Clandestine manoeuvrings to select new Taliban head

Hakimullah Mehsud (left) with his commander Wali-ur Rehman in 2009 Drone strikes have recently killed the senior leadership of the Pakistani Taliban including Hakimullah Mehsud (left) and Waliur Rehman

Somewhere along the mountainous border between Pakistan's militant-occupied tribal districts of North Waziristan and South Waziristan, turbaned Taliban commanders are gathering to choose a new leader of the Pakistani Taliban group, the TTP.

The time, venue and duration of the meeting remain a closely guarded secret because the area is known as much for being a major militant sanctuary as it is for the constant buzzing of unmanned American spy planes - or drones - looking for targets.

During the last three days, these men have been holding secret meetings in undisclosed buildings in the town of Miranshah and elsewhere in the region to mourn the death of their leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, in Dande Darpakhel - 5km (three miles) north of Miranshah.

Pakistan responded angrily to the killing, saying that Hakimullah Mehsud was eliminated just a day before the government was to initiate peace talks with his group.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan stated that the drone strike had "murdered" any chance of peace in his country.

Potential targets

But Taliban elements and their hard line Islamist sympathisers are blaming Pakistan - which had announced a bounty of $470,000 (£293,000) on his head - for collaborating with the Americans to eliminate Hakimullah Mehsud.

A Pakistani policeman at a checkpoint in Bannu, a town on the edge of Pakistan's lawless tribal belt of Waziristan (2 November 2013) For the government side, conflict within the Mehsud tribe could amount to a win-win situation

Taliban officials approached by journalists cite three days of mourning as the reason why there has been a delay in announcing Hakimullah Mehsud's successor. But there may be other hurdles as well.

One is the difficulty of movement in a region where drones are always on the lookout for potential targets and there is frequent human intelligence on the ground to guide them to those targets.

Telecommunications are also problematic. Pakistani landline telephone networks can easily be monitored by Pakistan, and groups hitting Pakistani targets would be reluctant to use these phones for confidential exchanges.

Some mobile phone companies based in Afghanistan provide coverage across Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and are widely used by fighters operating there. But they have a similar problem as they too can be monitored by Afghan intelligence.

The choice of using these communication networks depends on which group can expect sympathy from which country.

Numerical strength

Another problem concerns the tribal dynamics peculiar to TTP that make the choice of a leader a potentially explosive one.

Start Quote

If a Mehsud leader is brought forth, he is more likely to be from a group sympathetic to peace talks with Islamabad”

End Quote

When TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a drone strike in 2009, the transition to a new leader appeared smooth.

Hakimullah Mehsud had established himself as an able deputy who had helped to organise the TTP in nearly all areas of the Fata north of Waziristan, thereby expanding the organisation's boundaries beyond the ethnic confines of the Mehsud tribe.

It was his clout among the northern tribes that ultimately won him the top TTP seat - and later helped him garner superior numerical strength to survive in Miranshah.

He took refuge in Miranshah from 2009, when the Pakistani army started an operation in his native Mehsud areas of South Waziristan.

Hakimullah Mehsud got support from like-minded militants who had also been forced into the area from other northern areas under pressure from the military.

That is not the case now.

Over the years, Hakimullah Mehsud's policy of favouring the northerners created resentment within his own tribe, and many of the top Mehsud commanders shifted their loyalties to his top rival and fellow tribesman, Waliur Rehman.

Hawkish attitude

In recent months, the two groups have been fighting turf wars in areas away from Fata, especially in the country's largest city and financial hub, Karachi, with Waliur Rehman's followers widely thought to have gained the upper hand.

A Pakistani family, displaced from the tribal areas because of fighting between the Taliban and the army, fixes the rooftop of their mud house, in preparation for the rain season, in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Islamabad (5 November 2013) Some of the the main losers in the conflict between the Taliban and the army are displaced people

But after Waliur Rehman's death in yet another drone strike in May, his deputy Khan Said Sajna was elevated to head the group. He is now one of the top contenders for the post, but he will face tough opposition from Hakimullah Mehsud's group.

This conflict within the Mehsud tribe has led to speculation that a choice may be made from some of the more prominent but non-Mehsud commanders, such as Mullah Fazlullah of Swat, Commander Omar Khalid of Mohmand, or Commander Hafiz Saeed of Orakzai.

But those who understand the tribal dynamics of Waziristan - and the area's significance as the ultimate sanctuary for Islamist forces - believe a non-local commander is unlikely to hold the respect of the Mehsud fighters, who make up the bulk of the TTP's manpower.

For the Pakistani government, this would appear to be a win-win situation.

If a non-Mehsud leader is chosen, the TTP is likely to see internal rifts, allowing Pakistani intelligence to infiltrate it more effectively.

But if a Mehsud leader is brought forth, he is more likely to be from a group sympathetic to peace talks with Islamabad.

Most TTP commanders of the north oppose any peace talks with Pakistan.

Hakimullah Mehsud himself was known for his hawkish attitude towards the political system of his home country, calling it "secular" and therefore something to be destroyed.

By contrast, Waliur Rehman was considered a dove on the issue, and his successor is believed also to support that policy. Analysts say that if Khan Said Sajna is chosen to lead the TTP, he may in due course come around to holding talks with Islamabad.

But in the meantime, one thing is clear.

Pakistan has chosen to distance itself from the strike that killed Hakimullah Mehsud.

This is perhaps to obfuscate the impression among conservative circles that Pakistanis trapped him by inviting him to talks and thereby causing him to lower his guard.

Many remember that his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, was only targeted after repeated complaints by Pakistani officials that the Americans had avoided hitting him despite being provided with real-time intelligence on his whereabouts.

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