ISLAMABAD: As the internal power struggle in the TTP between various factions to grab the top slot of Ameer began, loyalists of Hakimullah Mehsud have chosen Sheharyar Mehsud alias Shahbaz as the new Ameer of their faction in North Waziristan.
On the other hand, 22 Mehsud tribes in Waziristan have decided to back the Ameer of the South Waziristan chapter of the TTP, Said Khan Mehsud alias Sajna, for the top position.
In fact, an intra-TTP rift was already going on between Hakeemullah and Said Khan ever since the latter was deposed as the deputy Ameer of the Tehrik-e-Taliban a couple of months ago by Hakimullah.
The point of contention between them was the issue of holding talks with the government. While Sajna was in favour of a peace dialogue just like his predecessor, Commander Waliur Rehman Mehsud, who originally belonged to the Jamiate Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), Hakimullah was averse to the idea of parleys just like his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud.
And this tug of war has intensified with the death of Hakimullah at a time when his second-in-command, Commander Latifullah Mehsud, has already been captured by the Americans in Afghanistan and his number three, Commander Abdullah Bahar, was droned to death along with his boss in the Nov 1 strike.
Traditionally speaking, the TTP Ameer is generally a Mehsud who either comes from South or North Waziristan as had been the case with Baitullah and Hakimullah.
As far as Sajna and Sheharyar are concerned, both of them are Mehsuds belonging to the Waziristan region. But Said Khan, who has only recently changed his alias from Sajna to Khalid after objections from his detractors, is considered to be a stronger candidate for the slot of TTP Ameer keeping in view his seniority in the organisation and his standing and clout among the various Mehsud tribes.
He was born in the Zangara area of Sararogh, a sub-division of South Waziristan, and is currently a resident of the Shabi Khel area of South Waziristan. The TTP founder, Baitullah Mehsud, also belonged to the same sub-tribe.
Like many other Taliban commanders, Sajna too has been involved in fighting against the US-led allied forces in Afghanistan. He has no basic education, conventional or religious, but he is battle-hardened and is considered to be a pragmatic operative. Sajna is allegedly involved in the May 22, 2011 fidayeen attack targeting the PNS Mehran base which is the headquarters of the Pakistan Navy’s Naval Air Arm.
In the course of the daring terrorist assault, 15 attackers killed 18 military personnel and wounded 16 others.
Therefore, compared with Sajna, Sheharyar Mehsud alias Shahbaz is considered to be a toddler in the TTP whose only qualification is his close proximity with Hakimullah while he was alive. Many in the TTP circles even don’t think that Sheharyar would be considered a serious candidate. Some say there are chances of Hakimullah’s loyalists (led by Sheharyar) opposing Sajna’s candidature for the TTP leadership and throwing their weight behind some other Taliban commander - Mullah Fazlullah or Commander Omar Khalid Khurasani. However, the problem with Fazlullah is that he is on the run and hiding in Afghanistan while a functional TTP Ameer has to physically lead his jihadi militia in Waziristan.
As far as Commander Omer Khalid Khurasani is concerned, he happens to be the Ameer of the Mohmand Agency chapter of the TTP. He is neither a Mehsud nor does he belong to the Waziristan tribal agency. Even otherwise, he was seemingly unhappy with the way Hakimullah was running TTP affairs. He has been using former TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan, who is also from Mohmand, to issue statements opposing peace talks with the government. “The current wave in support of talks is bound to fail as we have come to the conclusion that the government was not serious”, Khurasani had stated in mid-September.
“The key difference is that we want to change the 1973 Constitution with Shariah or Islamic law and the Pakistan Army is demanding from us to follow the Constitution. But let me make it clear that the Taliban will not budge an inch from the demand for the implementation of Shariah”, he had added.
Another contender for the TTP leadership is Qari Walayat Ullah Mehsud who claims to be a close relative of Hakimullah Mehsud. But he stands a small chance of getting the leadership of the TTP because of his feeble standing and insignificant clout within the terrorist outfit. But one thing is for sure - whoever assumes the TTP leadership, there will be strain on the unity and ranks of the jihadi umbrella. One of the key qualities that distinguished Hakimullah from the other Taliban commanders was his ability to forge unity and retain a coalition of tribal loyalties, which was not an easy task keeping in view the diversity and mutual tribal antagonisms that dominate the social and political matrix in the tribal belt.
The death of Hakimullah is surely a critical setback for the TTP, inflicting a measure of demoralisation on the rank and file.
However, the fact remains that the TTP is not over-dependent on personalities. If the past course is any indication, there will be another leader in the saddle soon to carry on the jihadi agenda of the al-Qaeda-linked Taliban. And the TTP’s strategic goals are not expected to undergo any radical change under any of the possible successors, be it Said Khan or any other commander. A strong anti-US and anti-establishment agenda is expected to be intensified by the TTP which may lead to yet another spell of bloody terrorist attacks across Pakistan, as had happened following the August 2009 death of Baitullah Mehsud in a US drone attack.
Under Baitullah’s command, the TTP had created a wider company of jihadi warriors, whose strength is estimated to be between 25,000 to 30,000 armed men, including 3,000 to 4,000 foreign militants. If the intra-TTP power struggle further intensifies, there are chances of the Haqqani network, Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda top brass stepping in to resolve the leadership crisis. In fact, the key leaders of the three groups — Commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, Mullah Mohammad Omar and Dr Ayman Al Zawahiri — are often reported to be hiding in the Pak-Afghan tribal belt.
Therefore, these ‘leading lights’ of jihad would love to have a TTP Ameer of their own preference who is more open to operational cooperation while carrying out cross-border attacks against their common enemy in Afghanistan.