The recent failed terror attack in New York City’s Times Square has returned a focus to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, a terrorist organization representing a collection of Taliban groups who oppose the Pakistani army and NATO forces, and whose leader Hakeemullah Mehsud, Pakistan’s most feared militant, has re-emerged from months of silence after he was believed to be killed in a US drone missile attack on 14 January this year.
As US Attorney General Eric Holder charged in an American television appearance, the TTP is behind the New York bomb plot. “We have now developed evidence that shows that the TTP was behind the attack,” he said, a charge the organization has not yet denied. “We know that they helped facilitate it.” The charge comes a day before US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Pakistan of “severe consequences” if a successful extremist attack in America were tracked back to Pakistan. Pakistan was adjusting to the troubling news from New York when another setback also knocked at Islamabad’s door with the appearance of the latest video from Hakeemullah Mehsud who vowed “revenge attacks” on the United States presumably in reaction to the increasing drone attacks over Waziristan region where Washington believes al-Qaeda and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban established strong centres to plot attacks on America.
If Eric Holder’s statement regarding TTP involvement is to be believed, then it gives credence to earlier rumours that the TTP emerged stronger than before even after the death of its leader Baitullah Mehsud, also reportedly killed in a US drone attack in August last year in South Waziristan. But the statement from the US attorney general also raises questions as to why Pakistani and American intelligence failed to pick up such plots from the TTP before their execution, if the American establishment no longer sees the Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad acting independently as it had intimated earlier. Had Faisal Shahzad physically went to Waziristan last year for bomb-making training? Had the TTP channeled money to organize the attack in New York? Does this follow that TTP has taken over from al-Qaeda the Taliban’s overseas operations? If this is the case, what brought about this change and what does this change signify?
These questions may not be answered so soon. However, Hakeemullah released a video on 3 May to disprove of earlier media reports that he was killed in the missile attack. The media “killed” Hakeemullah three times. First, it was after the missile attack. Then weeks later the media said he “succumbed to wounds” in Orakzai and the last and third time he was pronounced dead while on his way to Multan city in Punjab province.It appeared the federal government was also encouraging the reports of his death to spread despondency among his fighting force at a time when the military was pushing deeper into the territory held by the TTP in South Waziristan after dislodging militants from their strongholds in Swat Valley last year.
Hakeemullah said in the video: It was a “lie and propaganda by kuffar [non-believers]” that he was killed. In the nine-minute video posted on one of the websites of al-Qaeda, the militant leader vowed “revenge attacks” on the US. He gave no reasons, but analysts believe the anger could be in reaction to the increasing drone attacks targeting militant positions in Waziristan region.
Military plans look troubled by the counter-plans from the TTP. With combat operation almost over in Mehsud areas of South Waziristan, the military is pushing the return of some half a million internally displaced Mehsud people to their homes in an attempt to deny an open space where militants can return. However, the Mehsuds seek the guarantee of peace, while the government is citing the territorial responsibility clause of the Frontier Crimes Regulation to insist that local community is accountable for maintaining order. “As we planned things for post-operation Mehsud areas, they are not happening so. It is frustrating that things are not going the way you want,” a senior government official spoke on condition of anonymity to underscore the TTP has potential to sabotage the government’s efforts for crushing militancy in tribal areas.
Hakeemullah Mehsud and his cousin, the suicide-bomber trainer Qari Hussain are seen as hawks in the TTP who seem least concerned over the consequences Pakistan will face for their actions inside or outside the country. What makes things worse for Islamabad is the TTP ability to align itself with Kashmiri and sectarian militant groups with strong bases in Punjab – militants to these areas are referred to as ‘Punjabi Taliban.’ Some successful strikes deep into the heart of that province are evidence of their real presence. The alliance between TTP and Punjabi Taliban has displayed their ability to carry out sophisticated operations like kidnapping of two former ISI officials along with a British journalist in North Waziristan in March this year. One of the hostages – ex-Air Force and ISI official Khalid Khawaja – was killed. They are holding the remaining two and demanding US$10 million as ransom for the release of journalist Asad Qureshi.
With little damage to the TTP´s fighting ability and hardware or loss of foot soldiers in the wake of Operation Rah-e-Nijat (‘Operation Salvation Path’) in Mehsud areas since last October there has been criticism of the military letting the organization take root in neighbouring North Waziristan. “Most TTP leaders, commanders and foot soldiers are now in North Waziristan using it launch-pad for attacks on the government forces in areas of operation in neighbouring South Waziristan and rest of the country,” residents of Miranshah and Mir Ali – two major towns in North Waziristan – shared their experience of living among some of the very dangerous groups.
Despite the growing presence of the TTP in North Waziristan, the military is resisting calls for opening a new front against the militants when Swat, Bajaur and Orakzai areas have not yet been fully secured. Military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas was quoted in the media as saying the North Waziristan offensive would outstretch the army. With American pressure to respond to TTP in Waziristan, even as the Pakistani Army is prioritising its engagement elsewhere, points to a troubling challenge of following up on its military campaign with successful and concrete strategies of finding a lasting solution with measures like rehabilitation, reconstruction and public participation. Moreover, Islamabad has the additional challenge of disconnecting its domestic militancy with their association and activities beyond its borders, a challenge that may prove increasingly difficult if coalition forces exit Afghanistan.
Iqbal Khattak is a Contributing Editor to Himal Southasian Magazine and the Bureau Chief of Daily Times based in Peshawar.
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