PESHAWAR: Maulana Fazlullah, the reclusive Swat Taliban chief who is believed to be one of the front-runners to head the outlawed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), is already on the US target list and could be taken out anytime like other TTP leaders.
His name on the US hit list makes him a target for the drones that hover over the tribal areas in search of Taliban and al-Qaeda militants. However, the US drones and troops have failed to kill or arrest him in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, where he has been hiding since 2009. Fazlullah fled to Afghanistan in 2009 to escape a massive military operation that defeated his group in Swat, a valley he had controlled.
The US has made its intention public that it would kill him if he was located. “We will take him off the battlefield if there is an actionable intelligence,” US Ambassador to Pakistan Richard Olson said early this year. Brig Mahmood Shah, a security analyst, doubts US intentions that it wanted to kill him. “Not so far,” he said.
Beheadings, floggings and kidnappings were carried out on Fazlullah’s order in Swat from 2007 to 2009. He also ordered attack on Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl from Swat who was nearly killed by a gunman he had sent. She has become an international icon championing education.
From his sanctuaries in Kunar, Fazlullah planned an attack on a two-star general, Maj Gen Sanaullah Niazi, in Upper Dir and killed him along with another officer and a soldier. Fazlullah’s cross-border attacks precipitated troop deployment on the border with Afghanistan along Lower Dir, Upper Dir and Chitral districts.
But none of these operations is the reason the US wants him eliminated. Washington holds Fazlullah responsible for the killing of three American soldiers in Lower Dir. The soldiers, who were apparently trainers, were killed in a roadside blast in Shahi Koto area in Lower Dir in February 2010. They were accompanying the Pakistani security forces to Maidan, an area in Lower Dir retaken from Taliban militants.
The American soldiers’ killing had unmatched significance as they were the first known casualties of the US troops on Pakistani soil. Fazlullah had claimed responsibility for the attack.
Ayaz Wazir, a former diplomat and analyst, said US did not want to kill Fazlullah. “Fazlullah has been in Afghanistan for years and is carrying out operations. The US technology is so sophisticated that it says it can see an ant on the ground. So, how does the US not see a 5/6-feet Fazlullah?” he wondered.
He said Fazlullah might be on the hit-list of the US but it doesn’t want to target him now. “Hakimullah was also on the hit-list of the US for years, but it targetted him on a particular occasion. Fazlullah will also be hit at a time that suits the US,” Ayaz Wazir said.
If Fazlullah is made leader of the TTP, the Nawaz Sharif government would find it difficult to shore up the derailed peace talks. Pakistan has failed to persuade or force the US to stop drone strikes in the tribal areas to make peace talks with Taliban successful. After TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud’s death, the US has not promised to halt drone operations to allow the negotiations to happen. The drones might intensify the search for Fazlullah and it would contribute to the uncertainty about peace talks.
Also, Fazlullah who had been defeated in Swat would possibly seek revenge from the Pakistan Army instead of holding talks for peace. Fazlullah manifested this intention by organising attack on Maj Gen Sanaullah after the all parties’ conference that offered Taliban talks to seek solution to the ongoing conflict.
Analysts, however, believe he has thin chances to become TTP leader as he doesn’t belong to the Mehsud tribe. “If the leader of the TTP came from outside the Mehsud tribe, Taliban would become weaker,” Mahmood Shah said. “Fazlullah would not be able to hold control of the TTP. His network is weak in Pakistan, and he would have no influence over Punjabi Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the groups that are not part of TTP but support it,” he added.
Ayaz Wazir argued TTP was founded by Mehsuds and its leadership would be retained by them. “No Mohmand, Afridi, Wazir, Bhittani or anyone from any other tribe would be allowed to take up reins of this organisation,” he maintained.