, and Hakim is no position to make a comeback, " says Mansur Khan Mehsud, director of research at the Fata Research Centre, an independent Islamabad-based thinktank. Most Pakistan Taliban commanders are war weary and want to find a political way out, he says, before they are killed, whether by drones, or in military operations, or assassinated by rivals.

Tom Hussain is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad. Amjad Hadayat contributed to this article from Karachi.

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