Fazlullah, a self-styled mullah from Pakistan’s Swat Valley known by the moniker Mullah Radio, is the new Tehreek-e-Taliban chief. The details of Fazlullah’s life are generally known, as is his rather innovative use of pirate FM radio in the run-up to two military operations in Swat: in 2007 and, the more decisive one, in 2009.
How did he get to the top of the heap that is the Pakistan Taliban?
This question is important for two reasons. One, Fazlullah is a Babukarkhel Yousafzai from Imam Derai in Swat, which makes him a lowlander Pakhtun. For him to replace a Mehsud, especially when the Tehreek-e-Taliban core comprises—broadly, though not exclusively—Mehsud tribe highlanders, is unusual. Two, while he headed his own faction of the Taliban, he was not close to the killed Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud. That would have been Khan Said (not Syed) a.k.a. Sajna, another Mehsud. Sajna could not make it, even though he was a claimant in the Taliban game of thrones.
Those who know the Pakhtun understand the importance of tribal affiliations. While the Pakistani Taliban claim to speak on behalf of the unicorn called the Muslim Ummah, and while it provides its umbrella to the Punjabi Taliban and fighters from Chechnya, Uzbekistan, China, and the Middle East, some basic traits of tribal asabiya are still maintained. As tribalism goes, even by Pakhtun standards, the Mehsud take their pride in being sui generis to another level.
The second broad tribal fault-line is between the highlanders and the lowlanders, with the former considering themselves martially superior, a sense conveyed by the motto of the Frontier Corps’ Shawal Rifles: “Da Ghroonu Zalmee” (“We are the Highlanders,” or “Men from the Hills”). While the British ultimately recruited the highlanders, they never managed to subjugate them.
The third broad fault-line is between the southern Pakhtuns and the northerners. The southerners have always considered themselves superior to the northerners. Finally, even within the northern tribes, northerners in the federally-administered tribal areas would not have accepted someone from the lower Swat Valley as their leader.
Yet, Fazlullah has been declared the leader, albeit with deliberations spread over some days in which initial reports said that Sajna had been chosen leader. Later, these reports were refuted and it emerged that an acting leader, Asmatullah Shaheen, had been put in place until the issue could finally be decided.
A further kink in this selection is Fazlullah’s lack of proximity to the Taliban rank and file. Unlike Hakimullah Mehsud and those close to him, he doesn’t operate from North Waziristan. (Mehsud et. al. had relocated to North Waziristan after the Pakistan military took control of the Mehsud triangle in South Waziristan.) Fazlullah, since the second operation in Malakand (lower Dir, upper and lower Swat Valley, Buner, and parts of Shangla), is based in Afghanistan. While he stages attacks from Kunar, his sanctuary is said to be west of Kunar, in the velayat of Nuristan. How would he manage relatively more central control over Pakistani Taliban operations given the difficulty of communication, especially electronic communication?
There can be only two reasons for his selection. One, he is considered very hardline. Two, he will not interfere with the operations of the multiple groups that form part of the Taliban franchise.
The Pakistani Taliban claim to speak on behalf of the unicorn called the Muslim Ummah.
Lest we forget, given short memories, Fazlullah was opposed to talking to the government from the word go. He voiced his opposition much before Hakimullah Mehsud got droned. In fact, in a brazen attack meant to derail the prospects for talks, his men killed the Swat Garrison Officer Commanding, Maj. Gen. Sanaullah Niazi. Of course, he wasn’t counting on the pusillanimity of the Pakistani government, which, despite that attack, wanted to go ahead with the talks.
Second, Fazlullah is close to some of the Punjabi Taliban groups that also provided fighting cadres to him during the second military operation in 2009. This includes Jundallah, the group responsible for the attack on the All Saints Church in Peshawar.
Fazlullah’s selection is thus likely to lead to two related outcomes: he will not talk, and he will allow the groups that form the franchise a greater degree of freedom in their operations.
Does this mean the Taliban, under Hakimullah Mehsud, were more amenable to talking?
No. The objective for which they played has already been achieved. They wanted to ensure that the Pakistan Army stayed away from North Waziristan this year. The fighting season is almost over and the next window will come in late March to April. On April 5, 2014, Afghanistan will hold the first round of its presidential elections. The withdrawal of NATO forces in Afghanistan will have begun. While it made sense to not go into North Waziristan until the spring of 2011, the operation should not have been delayed after that.
Next spring, even if the Pakistan military goes into North Waziristan, the Pakistani Taliban will have strategic depth in the Loya Paktia region of Afghanistan, which will provide it the fallback position. The Afghan National Directorate of Security is currently providing funding and sanctuaries to Fazlullah and his men. That has not changed even though Kunar, since July, has a new governor, Shujaul Mulk Jalala, who is less enamored of Fazlullah than his predecessor was. It remains to be seen if the Pakistani Taliban groups side with the Afghan Army and police in their fight against the Afghan Taliban.
Much of this will be determined by local politics, and also by who Fazlullah will see as the winner. The situation is far from linear. Fazlullah, while in Nuristan, is also linked to the Salafi Taliban who operate independently of the Quetta Shura. His wounded men are treated in Jalalabad. His trump is that the Afghan Taliban cannot operate against him because the Pakistani Taliban can make life difficult for the Afghan Taliban east of the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Similarly, like other Pakistani Taliban groups, Fazlullah’s is also close to the remaining Al Qaeda elements. Furthermore, a number of alliances exist because of local conditions, tribal affiliations and other pressures.
What are Islamabad’s options? The first should be evident. It must exploit the fault-lines that exist within the Pakistani Taliban franchise. If, as reports indicate, Sajna is actually interested in talking, it will be worthwhile to explore that option. We did this with the late Maulvi Nazir who put the squeeze on the Mehsuds and also fought the Uzbeks out of the Wazir areas in South Waziristan. To a lesser extent, but no less importantly, the deal with Hafiz Gul Bahadur has also worked. These two deals were instrumental in launching Operation Rah-e-Nijaat against the Taliban in the Mehsud triangle.
The other prong of this strategy, given Fazlullah’s links with Afghan intelligence, is to signal to the Afghan Taliban the nature of the threat to Pakistan and who is mounting it. Pakistan should use its leverage, both in terms of carrots and sticks, to put the heat on Fazlullah. This won’t be easy given the Pakistani Taliban’s likely retaliation, but could be made to work if Islamabad can utilize the fissures within the franchise.
Finally, it is crucial for the government to place the evidence of Fazlullah’s anti-state activities and his sources of funding before the public. There is no point in sitting over that information without making use of it. This war is not just about fire-fighting. It is also a conflict between competing narratives.
(Editor’s Note: Given the general confusion about Fazlullah’s ethnicity, the previous version of this piece had incorrectly identified Fazlullah as a Gujjar. This was an editing error and is regretted.)
Haider is a senior journalist who has held various editorial positions. His areas of interest include defense, security, foreign policy, statecraft, political theory, and literature. You can follow him on Twitter for updates.