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The next challenge
By Huma Yusuf
Sunday, 09 Aug, 2009 | 08:39 AM PST |

Baitullah Mehsud is dead — now what? The killing of the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), though welcome news, raises more questions than it answers. Determining how to proceed in the war against terror after Baitullah will be no small task.

On an immediate basis, the Pakistan Army needs to decide whether or not to go ahead with a fully fledged military operation in South Waziristan, the headquarters of the TTP. But before that, Pakistan’s government, army and intelligence agencies will have to undergo some existential angst articulating Pakistan’s absolute stance on militancy. The outcome of that thought process will determine what happens next.

On an immediate basis, security forces have to ensure that retaliatory attacks by militants out to avenge Baitullah’s death are minimised. Prompt attacks against the government-backed Turkistan Bhittani group in Tank indicate that militants are trigger-happy and directionless. Their sense of vulnerability will no doubt be expressed through violence, which will quickly dampen high spirits on the confirmation of Baitullah’s death. There is also a chance that militants out to prove that the TTP can survive the assassination of its leader will return in droves to the Swat valley.

While dealing with the immediate security threat, the authorities must not lose sight of the bigger picture: the phenomenon that was Baitullah was born of the assassination of Nek Mohammad. One of three candidates — Hakeemullah Mehsud, Waliur Rehman, and Azmatullah Mehsud — is already slated to inherit the leadership of the TTP. The question now is how to stop the vicious cycle.

The Pakistan Army should not make the mistake of sitting back and hoping that a battle of succession will lead to rampant infighting that will forever fragment the TTP.

Baitullah has instilled a strong culture of cooperation in his ranks. Moreover, by having Qari Zainullah killed, he set a precedent for how to deal with rivals. In case a unanimous successor is not appointed, we can expect a swift and bloody resolution to the rivalry.
Finally, if one of the three contenders is unhappy with the choice of the new TTP leader, rather than initiate a tribal war, he will probably spend the coming months bolstering his power through intense recruiting and arms acquisition. In this event, a succession squabble would actually expand militancy in Pakistan.

The US, meanwhile, has expressed concern that Pakistan will try to negotiate with Baitullah’s successor. After all, reports suggest that Baitullah’s father-in-law Malik Ikramuddin had been in touch with government officials looking to strike a new peace deal. If this is true, the authorities will be more than willing to engage with a TTP leader with whom they have a less sordid history.

For months, the Pakistan Army has expressed reservations about launching a ground operation in North and South Waziristan — the terrain is formidable and well fortified by the militants. Renewed negotiations with the TTP would save them the trouble.

When deciding the next step, our government should not forget that a new peace deal or military offensive timed to take advantage of post-Baitullah chaos will clearly signal Pakistan’s broader intentions with regard to militancy. Striking now will indicate a genuine desire to rid Pakistan of militancy. Talking, on the other hand, will suggest that Pakistan is still engaged in a double game.

The importance of taking an unambiguous stand against militancy and shaping the right public perception cannot be understated. But there’s also something to be said for strategic planning. Separate from its trouble with the TTP, the Pakistan Army has been reluctant to move into Waziristan by force, as that would entail taking on other influential militant leaders such as the Al Qaeda-linked Haqqanis, North Waziristan’s Hafiz Gul Bahadur and South Waziristan’s Mullah Ahmed Nazir. So even if the security forces acknowledge that the time is ripe to crush the TTP, they may beg off an operation to avoid opening a new can of worms.

Here’s where things start to get tricky. The US is probably expecting a quid pro quo for helping Pakistan take out its main militant menace. If the drone attack against Baitullah was in fact a joint operation, that means the US and Pakistan are working closely. And the US has clearly stated that it would like to see the Pakistan Army move into Waziristan.According to a September 2007 UN report, over 80 per cent of all suicide bombers in Afghanistan undergo training in North and South Waziristan. Moreover, Al Qaeda maintains numerous training camps and safe houses in all that was Baitullah’s domain. An offensive from the Pakistan side could have a major impact on the war in Afghanistan.

In this context, too, Pakistan needs to clarify its ultimate goals. Let’s assume for a moment that Baitullah’s death does temporarily disable the TTP. If Pakistan moves in to dismantle training camps and seize weapons and equipment, it will seriously irk Bahadur and Nazir. These leaders are primarily concerned with maintaining their own sphere of influence in North and South Waziristan, and in waging ‘jihad’ against foreign ‘occupiers’ in Afghanistan. They have previously allied with the Pakistan government, and only joined Baitullah’s Council of United Mujahideen when their territory was threatened by a military operation. Indeed, they believe that waging ‘jihad’ against Pakistani targets is a distraction.

But if cornered, they will fight harder than the TTP to retain control of their domains. Bahadur already issued a warning to Pakistan earlier this summer by calling off a peace deal, kidnapping students of a cadet college and then claiming responsibility for a suicide attack. If jostled by a military operation against the TTP on their territory, these militant leaders could help organise Baitullah’s forces to launch a new initiative on Pakistani soil.
As such, Pakistan is in a tight spot when it comes to South Waziristan.

The decision about what to do next can only be taken if our authorities are clear-headed about their stance on militancy. If the goal is complete eradication, the army should move in and prepare to deal with a backlash from TTP remnants ideally with the help of US and Nato forces.

On the other hand, if the plan is simply to manage militancy, then a ceasefire is probably on the agenda. Given that ‘negotiation’ has proven to be a euphemism for ‘militant regrouping,’ we can then assume that Baitullah’s death has merely opened a new chapter in a horrible book that we’re all tired of reading.

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