In the wake of elections across the United States, a very different kind of “election” took place half-way around the world -- the Pakistani Taliban named a new leader to replace his predecessor who was killed in a U.S. drone strike. Dawn, an English language Pakistani daily, reported that Mullah Fazlullah, who led the Taliban in the Swat Valley during 2007-2009 before the Pakistani military regained control of the region, is now the chief of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). During his brutal reign in Swat, Fazlullah waged a campaign of school burnings, public floggings and beheadings before the army cleared him out.
According to a report from Agence France Presse, the TTP’s ‘caretaker’ leader Asmatullah Shaheen held a press conference somewhere in northwest Pakistan where he formally announced Fazlullah’s selection. Shaheen said the decision was “taken at a shura (council) meeting,” adding that a man named Sheikh Khalid Haqqani was named the group’s deputy chief. Another TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid confirmed the election, telling Reuters the decision was made “following proper consultations.” Dawn noted that heavy gunfire was reported in the town of Miramshah in North Waziristan, likely to celebrate the naming of a new TTP boss.
Fazlullah is described as a “hard-liner” -- even more so than the man he is replacing, Hakimullah Mehsud, who died last week in North Waziristan. Nicknamed “Mullah Radio” for the incendiary broadcasts he has periodically delivered, Fazlullah formerly led the outlawed militant group called Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), which once controlled Swat. Fazlullah’s election will probably make it more difficult for the Pakistani government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to enter into negotiations for a peace deal with TTP.
Taliban spokesman Shahid explicitly told Reuters: "There will be no more talks as Mullah Fazlullah is already against negotiations with the Pakistan government." Michael Kugelman, Senior Program Associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, called Fazlullah’s ascension a “death knell” for such peace talks. “Fazlullah is a hardline fighter to the core who has expressed little interest in negotiations,” Kugelman said. “It’s unlikely the Pakistani military will sanction talks between the government and the Fazlullah-led TTP.”
Fazlullah, who is indirectly responsible for the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, the teenaged girl from the Swat Valley who has since become a globally famous education activist, is believed to have fled across the border to Afghanistan in 2009 after Pakistani troops regained Swat. Dawn said that he is likely now in the Nuristan province in Afghanistan. But the Express Tribune reported that the Afghan Taliban had granted Fazlullah sanctuary in Kunar province further south.
In any case, Fazlullah’s organization has killed thousands of people, including civilians since 2007 as part of its campaign to overthrow the Pakistani government. Kugelman further noted that Pakistan’s next Army chief, who will take office later this month, will likely be Gen. Haroon Aslam -- a man who played a direct role in leading the Swat offensive in 2009.
BBC correspondent M. Ilyas Khan commented that since Fazlullah is not a member of the Mehsud clan, he could potentially face a challenge to his rule from Mehsud loyalists, who are believed to make the majority of Taliban fighters.
In any case, the change in leadership at TTP means the Pakistani government, desperate to put an end to years of militant violence, will have to find a new m method of dealing with the insurgency. Pakistani officials have already condemned the US drone strike that killed the prior TTP leader, accusing Washington of intentionally seeking to frustrate nascent peace negotiations between Islamabad and the TTP.
Ahmed Rashid, a guest columnist for BBC, noted, however, the even if Mehsud was still alive, peace will the TTP would be elusive. “Although the government claims that Hakimullah Mehsud's death has "derailed the peace process", it was highly unlikely that the Pakistani Taliban were ready for talks,” Rashid wrote. “Moreover, many Pakistanis ask what there is to talk about. The Taliban have insisted on the state dismantling its institutions and implementing a Sharia legal system and a Muslim caliphate. As such it has nothing to offer the state in talks, while the government cannot concede anything on the constitution or democracy.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.