WASHINGTON — The suspected U.S. drone strike that killed the leader of Pakistan’s Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban), Hakimullah Mehsud, has set off a power struggle within the militant group, and has exposed sharp divisions that analysts say could further destabilize the region as NATO combat forces leave neighboring Afghanistan in 2014.
Taliban sources and local journalists in turbulent North Waziristan and South Waziristan in Pakistan told VOA that the selection of hardline cleric Mullah Fazlullah as the new chief has left the group in disarray that may result in a splintering to smaller, difficult-to-control factions.
Fazlullah was selected by a council of Pakistani Taliban leaders after the death of its chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, November 1. Fazlullah, who reportedly has the support of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, became known as ‘Mullah Radio’ for his fiery anti-Western and pro-jihadist speeches on FM radio in the Swat Valley of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province between 2007 and 2009 Exploiting anti-government sentiment in his home region and using brutal tactics, Fazlullah took control of the Swat Valley and instituted harsh Islamic rule that terrorized much of the population.
But in 2009, Pakistan's army launched an operation against militants in the area. Wounded in the fighting, Fazlullah managed to escape to Afghanistan, where analysts and journalists say he remains to this day. In 2012 he claimed responsibility for ordering the failed assassination of the teenage activist, Malala Yousufzai, for her efforts to educate girls in Swat.
Fazlullah could raise tribal tensions
The Pakistani Taliban has denied that Fazlullah’s selection will lead to rifts among its ranks. But Pakistani defense analyst and former Lt. General Talat Masood told VOA in an interview that Fazlullah’s selection could cause divisions because he is not a member of the large Mehsud tribal group that dominates the region, and that has led the Pakistani Taliban until now.
“After the killing of the TTP leader in a drone attack, it was expected that differences would emerge on the selection of the new Taliban chief,” Masood said.
The Pakistani Taliban has denied that the selection of Fazlullah will lead to rifts among its ranks.
The suspected drone strike that killed Hakimullah Mehsud took place in the war-ravaged Waziristan region near the Afghan border. The area is home to the Mehsud tribe, and about 80,000 Mehsud families have been displaced as a result of the fighting.
VOA Deewa reporter Adnan Bitani says the Mehsud tribe has borne the brunt of government offensives against the Taliban, and many now say the selection of an outsider to head the Taliban may ease tensions with the Pakistani army. But he also says Mehsud Taliban supporters are upset that an outsider has taken control of the group they have long dominated.
“But those who are stakeholders in the militancy, they have expressed concerns over shifting of the Taliban leadership from the Mehsud tribe to a man out of their tribe and clan,” Bitani said.
Saleem Mehsud, a journalist from South Waziristan who is based in Islamabad, said no one doubts Fazlullah’s militancy but it remains unclear if he can command tribal allegiances. “Mullah Fazlullah is known for his anti-Pakistan stand. He might have the support of the followers of Hakimullah Mehsud, but he might not gain support of all the Mehsuds.”
Negotiation efforts end in violence
Analysts say Fazlullah's selection represents the victory of the most extremist elements in the Pakistani Taliban. He claimed responsibility for the assassination of a senior army general in September, just as the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was preparing to open talks with the Taliban.
Fazlullah also threatened to kill army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Analysts say with his appointment there is little or no chance of talks.
But former general Masood says Fazlullah could prove to be ineffective as a militant leader because he is believed to be based in Afghanistan’s Nuristan or Kunar provinces.
“If he communicates via phone, he would be monitored by Pakistan or the U.S. and can be arrested.”
Kabul has long denied that Fazlullah operates from Afghanistan.
Masood says it is still unclear whether Fazlullah will try to join Pakistani Taliban militants in North Waziristan or even whether local militants there will offer the same support they offered Hakimullah Mehsud. Masood also says if that does not happen, Mullah Fazlullah will have few options, because his home region of Swat is now under the firm control of Pakistan’s military.