From Nek Muhammad to Maulana Fazlullah
Once Pakistan consented to fight US imposed war on terror as a Frontline State, it was asked by USA to flush out about 1000 foreign militants from FATA failing which the US military would be constrained to barge in. At that time, there were no Taliban in FATA or elsewhere in Pakistan except for a small percentage of Afghan Taliban fans. Regular troops ex 11 Corps entered Tirah Valley in Khyber Agency for the first time and from there proceeded to Shawal Valley in North Waziristan (NW) and then to South Waziristan (SW) in 2002 to launch operations against foreigners as well as their sympathizers. Their entry into SW and Musharraf’s attempts to appease American paymasters sowed seeds of mistrust and gave birth to Pakistani Taliban. Terrorism in Pakistan grew when Pak Army at the behest of USA fought the militants in Mehsud belt in SW and later in NW and authorized employment of drones.
Foreign agencies based in Kabul on the other hand provided massive covert support to militant groups to fight and defeat Pak Army, kill pro-government elements in FATA and make the northwestern region chaotic. Undermining of Islam and cruelty perpetrated upon captives in CIA detention centres inflamed anti-Americanism and anti-Army sentiments among Islamists. Terrorism scaled new heights after Obama took over in January 2009 and formulated aggressive Af-Pak policy. Obama clearly spelt out at the outset that the US would take physical action against a target in FATA by drones or US Special Forces whenever any actionable intelligence came its way.
Nek Muhammad belonging to Yargul Khai sub-clan of Ahmadzai Wazir tribe in SW was the first Taliban commander to confront the Army. At the age of 19, he had joined the ranks of Mujahideen and had fought the Northern Alliance in provinces of Northern Afghanistan and had risen in ranks rapidly. He got acquainted with Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri, IMU leader Tahir Yaldeshev and Uyghur leader Hasan Mohsin. After taking part in war against the US led forces in Afghanistan in end 2001, he returned to Wana and formed Jaishal Qiba al Jihadi al-Siri al-Alimi. He provided shelter to al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters who had fled from Afghanistan. In March 2004, bloody battle was fought by the Army to evict Chechen; Uzbek and Tajik militants from SW. Less Uzbeks, the rest were flushed out. 400 al-Qaeda operatives were captured and handed over to USA.
Lt Gen Safdar Commander 11 Corps prevailed upon Nek and the two signed a peace deal at Shakai Fort on April 24, 2004. Safdar embraced Nek, calling him ‘a soldier of peace’. Soon after, Nek was killed by US drone near Wana on June 18, 2004 and the Army took the responsibility of his killing. After his death, Baitullah Mehsud hailing from Shabi Khel clan of Mehsud tribe emerged as the major militant leader. In the same timeframe, his cousin Abdullah Mehsud entered the arena of militancy in SW. He had lost a leg to a landmine in 1996 while fighting Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. He also fought against US led forces in October 2001 till he was arrested in December 2001. CIA released him from Guantanamo Bay Jail in early 2004 after fitting him with a prosthetic limb and thoroughly brainwashing him for 25 months and tasking him to fight Pak forces in SW. After his return he organized a 5000 strong force and operated in areas outside the realm of Baitullah Mehsud in Jandola, Tank and surroundings. He was behind abduction of two Chinese engineers working in Gomal Zam dam project.
In the aftermath of Nek’s death, Maulvi Nazir from Ahmadzai Wazir tribe replaced him in Wazir dominated SW, and by and large remained on friendly terms with the Army essentially because of age-old enmity between Wazirs and Mehsuds. He contributed to Afghan Taliban war effort by training and sending fighters. In 2006, he affiliated his group with Jamiat ul Ulema Islam Fazlur Rahman group and established Islamic laws in SW. In March 2007, Nazir in response to Army’s demand, asked Uzbeks to quit SW or disarm and get registered. When they refused to comply, his group battled with them and by April 12 they managed to push them out of their area.
Since both Baitullah and Abdullah vied for gaining dominance over Pakistani Taliban, they operated separately and didn’t enjoy friendly relations. Reportedly, he killed himself with a grenade once he was surrounded by security forces in Zhob on July 24, 2007. Zainuddin took over the leadership of his group. Suspecting that Baitullah had a hand in his death, he got into an alliance with Maulvi Nazir and later also allied with Turkistan Bhittani based in Jandola. Zain-Baitullah animosity peaked from March 2009 onwards and ended when Zain was killed on June 23, 2009 in DIK by a gunman of Baitullah. Pakistan government announced reward money of Rs 50,000,000 for arrest of Baitullah in June 2009.
After restoring order in SW, the security forces then entered Mehsud inhabited SW in 2004 where they were confronted by Baitullah Mehsud. After a hard fight, the troops cleared area up to short of Srarogha, and then both sides agreed to sign peace deal on February 8, 2005. The military agreed to withdraw leaving behind FC troops. The ceasefire however lasted only for five months after which Baitullah resumed attacks and started killing pro-government elements. By that time NW dominated by Hafiz Gul Bahadur led Othmanzai Wazir tribe heated up because of which additional troops had to be sent there from Kohat. Another peace agreement was signed by the Army with Gul Bahadur in September 2006 after the military agreed to remove pickets and release prisoners. Agreement was broken but renewed in August 2008, which is still intact.
In the meanwhile, Bajaur under Maulvi Faqir Muhammad became restive. Efforts to broker peace agreement with Faqir were scuttled by a drone attack on a religious Madrassa in Bajaur on October 30, 2006 killing 82 young students. The ISPR bailed out USA by claiming it was Army’s doing. In retaliation, the militants fired RPG rockets on KP Governor’s security camp and on the convoy of 11 Corps Commander Lt Gen Aurakzai on November 8, 2006. The same day, Punjab Centre’s training centre in Dargai was targeted by a suicide bomber killing 42 recruits and wounding 20. In March 2007, peace deal was inked with Maulvi Faqir in Bajaur. By then, the militants had gained control of three agencies of SW, NW and Bajaur.
Bajaur incident on October 30, 2006 followed by Lal Masjid military operation in July 2007 in which over 100 inmates were killed were two events which galvanized the rural youth from deprived class to gravitate towards militancy. A militant outfit Janood-e-Hafsa comprising militants mostly from Southern Punjab was formed by Asmatullah Muawia to avenge deaths of Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa victims. Muawia linked up with Khalid Umar Khurasani led militants in Mehmand Agency and later when Baitullah formed TTP from an alliance of five militant groups in FATA in December 2007, Muawia allied with TTP, which had become more proactive after Lal Masjid tragedy. Hundreds of suicide bombers lined up and there was sudden escalation of suicide attacks in urban centres targeting both military and civilian targets.
TTP is a different entity from Mullah Omar which has confined its fight against Pakistan and Pak security forces only. Over a period of time it has spread its tentacles to settled areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) including Swat, Malakand and Darra Adam Khel (DAK) as well as Pashtun belt of Balochistan, southern Punjab wherefrom large numbers were enrolled as Punjabi Taliban with the help of Muawia and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and Karachi. TTP was able to convert SW, Swat and Bajaur into highly fortified strongholds. As long as Tariq Afridi was in command of TTP chapter in DAK, he continuously threatened Kohat tunnel. Al-Qaeda linked with TTP provides technical, tactical and financial support to TTP. Several other banned extremist groups engaged in Kashmir Jihad, sectarianism and in criminal activities have joined TTP out of expediency, enabling TTP to strike targets in urban centres.
2007 was a bloody year in which the TTP scored several successes including capture of 247 soldiers on September 2 without firing a shot. Operation Zalzala was launched by 14 Division under Maj Gen Tariq Khan in SW in January 2008 and after achieving tactical success and regaining control, another ceasefire took place in February 2008. Ceasefire didn’t last long as the militants captured Jandola on June 24, 2008, which was later recaptured by the Army.
In Kurram Agency, sectarian war between sub-tribes stoked by foreign hand took a heavy toll of lives. TTP chapter of Kurram Agency under Fazal Saeed Utazai broke away from TTP and formed his own group. Mehmand Agency under Khurasani and Orakzai Agency became hotspots. Turbulence in the two agencies was controlled by launching targeted operations. In Khyber Agency, Mangal Bagh heading Lashkar-e-Islam (LI) emerged in Bara Tehsil in 2007 as a powerful entity and threatened Jamrud and the capital city of Peshawar. After pushing out pro-government Ansar-ul-Islam (AI) from Bara, LI chased it to Tirah Valley. After a hard fight from January to March 2013, LI in collusion with TTP managed to expel AI from Tirah resulting in deaths of 250 and displacement of 2-300,000 people. The Army supported by PAF launched Operation Rah-e-Shahadat and succeeded in evicting the duo by June.
The only two Pashtun militant groups which stayed out of TTP and stuck to peace agreements with Army were Maulvi Nazir led group in SW and Hafiz Gul Bahadur led group in NW. In addition, a group led by Sirajuddin Haqqani based in NW is also friendly to the government and Army. On June 21, 2006 Sirajuddin had issued a decree that it was not Afghan Taliban policy to fight Pak Army. His father Jalaluddin Haqqani, a leading war veteran of Afghan Jihad against the Soviets had migrated with his family to NW in 1980, but later on shifted back to his hometown Khost. His youngest son Omar Haqqani was killed in Khost in 2008, while other two sons Badruddin and Mohammad were killed by drones in NW in 2009 and August 2013 respectively. Recently, the fourth son Dr. Naseeruddin Haqqani was murdered in Islamabad on November 11, 2013. Possible suspects are CIA and Afghan NDS since Haqqani Network has been banned by USA and considered as a huge threat in Eastern Afghanistan and Kabul. Sirajuddin carries head bounty of $5 million.
Swat and Malakand Division under the sway of Maulana Fazlullah, son-in-law of TNSM’s head Maulana Sufi, virtually made Swat into a State within a State and unleashed a reign of terror on the people of Swat and surrounding districts between 2007 and early 2009. Known as ‘Mullah Radio’, he not only exhorted people on radio to join his cadre but also trained teenage boys as suicide bombers at Mingora and at his HQ in Peochar. Bajaur became the exclusive domain of Maulvi Faqir Muhammad because of easy inflow of arms, equipment and funds from Kunar. This route of supply was also used for Swat via Dir. Srarogha became the command centre of TTP where Qari Hussain trained small boys aged between 11 to 18 years as suicide bombers. The three fortifications of Swat, Bajaur and SW had stored tons of sophisticated weaponry, ammunition and explosives in secret tunnels and caves to last them for next ten years.
After the second military operation in Swat, peace deal was signed with Maulana Sufi and Fazlullah in February 2009. KP government agreed to introduce Nizam-e-Adal in Swat and Malakand Division and the other side agreed to renounce violence. Hardly had the ink dried on the agreement when Fazllulah’s men opened new fronts in Buner and Lower Dir, which raised alarm bells that militants were working their way towards Islamabad. All political forces got together and passed a joint resolution to combat the militant threat with full force. It led to launching of military operation codenamed Rah-e-Rast on April 26, 2009 which ensued heavy fighting but in the end security forces supported by PAF emerged as winners. Injured Fazlullah and his key leaders escaped to Kunar. Many fled to Karachi and got settled in Pashtun community.
Heavy fighting ensued in Loisam area of Bajaur in August 2008 in which hundreds of foreign fighters poured in from Afghanistan. Situation was stabilized within four days. In response to a suicide attack on Marriot Hotel in Islamabad in September 2008 planned by Faqir’s men, an offensive was launched in Bajaur. By the time an operation was launched in Swat, all areas under the control of militants in Bajaur were recaptured and over 1000 militants including five high profile al-Qaeda operatives were killed and RAW trained Afghan militants pushed out. Peace was restored after Faqir and his hardcore militants fled to Kunar.
On night of August 5, 2009, Baitullah Mehsud was killed by a drone in the house of in-laws of his recently married second wife in SW. It led to war of succession but ultimately Baitullah’s bodyguard and driver Hakeemullah Mehsud was appointed the Ameer of TTP on August 22, who was as vicious as Fazlullah. However, the cracks in TTP never got repaired. Notwithstanding inner tensions, the Mehsuds suspected Maulvi Nazir’s hand in the killing of their Ameer and attacked his camp in late August 2009 resulting in deaths of several men of Nazir.
Baitullah’s death and impending operation in SW impelled Hakeemullah to step up terrorist attacks. 2009 saw commencement of group attacks in Lahore. October 2009 was the heaviest in which GHQ was attacked on 10th, a military convoy was hit on 12th killing 41 soldiers, FIA building in Lahore attacked on 15th, ISI office in Peshawar on 16th, Islamic University Islamabad on 20th, a Brig was killed on 22nd, security post at Kamra attacked on 23rd, bomb blast in a restaurant in Peshawar on the same day, a Brig and his mother were shot at in Islamabad on 27th. Market in Shangla, police stations in Kohat and Peshawar and UN World Food Program offices in Islamabad were also targeted. These attacks impelled Gen Ashfaq Kayani to launch another military operation against the strongest base of TTP in SW. Operation Rah-e-Nijat was unleashed on 17th October 2009 and despite stiff resistance, the bastion of power was overpowered in a month time.
The operation owed its success to Maulvi Nazir and Gul Bahadur’s cooperation who agreed not to disturb Army’s bases of operations resting within their respective areas of influence. Mehsuds ignored Bahadur but not Nazir. An attempt was made on him by a suicide bomber in November 2011, in which he received injuries but survived. In order to get back to his hometown in Makeen and also to extend his influence into Wazir dominated SW, it is speculated that Hakeemullah planned to kill his rival Maulvi Nazir. He passed on the information to NDS about his location through his emissary, which enabled CIA to kill him with drone near Angoor Adda in SW on January 2, 2013.
With the dismantling of their main base in SW, the disarrayed TTP fighters sought refuge in other tribal agencies and in neighboring Nangarhar. Nucleus of TTP however shifted to Mirali in NW inhabited by second biggest tribe of Dawars after Othmanzai Wazir tribe. Some took refuge in area of Torikhel sub-tribe of Othmanzai tribe, reputed to be most ferocious fighters. For all practical purposes, TTP had lost its fighting potential after Operation Rah-e-Nijat. However, RAW and Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) with the blessing of CIA reinvigorated TTP that had been created with a set agenda to pulverize Pak Army. Absconding Fazlullah, Faqir, Khurasani and their men were activated in safe havens of Kunar and Nuristan. They were given houses, free rations and monthly pay as well arms and training facilities and launched into Dir, Mehmand, Bajaur and Chitral to heat up western border. Likewise, empty kitty of TTP was refilled and assigned new targets.
The TTP’s relocated base is now in NW, but its tentacles are spread all over the country. During the period of 2011-2012, large number of terrorist groups banned by Pakistan teamed up with TTP thereby strengthening the hands of Hakeemullah, but also added to his command and control problems. Most of the groups are Punjab based and the total numbers of groups are over 50 including 37 offshoot groups of TTP. Linkage of Punjabi Taliban led by Asmatullah Muawia with TTP has given the TTP added advantage to strike targets within Punjab. Knowing that he was the most wanted man and the US had kept $5 million head money on him in 2010 after the deadly suicide attack on CIA base in Khost, Hakeemullah kept changing his abodes frequently and hardly stayed in NW to protect himself from drones. For all practical purposes, his deputy Waliur Rahman managed TTP’s affairs. Qari Hussain’s death by a drone further weakened the hold of Hakimullah and strengthened Wali led lobby favoring talks with the government.
Death of Waliur Rahman on May 30, 2013 disrupted the peace process that had begun to shape up after the election of pro-talks federal government and KP government. Hakeemullah appointed Khalid, alias Sajna, another pro-peace TTP leader and close friend of Wali as his deputy and head of TTP chapter in SW. But he never felt comfortable with him since he was more inclined towards anti-peace group. When Nawaz Sharif offered dialogue in his address to the nation in August, some of the TTP leaders like Ehsanullah Ehsan, Sajna and Muawia hailed his offer. Considering it to be an act of defiance against the policy of TTP Shura, Hakeemullah sacked Ehsan and Muawia and replaced Sajna with his very close confidante Latif Mehsud as his deputy and also appointed him as head of TTP chapter NW.
His knee-jerk reactions indicated growing rift within TTP between pro-peace and anti-peace groups. The latter group has remained stuck to their stance of holding talks with the government from a position of strength with the aim of getting the constitution radically altered by injecting Islamic clauses, replacing Anglo-Saxon laws with Islamic laws, getting all their prisoners released, ending drone war, getting out of US imposed war and sharing power.
Arrest of Hakeemullah’s deputy Latif Mehsud in Afghanistan by US Special Forces in end October became big news. Reportedly, he was being escorted by NDS officials to Jalalabad to meet Indian High Commissioner. Another report says that he was sent as TTP emissary to Afghanistan by Hakeemullah to procure monetary and material assistance from NDS and guidance regarding peace talks offered by Pak government. Assigning future tasks besides meeting their demands by the NDS in league with RAW has been a routine affair for the last many years. None can deny that the US led ISAF and CIA are in full knowledge of TTP secret links with NDS and RAW and covert operations supervised by RAW. It is also a known fact that TTP is an asset of CIA, RAW and NDS and the trio have played a role in the election of TTP Ameer. Hakeemullah had earned applauds for carrying out sensational terror attacks against military targets in Pakistan.
The leading story is that in the face of fast changing ground situation in Afghanistan because of Taliban’s uncontrollable resurgence, Karzai’s tantrums and efforts to disrupt Doha peace initiative, rising incidents of in-house attacks and Pakistan’s grievances that the US had done nothing to address its security concerns, and the US having eventually realized that ISAF’s safe pullout from Afghanistan was not possible without Pakistan’s willing cooperation, Latif was arrested by the US military to mollify Pakistan and to warm up its frosty relations. It is also being said that CIA is abandoning TTP.
The actual story is however similar to the one related to Maulvi Nazir’s death. Hakeemullah had become a liability for his patrons after he got inclined to peace talks and hence marked as a target. He had to be bumped off and another Ameer, totally in their iron grip, chosen. Latif was arrested because he was the only one who knew the exact program of Hakeemullah’s planned visit to NW on October 31. Probably $ 5 million award was too attractive an inducement for Latif to change his loyalties who otherwise was not in favor of talks. To assume that CIA has lost interest in TTP will be premature. CIA will use this card to keep Pakistan under pressure during its transition phase.
Hakeemullah was killed by a drone in Dandey Darpakhel on October 31, 2013 at a time when he had accepted the dialogue offer and was expected to meet the government delegation of three Ulema on the following day. Ch Nisar had worked hard to tie up the loose ends and was very hopeful for a breakthrough. It was natural for peace lovers to feel disturbed over the gory incident, which was a willful attempt to derail peace process. To suspect that Pak government had a hand in killing of Hakeemullah, it doesn’t make sense. Karzai’s outburst of anger over arrest of Latif was a put up show.
Asmatullah Shaheen was named interim TTP chief and on November 7, much to the surprise of all and sundry the most ruthless and wanted man in Pakistan Fazlullah was named as the new Ameer and equally brutal Khalid Haqqani hailing from Swabi as his deputy. It is for the first time that both the top appointments have been doled out to non-tribesmen. In his urge to prove that he is as good, if not better than his predecessors in the field of militancy, Fazlullah would strive to intensify militancy and strike high profile targets. He will do as told to do by his benefactors. TTP spokesman Azam Tariq has threatened that “every drop of Hakeemullah’s blood will turn into a suicide bomber. Reprisal attacks have already started.
Regardless of the threats and TTP’s announcement that no talks will be held, the government is determined to pursue the dialogue process to end a violent anti-State campaign that has claimed well over 40,000 lives. Talking from position of weakness would however be a recipe for disaster. Efforts must continue to cultivate and strengthen pro-talks groups and isolate and weaken anti-peace talks groups led by Fazlullah. At the same time, well-thought out strategy must be devised how to checkmate new wave of violence in the coming months. The US and Karzai regime must be clearly told to stop their double game and hand over Fazlullah at the earliest, or else, Pak Army should take out its armed drone from the closet and have a go. Gul Bahadur has been unable to control activities of TTP and other militant groups based in NW despite his pleadings and warnings. Neither his Shura Muraqba has been able to control violence and vices. He must assert his authority to checkmate terrorism emanating out of NW before the government is compelled to launch a major operation.