Friday, 22 November 2013

Drones & the Taliban

Nek Mohammed:

Probably the first militant leader of note in FATA, Nek Mohammed was 27 when he was killed in the very first US drone strike in Pakistan, in June 2004. He fought against the Army when they launched an operation in South Waziristan to drive out the foreigners based there, and caused considerable losses.

He was then handed a peace deal, called the Shakai Agreement, which didn’t last. So the Pakistan Army requested the US to take him out. After the strike the Army claimed that it was them who killed him, but not many believed them. His grave reportedly became a shrine and his killing only provided more motivation & impetus for militancy in the tribal areas.

Shakai Agreement - 2004:

The deal between Nek Mohammed and the military entailed registering of foreigners in the area and a halt of cross-border attacks into Afghanistan. The military in turn would pay for the damage it caused to property of tribal people and pay for repaying their debts to Al-Qaeda.

More importantly, many have argued, the military afforded Nek Mohammed stature. Gen Safdar Hussain went to a madrassa in Shakai to ratify the deal; the militants’ turf. He also bypassed the tribal elders and Political Agent, making them look weak.

Nek Mohammed called himself a “soldier of Pakistan” at the occasion. Later he refused to stop supporting the fight in Afghanistan. That led to his killing and another op. But near the end of the same year the agreement was revived, with his successors. The new agreement didn’t require the militants to register foreigners, only to stop cross-border attacks.

The part about registering foreigners turned out to be the biggest issue for failure of the original agreement. The government claimed that registering foreigners meant handing over the foreign fighters to the military. Nek Mohammed had given shelter to notorious Uzbek militant Tahir Yuldashev, and basically fought the army to protect him. He didn’t see how registering meant surrendering the Uzbeks.

Baitullah Mehsud:

Baitullah Mehsud was the first leader or Amir of the TTP, killed in a drone strike in 2009. He gained notoriety in 2005, highlighted by the Sararogha deal. It’s been reported that he was appointed Mullah Omar’s governor for the Mehsud tribe, in the presence of other local Taliban leaders, back in the day. 

Although Nek Mohammed is said to have targeted pro-government tribal elders or maliks, Baitullah excelled in this. He had a special taskforce whose sole reason was to eliminate anyone suspected of siding with the US or the Pakistani government.

Sararogha Agreement:

The second famous, or infamous, peace deal was the Sararogha deal in early 2005. This was also in South Waziristan. After Nek Muhammed’s death, Baitullah and Abdullah Mehsud rose as prominent militant leaders. Abdullah was a former Guantanamo detainee and had been involved in kidnapping some Chinese engineers. The military didn’t want to talk to him.

So they talked to Baitullah. The deal struck with him wasn’t similar to the one with Nek Mohammed. Baitullah wouldn’t attack Pakistani forces, they wouldn’t target him. He would not provide sanctuary or aid to foreign fighters.

Notice that there was nothing on surrendering or registering foreign fighters. The group was also not required to stop cross-border attacks. Also, unlike the Shakai deal, it was the Assistant Political Agent & Assistant Political Officer that signed the agreement with Baitullah, in presence of tribal elders.

Like the last agreement, the government had to pay tribal people for damages caused during the fighting that preceded it.

Baitullah made a point of milking this. At the ceremony he is reported to have said that he only started fighting after the military started the operation, and that caused loss of property and other hardships for the local people.

He also claimed that he did not want to fight Pakistan, as it didn’t help the cause of the Afghan Taliban, “We understand fighting against Pakistani security forces did not help the Taliban at all,”

The deal broke down soon. It’s not clear what incident triggered that. Abdullah Mehsud had significant influence. His men weren’t bound to not carry out anti-state activities. When Baitullah renounced the deal in July, he claimed army had broken the deal first.


In 2007 Baitullah became Amir of the newly formed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. The organization pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar. When a TTP spokesman or “senior militant commander” talked to a national newspaper about the formation of the TTP, he said militants from South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Aurakzai, Kurram, Khyber, Mohmand and Bajaur and some districts of NWFP like Swat, Buner, Dir, Malakand, Bannu, Lakki Marwat, Tank, Peshawar, Dera Ismail Khan and Kohat had decided to “speed up their joint "Jihad" against the US and Nato forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.”

They also pledged to fight the Pakistani forces in self-defence, termed elsewhere as “defensive Jihad”, and demanded an end to military operations in North Waziristan & Swat.

Hafiz Gul Bahadur was named second in command of the TTP in the initial meeting. He however developed differences with Baitullah over attacking the Pakistani state. It wasn’t until 2009 that, reportedly at the insistence of Mullah Omer, the two buried the hatchet.

Mullah Nazir:

Nazir was the third man who buried the hatchet that day. He too was opposed to Baitullah’s Pakistan centric approach. He reportedly/allegedly had a peace deal with the security forces dating back to 2007.
Based in South Waziristan, Nazir had a particular disdain for the Uzbeks. He killed scores of them even when they were allied with the TTP. That didn’t endear him to the TTP, despite being in at least a couple of alliances/agreements with them.

So when he was targeted in a suicide attack in late 2012, TTP were prime suspect. Although they denied involvement, Nazir ordered all Mehsud tribesmen, who are the most bountiful source of recruits for TTP, out of the area. Around a month later, he was killed in a drone strike.

Hakimullah Mehsud:

Hakimullah was the next leader of the TTP, and recently met his demise in a drone strike. He had been an important leader in the TTP before taking over command, and soon after he masterminded an attack on the CIA to avenge Baitullah. That attack has been termed the deadliest against the agency in years.

This prompted the CIA to go after him with more vigour than usual. Coupled with the fact that South Waziristan, TTP base up-till 2009, was stormed by the Pakistani Army soon after Baitullah’s killing, Hakimullah spent a lot of his time as Amir in hiding.

This did not, apparently, reduce his effectiveness. Even though they control a much smaller region when compared to the heyday under Baitullah, the TTP perhaps became more relevant. For instance, they targeted specific political parties and tried to influence elections.

The TTP also launched some of their most audacious, sophisticated attacks under Hakimullah’s command, especially against the military. Including Kamra, they attacked defence installations 16 times since 2009.
Coincidentally, they grew much closer to Afghanistan during this period. Then TTP-Swat head Mullah Fazlullah permanently moved to Afghanistan from where he has orchestrated many attacks into Pakistan, including the one on Malala Yosufzai. 

More recently, Hakimullah’s handpicked No. 2, Latif Mehsud, was caught inside Afghanistan travelling with Afghan Intel agents by US forces. He was described as a “valuable asset”. Incidentally, this Afghan asset bought a $120,000 home for Hakimullah, at the gate of which he was killed.


The commonality between all of them, apart from death via drone or as I like to call it; DVD ™, is the allegiance to Mullah Omer & a declared support for fighting the US in Afghanistan. Sheltering foreign fighters is another, although Mullah Nazir is complicated. Even though he hated the Uzbeks, as with some other good Taliban, he still didn’t mind the Saudis. I read somewhere that his crackdown against the Uzbeks started when they assassinated two of his Saudi guests.

The differences between them are also striking. They went from “support fighting in Afghanistan” to “don’t want to fight Pakistan” to “defensive jihad” to “all-out war”. As the war has dragged on, their stances have become more and more extreme, and not just in terms of fighting Pakistan.

When Baitullah denied any hand in the murder of Benazir Bhutto, his spokesman said, "It is against tribal tradition and custom to attack a woman,". Contrast that with the current TTP head Mullah Radio and his unabashed pursuit of a schoolgirl.

Military action and drones, the former dating back to 2002 or 2003, and the later to 2004, have not only failed spectacularly to stem this slide, they have been the biggest catalyst. War apparently promotes that kinda thing. Go figure.

To focus on drones specifically, let’s weigh what they have achieved and what they have cost.


All of the above are high profile insurgents who were killed in drone strikes. 

Drones are supposedly an accurate and not-putting-soldiers-in-harm’s-way method of killing militants. There have been 281 or 345 or 367 drone attacks in Pakistan, killing kids as young as 12 to veteran womens as old as 67

The only tangible way these deaths have benefited us, or impacted the larger scheme of things is by creating opportunities for a quarrel over succession within the TTP.

Other than that, there are little gains. The TTP is an umbrella group and pretty decentralized. Separate chapters are independent in their actions, so it isn’t clear how striking at specific leaders would, or does, hamper their operational capabilities.

Nor does it scare them. Or deter. In any sense that would benefit us. From Nek Mohammed to Hakimullah, after each killing, as a rule, a more demented guy takes over, with a more aggressive, vile agenda. Take Fazlullah for example.

No drone strike I can think of has actually resulted in wrestling back territory from the TTP. In fact, North Waziristan (245 drone strikes), the most droned place on earth outside Afghanistan, remains the strongest bastion of Taliban.

This is consistent with the lack of success drones have had in Afghanistan. In 2012 alone almost 350 drone strikes were carried out across the Durand line, forcing the Taliban into giving the US ... no concessions at all.  

Minor Issues:

No point in pretending that people give a shit about civilian deaths, so let's focus on the larger picture.  In the last decade, drones are pretty much the best thing that has happened to the Taliban. At least the Pakistani ones.

What was achieved from getting Nek Mohammed droned?

His death didn’t break the spirit of his fighters. Thousands attended his funeral, he became a rallying cry and, as mentioned above, months later we had to concede a more humiliating deal to his successors.

More than that, it was the way the whole affair was handled. ISPR claimed back then that any suggestion of American involvement in his killing was “absolutely absurd”. He was killed by Pakistan. Clearly not taken into account while making this claim; the fact that people have eyes.

They did the same thing when a drone struck a seminary in Bajaur, 2006. It killed over 80, labelled militants. After the attack, Pakistani helicopters arrived at the spot and fired at nearby hills. Another pathetic claim was made, that the military had carried out the attack. A commission of the Peshawar High Court Bar Association and Peshawar District Bar Association ascertained that the Pakistani Helicopters arrived a full 20-25 minutes after the attack and most of the 80 plus dead were kids aged between 9-18.

Around a month later 42 soldiers were killed in a revenge attack. As in they called and said, “Hey, we killed 42 soldiers because of that drone strike”.

Pakistan owned these attacks. We requested some. Even now, or until the last government, our Presidents gave the go ahead. Yet utter shock is witnessed when suggested we have to face the blowback.

The commonality among all the Taliban militants, as mentioned above, is the pledge of loyalty to Mullah Omar and enmity with the US. And in “our” war that was ordered, and is completely paid for, by the US, drone attacks are the most visible link of our alliance with the Americans.

Drones are not a decisive weapon or a trump card. They haven't pushed the fight an inch closer to the end. In fact, what they are is the foremost tool for prolonging it.

Even if bad options are all we have in this war; drones shouldn’t be one.