Last week, the Pakistani Taliban appointed a new leader after its former chief, Maulana Fazlullah, was killed in a drone strike carried out by the United States in Afghanistan. The new leader of the Taliban, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, is considered a ruthless militant commander who has led the group’s activities in Pakistan’s urban areas, particularly Karachi.
In Pakistan, the group’s operational capacity has been degraded by the Pakistani security agencies after a comprehensive military operation against the militant outfit. However, the change in leadership may reunify the group in the near future and any such prospect is likely to challenge Pakistan’s ongoing counterterrorism efforts along the way.
The divisions within the group, expedited after the Pakistani military launched a military operation in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) a few years ago, were also partially the result of a leadership crisis which the militant outfit suffered after the death of Baitullah Mehsud. The appointment of Fazlullah was contested by various clans based in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The perception about Fazlullah’s appointment as the head of Pakistani Taliban was that he was an outsider and didn’t have much influence when it came to bringing all factions of the group together. Arguably, he never really had complete control over the militant group as the Mehsud tribe of South Waziristan never truly accepted Fazlullah’s leadership.
However, the appointment of Wali Mehsud has brought back the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban to its original base, where the group actually began its deadly reign of terror. “With the appointment of Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud the leadership of TTP has returned to Mehsud tribe in its home base South Waziristan as Fazlullah was from Swat,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, an analyst, and expert on the Taliban. Yusufzai further said that “Mehsud’s leadership could see the breakaway factions which emerged in the TTP after Fazlullah fled to Afghanistan in 2009 reunite.”
This is certainly not a good news for Pakistan. The groups should be expected to up the ante against Islamabad’s counter-terrorism policies in the coming weeks and months. Pakistan’s security agencies need to ensure that any sleeping cells of the group or other affiliates in the country’s urban areas do not establish links with the group’s new leadership or become active in terms of getting new recruits for the group. It has already been reported that at one time, Mehsud ran militant operations in Karachi, which calls for extreme vigilance on the part of Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts. Arguably, Mehsud is likely to exploit his operational experience to not only demonstrate that his appointment as the head of the group is not only an effective judgement on the part of the group’s leadership, but will also try to reassert the group’s downgraded relevance as a terror threat.
On the other hand, the recent rapprochement between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has created hopes for cooperation between the two countries, is also likely to result in more action against the Pakistani Taliban leadership that is based in Afghanistan. In the coming months, if Pakistan is able to convince the Afghan Taliban about beginning a comprehensive reconciliation process with the government in Afghanistan, Islamabad can expect more action from Washington and Kabul when it comes to targeting anti-Pakistan groups based in Afghanistan.
If the recent developments are any indication, Islamabad appears to be working with Kabul and Washington to build some sort of consensus concerning the Afghan peace process. There appears to be a willingness on the part of the United States to accommodate Pakistan’s security fears in Afghanistan that Islamabad has always demanded for any reconciliation process to move forward successfully. In this regard, the sanctuaries of the Pakistani Taliban are one of Islamabad’s fears that the government in Afghanistan and the United States appear to be willing to address. The government in Afghanistan has not blamed Pakistan for any recent militant attacks in the country and both countries are being seen as making efforts to build trust and work on security aspects which have always remained as a source of confrontation.
Islamabad is likely to ensure that the Pakistani Taliban do not find space to reunite under the new leadership, which would certainly pose a challenge to the country’s security. If the overall security situation improves in Afghanistan during the next few months, Islamabad may very well see the Pakistani Taliban becoming further isolated in Afghanistan. However, if the security situation in Afghanistan worsens, Kabul is not likely to keep up the pressure on the Pakistani Taliban sanctuaries in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has a chance to isolate an already downgraded militant group if the country decides to completely support the Afghan peace process.