The Consequences of Killing Hakimullah Mehsud

Hakimullah_MehsudBy Isaac Kfir

On Nov. 1, 2013, a CIA-operated drone fired three missiles that killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban, TTP). The missiles also killed a number of other militants, including Abdullah Bahar Mehsud and Tariq Mehsud, senior members of the TTP. The militants were returning from a meeting at a mosque in the Dande Darpakhel area of North Waziristan.[1]

This latest drone attack seems to exacerbate the ongoing diplomatic crisis between the US and Pakistan, with senior Pakistani politicians accusing the US of undermining a potential peace council between the government and the TTP designed to end the cycle of violence, which has claimed a countless number of lives.[2] Additionally, the timing of the attack is also important, as coming soon after Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington, it raises the question as to whether the Pakistani government and military actually permit the Americans to employ drones. This question, in addition to a recent report by the Pakistani government minimizing the number of civilian causalities in drone attacks, helps to undermine stability in Pakistan.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan declared that not only has the US ambushed the Pakistani government but also that the attack amounted to an “attack on the peace process.”[3] Principally, the targeting of Mehsud was more to do with the US than with Pakistani national interests, as the Pakistani government was on the brink of holding a peace negotiation meeting with the TTP. However, because the US is committed to a “war” not only against al-Qaeda—and nations, organizations, or persons connected with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks[4]—but also against affiliates, then this broad category of entities deemed by the US a threat to its national security[5] means little regard is given to the consequences of its actions on local populations.

There is no denying that Hakimullah Mehsud was a vicious, ruthless leader, responsible for thousands of deaths. From a US perspective Hakimullah Mehsud was a legitimate target due to his alleged involvement in a 2009 plot at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost province, in which Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian triple agent, blew himself up killing seven CIA officers.[6] There are questions as to Mehsud’s involvement, though on Jan. 8, 2010, a video was aired on Pakistani television of Mehsud sitting next to al-Balawi. Notably, six days later, Mehsud escaped a CIA drone attack.[7] Mehsud was under a US indictment on charges of conspiracy to murder US citizens abroad and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction (explosives) against US citizens abroad.[8]

Since taking over from Baitullah Mehsud, Hakimullah Mehsud has reoriented the TTP. The organization has become less preoccupied with Afghanistan and the US[9] —although it continues to attack NATO supply conveys—and much more with the domestic situation in Pakistan. The poorly educated Mehsud rose to prominence in 2007 for his role in helping capture 300 Pakistani soldiers, leading him to assume a command position in Khyber, Orakzai, and Kurram, enabling him to orchestrate countless attacks on NATO’s supply lines. He became leader of the TTP in 2009 after a CIA-drone attack killed Baitullah Mehsud, the TTP’s first leader, while he was receiving treatment on the roof of his father-in-law’s house.[10]

During the 2013 elections, the TTP was highly active in carrying out numerous attacks primarily against the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Between Jan. 1 and May 15, 2013, 148 acts of terrorism were recorded, with the ANP bearing many attacks.[11] About one third of the attacks took place in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,[12] a traditionally strong area for the ANP,[13] suggesting that the TTP sought to limit the ability of the ANP to hold rallies and to underline the TTP’s commitment to attack those that do not place Islam at the epicenter of their agenda.[14]

Pakistanis know that the killing of such a high profile person means an ensuing period of great violence. The violence stems from endogenous and exogenous reasons. First—even though according to TTP spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, the TTP shura (council) appointed an interim leader—Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani, the shura’s own supreme leader[15]—an ensuing power struggle is likely to occur.[16] There are reports that Khan Said has been elected leader, [17] and Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani has also led attacks on Pakistan security forces, such as a 2011 attack in Tank, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.[18]

A third possible leader is Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, TNSM), the son-in-law of Sufi Muhammad. Fazlullah’s stronghold is the strategically important Swat Valley, where in 2008, with the tacit consent of the Pakistani military, he established a parallel government.[19] Such conflicting reports are understandable because the area and the individuals involved exist in a world of intrigue, turmoil, and deception. Khan has limited education, although he did study in a madrassa in Karachi. His real value is his tremendous military experience and a fierce reputation: he masterminded the 2012 Bannu jailbreak and the Karachi Naval attack.[20] A senior Taliban commander has said that the Orakzai-born Khan “is well regarded in the eyes of the TTP leadership and common fighters. He is an experienced fighter known for making better war plans. He led over 1,000 armed fighters in the fight against rival commander Ustad Mehboob in the Tirah Valley of Khyber Agency and captured the valley …”[21] Ultimately, all three have a long history of hostility towards the Pakistani security services, and it is possible for other contenders to emerge, which would only exacerbate the tense situation in the tribal area.

On the exogenous front, an intensely violent campaign tends to follow such killings. Groups such as the TTP must prove that after such devastating blows they are still active, valuable, powerful, and important. The 2004 Shakai Agreement between the Pakistani government and Nek Muhammad, a local South Waziri Taliban commander who was killed in a drone strike in 2004, underlined to many militants that once they sufficiently threaten the Pakistani state, and specifically the army, they will be offered a ceasefire, allowing them to cement their authority in the region they wish to control. Accordingly, since 2004, the Pakistani government had signed numerous agreements with tribal leaders once they became too dangerous and powerful.[22]

Pakistan is bracing itself for a wave of terror attacks as the TTP seeks to underline the fact that despite the loss of Mehsud, it has the power and the will to destabilize Pakistan. The concern, however, is the potential targets, beginning with the military, which since 2009 has seen several devastating suicide attacks on its forces. The army, the backbone of the Pakistani military establishment, is bracing itself for a major change with the retirement of General Ashfaq Kayani, who has been at the helm for five years, which is why a slew of attacks could create great upheaval. A second key target is Pakistan’s minority groups, who face increased attacks,[23] penetrating areas where such things had not previously existed.[24] An increase in violence empowers social group identity in Pakistan as only through such affiliation do individuals receive basic security.

Security and stability in Pakistan is dissipating, as violence is omnipresent. The government is showing itself to be unable to stem the violence, hence the reason for the proposed peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban. It is crucial for Washington to recognize that its policies—specifically its short-term policy goals that lie at the center of the drone campaign—are undermining Pakistani stability, which in turn affects regional and international security. It is time for the Obama administration to begin to properly review its drone policy and appreciate that what Pakistan needs most is stability, development, and growth, and although the removal of people such as Hakimullah Mehsud may make perfect sense in the short-term, the long-run the damage could be much worse.

[1] Zahir Shah Sherazi, “Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud killed in drone attack,” Nov. 1, 2013. <>

[2] Jon Boone, “Divided Pakistan fears violent revenge as Taliban react to Mehsud killing,” Guardian, Nov. 2, 2013, <>

[3] Tim Craig, “Pakistani officials rebuke U.S. for drone strike,” The Washington Post, Nov. 2, 2013 <>

[4] Authorization for Use of Military Force, Pub. L. No. 107-40, 115 Stat. 224 (2001).

[5] National Strategy for Counterterrorism, White House, June 2011.

[6] Daniel Nasaw, “Bomber who killed CIA operatives in Afghanistan was triple agent,” Guardian, Jan. 4, 2010. <>

[7] Jon Boone, “Divided Pakistan fears violent revenge as Taliban react to Mehsud killing,” Guardian, Nov. 2, 2013, <>

[8] “Hakimullah Mehsud,” National Counterterrorism Center, <>

[9] Hakimullah Mehsud was associated with Faisal Shahzad, the New York Times Square bomber, leading the Obama administration to revise its assessment that Shagzad was a lone-wolf, accepting that he was in fact working for the Taliban. Bill Roggio, “Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad seen on video with Pakistani Taliban commander Hakeemullah Mehsud,” The Long War Journal, July 23, 2010. <>

[10] “Profile: Hakimullah Mehsud,”, Nov. 2, 2013. <>

[11] “Election 2013: Violence against Political Parties, Candidates and Voters,” Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, May 2013.

[12] “Election 2013: Violence against Political Parties, Candidates and Voters,” Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, May 2013.

[14] Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) did exceedingly well in the election, managing to secure Khyber Pakhtunkhwa forming an alliance with the conservative Islamic group Jamaat-e-Islami.

[15] AFP, “Pakistan Taliban appoint interim leader: spokesman,”, Nov. 2, 2013. <>

[16] In 2009, after the killing of Baitullah Mehsud, a meeting between two potential successors, Wasli-ur-Rehman Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud occurred. It was reported that it involved a shooting incident, suggesting a power struggle. Joshua Partlow and Haq Nawaz Khan, “Power struggle ensues after Taliban chief’s apparent death,” The Washington Post, Aug. 9, 2009 <>

[17] Zahir Shah Sherazi, “Pakistan Taliban meeting chooses Khan Said  ‘Sajna’ as a new chief,” Nov. 2, 2013. <>

[18] Bill Roggio, “Taliban avenge death of commander killed in October drone attack,” The Long War Journal, Dec. 23, 2011, <>

[19] Zulfiqar Ali and Laura King, “Pakistani officials allow Sharia in volatile region,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 17, 2009. <>

[20] Zahir Shah Sherazi, “Pakistan Taliban meeting chooses Khan Said ‘Sajna’ as a new chief,” Nov. 2, 2013. <>

[21] Mushtaq Yusufzai, “Hakimullah buried secretly,” The International News, Nov. 3, 2013. <>

[22] Other key agreements were the Srarogha Peace Agreement (2005), between the Pakistani government and Baitullah Mehsud,and the 2008 Swat Agreement between the Pakistani government and Maulana Fazlullah.

[23] In 1989, there were 67 sectarian incidents, which left 18 people dead and injured 102. In 2013, there were 74 incidents, in which 421 people died and more than were 551 injured. “Sectarian Violence in Pakistan,” South Asian Terrorism Portal. [Last visited Sept. 2, 2013] A fact sheet by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom held that in an 18-month period there were 203 incidents of sectarian violence in Pakistan resulted in 1,800 casualties, including 717 deaths, of which 635 were Shia. “203 Incidents of Sectarian Violence in 18 Months,” Daily Times, Jul. 19, 2013. <\07\19\story_19-7-2013_pg12_1>

[24] Nosheen Ali notes that in the Gilgit region in Northern Pakistan, sectarian tensions are appearing, despite decades of Shia-Sunni communities living in harmony. Nosheen Ali, “Sectarian Imaginaries: The Micropolitics of Sectarianism and State-making in Northern Pakistan,” Current Sociology, Vol. 58, No. 5 (2010), pp. 738-54.

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