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Taliban chief’s death spells trouble for Sharif govt

world Updated: Nov 06, 2013 01:17 IST
Imtiaz Ahmad
Hakimullah Mehsud

The death of Hakimullah Mehsud in a drone attack comes at a time when there are internal divisions in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) over whether to talk peace with the Nawaz Sharif government or not.

The killing of Mehsud — who most threatened peace — has implications not just for the TTP, but also for Pakistan and its newly-elected government.

Ironically, Pakistan is mourning the death of a man who was responsible for killing hundreds of its own citizens. Islamabad has protested strongly against the United States’ move, which it believes can scuttle peace talks with the militant outfit, and has even threatened to ‘review’ its relationship with the Obama government.

On Monday, provincial assemblies even passed resolutions calling for the end to drone strikes.

In a statement released on Sunday, the TTP said it would not negotiate with the government as “those who talked peace, got a present in the form of a drone attack on Hakimullah Mehsud’’. Caught between the US and the reaction within Pakistan, Sharif’s Interior minister Chaudhry Nisar said that by attacking Mehsud at this time, the US has crossed a line that it should not have.

Yet, there is a line that the Sharif government itself cannot cross, given the precarious state of its economy and the fact that it is in the middle of talks for a loan agreement with the IMF. “American support is crucial for such a package to be signed,” comments economist Humayon Dar.

Sharif’s opposition to drone attacks — he took it up with President Obama in Washington two weeks ago — also pits him against the all-powerful Pakistani army, which supports American drone attacks. In the past, the army has been targeted by the TTP, including within its well-guarded headquarter in Rawalpindi. The army, in fact, views Mehsud’s death as a major victory in its war against militants.

The Sharif government has to tread carefully, as the TTP buries its dead and looks at a new leadership. There is fear that a new cycle of violence is about to begin. The Taliban has already issued a statement that while it was holding peace talks with the government, “the government in turn was selling us to the Americans.”

Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has upped the ante and threatened to block NATO supplies in protest over the killing. But there are those who point out that Imran Khan and other right-wing elements are shedding more tears over the death of Mehsud than they have ever done over the death of thousands who fell victim to suicide attacks.

The appointment of an interim chief Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani suggests that there is no clear choice of successor to Mehsud, who was killed along with his deputy, Abdullah Behar. Analysts say that the likely successors include Mullah Fazlullah, the man responsible for the imposition of Sharia law in Swat valley and Khan Syed who hails from South Waziristan. Both are hardliners, which implies that the Taliban are now looking at continuing their violent suicide attacks.

Some security experts say that the TTP may break away into smaller factions. Should this happen, they warn, the headache for the government will increase manifold as it will have to fight and deal with a number of splinter groups, capable of dealing deadly blows, like the kidnapping and killing of army soldiers and high-profile hits like the attack on Hotel Marriot in Islamabad. A dead Mehsud remains equally dangerous.