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Page last updated at 17:11 GMT, Friday, 7 August 2009 18:11 UK

Pakistan Taliban - what if?

Pakistani people in a camp for displaced persons read newspapers carrying articles about the death of Baitullah Mehsud
Speculation about Baitullah Mehsud's death spread quickly in Pakistan

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

Baitullah Mehsud, the feared militant commander in Pakistan, appears to have ended his career in much the same way as he had started - by keeping a low profile.

Speculation about whether he is dead or alive is rife across Pakistan - from the mountainous tribal territory of South Waziristan to the capital Islamabad.

But the ambiguity surrounding his reported death may well persist. Nobody has as yet been willing or able to confirm his demise.

We do know that the missile which struck the remote corner of South Waziristan, Baitullah Mehsud's tribal stronghold, killed one of his wives.

But only days later did news trickle out that the Taliban commander may have perished in the attack too.

Rapid response

The Taliban have a strategy of blocking traffic to any area where missiles hit, so that the number of casualties and the identities of the dead remain unknown.

They often bury the dead immediately to remove evidence.

As to whether he is dead or alive, there are three possible ways of getting some clarity.

  • Communication intercepts may well pick up some news from key sources
  • Ground intelligence might yield clues, although the government denies it has sources on the ground
  • The Taliban may announce his death and could even announce his successor

If he is gone, it will lead to a dramatic re-orientation of his Pakistani Taliban movement, Tehrik Taliban.

Rubble of houses belonging to supporters of Baitullah Mehsud
Security forces have targeted Baitullah Mehsud's supporters

For a year after his 2004 appointment as the chief commander of the Mehsud tribe by the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, Mr Mehsud stayed away from the limelight, allowing other local commanders to hog the headlines.

In the past few months, he withdrew into the hole again, severing all contact with the press and reducing his mobility to avoid missile strikes from suspected US drones.

The most immediate impact would be felt by his Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is now open to all kinds of possibilities.

It may be headed by one of his trusted commanders and carry on as before, or it may transform into a more mainstream Taliban organisation with a wider focus.

TTP was formed in December 2007, and marked a watershed in the recent history of militancy in the region.

It decisively turned against Pakistan, a move over which both Afghani and Pakistani Taliban had reservations because they believed this would distract the TTP from fighting foreign forces in Afghanistan.

But Baitullah Mehsud displayed a remarkable talent for alliance-making and was able to extend the TTP's influence to distant areas like Swat, Bajaur, Mohmand, Orakzai and Kurram.

This north-eastward extension of jihad into Pakistan - and away from Afghanistan - can be explained in terms of what some analysts call Mr Mehsud's own "locational disadvantage".

The Mehsud tribe, to which he belonged, inhabits the eastern two-thirds of South Waziristan, which means that they do not share the border with Afghanistan and therefore have no direct access to the Taliban movement there.

 A Pakistani soldier surveys the border with Afghanistan
The remote Pakistani region of Waziristan borders Afghanistan

The western parts of South Waziristan, and the entire North Waziristan region are dominated by the Wazir tribe, which controls the border and with which the Mehsuds often have running tribal feuds.

Apart from geography, many analysts also credit Mr Mehsud's talent for forging extra-territorial alliances in a land where ideological considerations rarely cut across tribal affinities.

Not only did he manage to become the head of several Taliban groups across the north-west, last year he also forged an out-of-TTP alliance with his rival cousins, the Wazirs, in both South and North Waziristan, led respectively by Commander Mullah Nazir and Commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur.

Analysts believe it will be difficult for these groups to treat another Mehsud tribesman with equal respect.

There is already speculation about intra-Mehsud differences over succession, and analysts say commanders from other TTP groups may jump into the fray.

Most analysts close to the Pakistani army say these differences are likely to weaken the TTP substantially, and give the army an upper hand in Waziristan region.

Tribal considerations

But there are others who believe the struggle for succession is not likely to undermine the TTP completely.

They point out that the Taliban leadership of Afghanistan still remains the major arbiter in settling questions of succession among the Pakistani militant groups.

Recent history suggests that this leadership has often been swift in replacing commanders, and has invariably overcome clan and tribal divisions while doing so, they say.

Furthermore, the infrastructure for recruiting, training and handling of suicide bombers, for example, is intact, and it is likely that the group managing this infrastructure may rise to any leadership role that is open.

But it is equally likely that elements sympathetic to the broader Taliban agenda of focusing on Afghanistan come to the fore, giving the Pakistanis a breather.

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