INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM MONITOR---PAPER NO.549
There is a full-scale Psywar going on in Pakistan over the sequel to a successful missile attack by a US Drone (pilotless plane ) on the house of the father of the second wife of Baitullah Mehsud , Malik Ikramuddin, in the Zangarha area, 15km to the north-east of Ladha inSouth Waziristan early on the morning of August 5,2009.
2. Claims and counter-claims and allegations and counter-allegations have been made by Rehman Malik, Pakistan's Interior Minister, who is a retired police officer, and the top guns of the Pakistani Taliban known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).Malik's claims regarding the death of Baitullah Mehsud, the Amir of the TTP, in the missile attack have been strongly denied by leading figures of the TTP such as Hakimullah Mehsud, who is the TTP's operational commander for Orakzai, Khyber and Kurram areas and responsible for disrupting logistic supplies to the NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Qari Hussain Mehsud, who reportedly trains suicide bombers.
3. Malik's claims, as he himself admits, are based on information from tribal sources in the area where the missile attack took place. He also admits that he has no material evidence in confirmation. Such material evidence, if forthcoming, would normally be in the form of technical intercepts and forensic evidence based on an examination of the body parts believed to be that of Baitullah.
4. For confirming deaths, technical evidence cannot be conclusive. There could always be a misinterpretation of the identity of a person whose death is reported through telephone or wireless. Forensic evidence can be conclusive but since the Pakistan Army does not control the area in which the missile attack took place, it won't have access to body parts.
5.So, unless the TTP itself confirms the death of Baitullah or disproves claims of his death by producing video pictures of him, the mystery over the fate of Baitullah will continue. Presuming that Baitullah is dead as claimed by Malik and also by unidentified American officials, it is difficult to assess why the top guns of the TTP are denying it. One reason could be the lack of a consensus so far as to who should succeed him. Till such a consensus is reached, they will try to avoid admiting that he is no more. Now that they have taken a strong position that he did not die in the missile attack, the only face-saving option left for them would be to admit his death after a successor is named, but attribute it to illness. Baitullah was known to be suffering from many ailments.
6. Some things are certain. The US intelligence, with precise information from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), carried out a remarkably successful strike. It was a classic case of precise human intelligence, prompt communication to the command and control of the Drone strikes, brilliant real-time assessment and instant follow-up action. It is also certain that among those killed were some---if not all--- bodyguards of Baitullah. The fact that the bodyguards were killed clearly shows that Baitullah was present in the house when it was attacked. Whether he was killed or not, it is a different story which only future can confirm.
7. Reliable reports from police sources in the Pashtun area indicate that the Taliban leaders fear more and more that the TTP has been penetrated by the ISI and the CIA acting in tandem. This suspicion has been caused by the fact that none of the 28 Drone strikes of this year hit wrong targets causing collateral civilian casualties. In previous years, the Drones had attacked a number of wrong targets killing dozens---if not hundreds--- of civilians, including many children. This year, there has hardly been any such instance. That is why the 28 strikes of this year have not caused the same kind of public demonstrations against the US in the tribal areas as one used to see in previous years. While collateral damage due to air strikes continue to take place in Afghan territory, it has been reduced remarkably in Pakistani territory, indicating a very tight supervision over the Drone operations from its command and control in the US.
8. Who is the mole in their midst? There are rumours and speculations galore. Some in the tribal areas suspect that Ikramullah, the father-in-law of Baitullah, was the mole. According to them, the Pakistan Army was recently in touch with him under the pretext of seeking another cease-fire. He used to visit Pakistani army posts for discussions in his vehicle. They allege that the ISI must have got a listening or photographing device fitted into his vehicle and that is how it came to know of the arrival of Baitullah in his father-in-law's house for medical treatment.
9. Others, who don't buy this theory, suspect that the mole must have been a senior office-bearer of the TTP close to him or one of his entourage. It is the fear of this mole in their midst, which is responsible for the welter of confusing and conflicting statements coming from the top guns of the Taliban and their subordinates. The Interior Minister has been trying to take advantage of these mutual suspicions by having stories disseminated about a clash between two potential successors of Baitullah---- Hakimullah and Waliur Rehman---- at a meeting convened to choose the new leader. The story in circulation is that the two, after a heated argument, exchanged fire in which Hakimullah was killed and Walilur was injured.
10.TTP sources have strongly denied this. Malik has challenged the TTP to produce video pictures of Baitullah and Hakimullah. Presuming that Baitullah is dead, it is surprising that the TTP should have been holding its shura to decide on his successor so quickly after his death and that too in South Waziristan, where the shura would be liable to a missile strike by a Drone. The CIA could not ask for anything better than a Shura meeting in South Waziristan.
11. My own expectation was that the TTP would hold the Shura meeting in an area away from the reach of the Drones---either in the Malakand Division of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) or in the Quetta area of Balochistan. Both these areas are away from the present reach of the Drones. Moreover, in the Quetta area the Shura would have enjoyed the protection of the Afghan Taliban. Its Amir, MullaMohammad Omar, could have intervened to promote unity.
12. There have been sensational assessments after the missile strike and the reported death of Baitullah. Some see in it the beginning of the end of Al Qaeda itself. Their assessment is that without the protection of Baitullah Al Qaeda leaders cannot survive for long in theWaziristan area. They forget that Al Qaeda survived in the Waziristan area for over four years when Baitullah had not emerged as a leader and acquired his aura. Others assess that the TTP, without Baitullah, could split into different tribal factions. As I had pointed out in the past, there are Talibans and Talibans and there are are as many Talibans as there are tribal sirdars. Baitullah brought them together undera single umbrella organisation in the form of the TTP just as Osama bin Laden brought different jihadi organisations together under the umbrella of the International Islamic Front (IIF).
13. It is quite possible that if Baitullah's death is confirmed or even in the eventuality of his incapacity due to illnes, the TTP may no longer be such a strongly knit organisation as it has been till now. If its bonds of Islamic and Pashtun tribal solidarity weaken it may give some relief to the Pakistan Army but not to the US-led forces in Afghanistan. Now they are focussing all their operations against the Pakistani security forces. If they stop doing this, they might all go to Afghanistan and buttress the strength of the Afghan Taliban. (9-8-09)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )