SPEAKING FREELY Fazaullah's rise bodes ill for Pakistan
By Sameera Rashid
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After the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud in a drone strike, a council of Taliban leaders, belonging to different tribal agencies and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, elevated Maulana Fazalullah as the head of the Pakistani Taliban. The appointment sent signals that bode ill for peace in Pakistan and beyond its borders.
Who is Maulana Fazalullah?
Maulana Fazalullah, a ruthless leader from Swat, and an Afghan war veteran, is hiding in Afghanistan according to some intelligence reports. The origins of his Islamic radicalism lie in the
historical constitutional travesties of Swat and the Pakistani state's entanglement in the Afghan war.
The princely state of Swat acceded to Pakistan in 1947, but retained internal autonomy, with its own laws, its own system of justice, army, police and administration. In 1969, the laws and administrative machinery of the rest of Pakistan were introduced in Swat - the bureaucracy conducted the administrative work and justice was provided through regular courts.
However, the introduction of regular institutional structures reduced the influence of local elite. Acquiescing to the pressure of the local landed classes, Swat was granted the status of Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA), which was a mix of old autocratic system and modern political institutions.
The Supreme Court quashed the PATA regulations in 1994, leading to constitutional vacuum in Swat. As the constitutional crisis deepened, Sufi Muhamed - a hardline cleric, who ran the madrassa where Fazalullah was educated, began armed agitation for Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) or movement for imposition of sharia.
In the aftermath of the Afghan jihad, the power and prestige of clerics like Sufi Mohammad had increased in Swat because of infusion of petro-dollars for establishment of madrassas and their hobnobbing with civil and military officials. Not only were clerics giving the local people an Islamic education, they also began settling decades-old disputes and initiated programs - often combat training centers - for jihadist indoctrination of the jobless, landless youth.
Khadim Hussain writes in The Militant Discourse that, "Maulana Sufi Mohammad of the TNSM had passed a decree that turned military training a must (Fard-i-Ain) for all the Muslims of valley Swat." And this training was provided through networking with sectarian and Kashmir-centric militant outfits such as Jaish Mohammed and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen.
After years of armed movement for enforcement of sharia, Sufi Muhammad took control of some districts through the use of force. The militant group was dislodged by Frontier Corps after a month long military operation. Besides agitating in Swat, Sufi Mohammed networked with Afghan Taliban - with whom he shared Pashtun ancestry and an ideological mindset - and sent recruits across the border to fight with the Taliban against other Afghan warlords.
After the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) strikes dislodged the al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan, Sufi Muhammad was arrested at the Pak-Afghan border in 2002, fleeing Afghanistan. During the period of his incarceration, Maulana Fazalullah assumed his leadership in Swat and styled his group on the pattern of Afghan Taliban.
By 2007, Fazalullah had managed to establish his stranglehold in Swat by manipulating the media and targeted killings of moderate members of the Swat administration. Earning notoriety as a bloodthirsty militant, he turned the Green Square of Mingora into an execution center, where bullet-riddled bodies of policemen and their so-called informers were hung from the poles and public floggings were regular.
Apart from perpetrating mass killings, he established a parallel criminal justice system - apparently modeled on Islamic sharia but extremely savage in its tone and tenor. To stop bloodshed in Swat, in 2008, the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa reached an agreement with Fazalullah. The agreement, dubbed "Nizam-e-Adl" (the system of justice) granted the Taliban virtual control over Swat to implement their interpretation of sharia law.
However, the deal fell apart when Fazlullah's men attempted to expand their sphere of control to neighboring Buner district and a military operation was launched against his brigand. After his eviction from Swat in 2009, Fazalullah escaped to Afghanistan; he orchestrates cross-border attacks against civilians and security personnel of Pakistan from his hideout in Nuristan. His faction claimed responsibility for some of the worst acts of violence in recent years - including the shooting of schoolgirl Malala Yusufzai in 2012.
Despite his proclivity for ruthlessness and ferocious attacks against security forces in Pakistan, Fazlullah's rise as head of TTP has surprised many analysts. For one, with his appointment, the TTP leadership has passed from the Mehsuds of Waziristan to militants of mainland Pakistan.
There are reports that Khan Said Sajna, a Mehsud militant, could not be elevated as TTP head due to factional fighting amongst the Mehsuds. Before the death of Hakeeullah Mehsud, a faction led by Sajna was challenging the leadership of Hakimullah, and his operational commander, in Karachi, had been slain reportedly on the orders of Sajna.
Writing in Friday Times, Zia ur Rehman notes:
A source privy to a Taliban council meeting said a majority of Mehsud members of the shura want Sajna to be their new emir, but members belonging to the Hakimullah faction, the Malakand faction led by Mullah Fazalullah, and the Mohmand faction led by Omar Khalid, opposed Sajna. They say he was involved in the killing of Sher Khan.
And, for another, Fazalullah has been voted leader possibly because of his staunch stance against peace talks with the government of Pakistan. After his election, the TTP through its spokesman categorically refused to hold talks, calling the government of Pakistan "an American puppet". The backing of the Afghan Taliban - possibly of Mullah Omar - also played a role in his selection by Taliban shura.
It was reported in Dawn on (November 11, 2013, that the deadlock to select TTP head was broken by Mullah Omar "who stepped in and named Fazlullah as the man for the job". Mullah Omar support for Fazalullah is not a surprise move as Swati militants had fought alongside Afghan Taliban in the first Afghan war and, later, as civil war raged in Afghanistan, in the 1990s, they provided their Afghan counterparts recruits and eventually became their junior partners in Pakistan. They are different faces of the same coin.
Implications of Fazalullah's rise
The rise of Fazalullah in the ranks of Taliban can have ominous consequences for Pakistan. Most importantly, by giving mantle of TTP leadership to Fazalullah, Taliban militants are projecting the image that TTP is not FATA-centric and has support in the urban areas of Pakistan, too. Perhaps, it is flexing muscles to expand its violent campaign in the populous, economically prosperous Punjab to cause maximum casualties and inflict financial losses.
The statement of Taliban spokesperson that "we will target security forces, government installations, political leaders and police," speaks volumes about this strategy. According to some observers, TTP might enter into strategic alliances with militants in Punjab to carry out a spate of bombings and militant activities.
Secondly, as Maulana Fazalullah is against a negotiated settlement of the conflict, so he might begin a long war of attrition with the security forces of Pakistan. Nicholas Schmidle of The New Yorker, writes:
The ambitions of Pakistani Taliban's new chief," that the "Pakistani Taliban's center of power may well shift from Waziristan to the so-called settled areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, raising the prospect, once again, of pitched battles between the Army and the militants.
Arguably, militants are calculating that increase in militant activities might push democratically elected governments, both in the center and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to either negotiate favorable terms of peace agreement, if reached in future, or cause maximum casualties among security personnel, dampening their morale to fight counter-terrorism operations and causing war fatigue.
Finally, backing of Mullah Omar for Fazalullah shows a bigger game plan. As the US forces are withdrawing in 2014, so Afghan Taliban militants are forging stronger bonds with TTP and sectarian outfits in Pakistan to have better bargaining chips to negotiate in Afghanistan.
Pakistan's counter-terrorism strategy
In this context, what should be the counter-terrorism strategy of government of Pakistan? Rather than sounding apologetic about the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud in the drone attack, the need of the hour is to formulate a strategy that maximizes both civilian and military resources. The focus should be on strengthening the capacity and morale of law enforcement agencies that are going to face the brunt of the Taliban attacks, especially in urban centers.
To face the Taliban onslaught, civilian law enforcement agencies need to be trained to fight urban insurgency, especially to save the lives of civilians who can get caught in the crossfire. Instead of solely relying on the police force, which is not even properly equipped to carry out routine policing duties, and is utterly unprepared to face better equipped and ideologically motivated Taliban fighters, a well-trained, better equipped, and politically-neutral anti-terrorism task force must handle counter-terrorism operations in the urban areas.
Fortunately, a small step has been taken in this regard: the Punjab government has set up the Anti-Terrorism Force (ATF) as a special wing of Punjab police, but the small force of 500 police must be enlarged.
Military and civilian intelligence agencies are poor at gathering actionable human intelligence. The farmhouse in South Waziristan where Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a drone strike was reportedly only 1 kilometer from an army check post. After the death, eyewitnesses reported that a convoy of jeeps, with black tinted glasses, went inside and out of the farmhouse routinely; however, the whereabouts of Pakistan's Enemy No 1 were apparently not previously known.
As there are reports of rifts in the ranks of TTP on the selection of Maulana Fazalullah, the intelligence agencies can exploit their differences to permeate the outfits and obtain actionable intelligence to learn about their funding sources, targets and hideouts. However, to infiltrate militants and obtain human intelligence, the capacity of civilian agencies must be increased along with their co-ordination with military intelligence agencies.
Most important of all, a counter-terrorism strategy must be underpinned by the reality that Swati Taliban, the Mehsuds of Waziristan, the Asmatullah Muawiya of Punjab and the Afghan Taliban share objectives and goals: they want to carve out a territory in Pakistan and Afghanistan where they can practice their version of Islam.
To guard against the ideological onslaught of Taliban, who can misguide religious-leaning soldiers and policemen by issuing proclamations that security personnel are not fighting a just war with militants, civilian law enforcement agencies and military forces must also be trained about the deceptive narrative of Taliban and also taught why the war against the militants is a legitimate war, essential for existence of Pakistan.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Sameera Rashid is a research analyst based in Lahore.