Af-Pak Diary: Decoding Hakimullah Mehsud’s Talks Offer

08 Jan, 2013    ·   3786

D Suba Chandran analyses the strategic implications of Hakimullah's recent video message

Following an earlier statement from the TTP on negotiating with the State under certain pre-conditions, Hakimullah Mehsud, leader of the TTP, sent a video message last week. What does the message convey? Given the fact that this message follows a previous offer to talk, what are the implications for that larger agenda?

Talks Without Laying Down Arms
The TTP leader’s primary message is loud and clear. The Pakistani Taliban has no intention to give up arms, even if the State agrees to its earlier demand to negotiate. The pre-conditions that the earlier message conveyed included removing all laws repugnant with the tenets of Islam, redrafting the constitution of Pakistan in accordance with the Sharia, withdrawing support to the US in Afghanistan, and revenging India for 1971.

Invariably, Hakimullah’s dispatch also underlined the pre-conditions set in the earlier message. While the government may be willing to negotiate with the TTP without the latter laying down its weapons, there may be nothing much to discuss on the four demands, perhaps excepting the last one.

No Divide Within the TTP
Both the video message, which showed Hakimullah making an address along with Wali-ur-Rehman, and his statement made it clear that there is no divide within the TTP. The general perception amongst those who have been following the internal equations of the TTP is that there is a divide between Hakimullah and Wali-ur-Rehman. There have been reports that immediately after the killing of the previous chief of the TTP – Baitullah, there was a succession struggle between the two factions led by Hakimullah and Wali-ur-Rehman.

Though both belong to the Mehsud tribe, there have been numerous reports of a divide between the two. Hakimullah was reported to have stated in his message, “Wali-ur-Rehman is sitting with me here, and we will remain together until death.”

Have they patched up? Or is this a ploy to pressurise Pakistan to negotiate? The TTP is not a monolith and has always been a divided house. Maulvi Nazir, who was killed by an American drone last week, was considered a “pro-Pakistan Taliban”, who was never in favour of targeting the security forces of Pakistan. On the other hand, the Khyber Taliban led by the notorious Tariq Afridi (who is rumoured to have been killed) has been well known for targeting the military and paramilitary. The recent abductions and subsequent killings of 21 Levies belonging to Pakistan are believed to be the Khyber Taliban’s operations.

Perhaps, one of the objectives behind this was to convey that the TTP now stands united.

No Divide Between the Taliban, TTP and al Qaeda
Hakimullah, in his message, reportedly conveyed, “There is no difference between the Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda.” While every single Taliban faction within Pakistan, including the Haqqani Network, owes its allegiance to Mullah Omar, there has been an attempt led by the Pakistani establishment to sever the link between the Taliban (Afghan and Pakistani) and the al Qaeda. There has been international (primarily, the US) support for this attempt to de-link the Taliban from the al Qaeda.

To a certain extent, this has been successful at multiple levels. The US, along with key international players, has been exerting pressure to keep the Taliban away from the al Qaeda. The objective is to ensure that the link between the two is severed, so that the Taliban can be negotiated with to reach a final settlement in Afghanistan, as the 2014 deadline fast approaches. Previously Germany, and now France, is engaged in arranging a dialogue between the Afghan Taliban and Karzai’s administration. Even Pakistan was kept away from this dialogue earlier, but now in the Paris round of talks held during December 2012, Islamabad was kept in the loop. It was no coincidence that Pakistan released a few leaders of the Afghan Taliban, including a former Taliban minister and a former Governor of Helmand province, on the eve of 2013.

While the Afghan Taliban may be willing to play along with this strategy, will the TTP led by Hakimullah also follow suit? It is common knowledge that within the TTP, it was Maulvi Nazir’s faction, which was opposed to the al Qaeda and its affiliates; Nazir engaged the Uzbek militants closer to the al Qaeda in a series of battles in 2008-09 and drove them out of Waziristan. On the other hand, leaders like Baitullah, Hakimullah, Wali-ur-Rehman and Tariq Afridi have not cut their ties with the al Qaeda. Worse, they have become the bridge between the al Qaeda and sectarian militants from Punjab, now referred to as the Punjabi Taliban.

If this message were true – that the al Qaeda, TTP and Afghan Taliban stand united, it would spell doom for any reconciliation within Pakistan and Afghanistan. Perhaps, Hakimullah owes allegiance to Mullah Omar rhetorically, but is linked with the al Qaeda leadership both financially and operationally.

So what should we do? Should we take his message seriously? Damned if we do, and damned if we do not. That, in its essence, is the Taliban conundrum for us.