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EFSAS Commentary

Mullah Fazlullah killed in a US Drone Strike: Afghan President asks Pakistan to reciprocate


Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Muhammed Khorasani in a statement on 23 June finally acknowledged that the organization’s chief, Mullah Fazlullah, had been killed on 14 June in a US drone strike in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar, bordering Pakistan. TTP blamed the Afghan intelligence service National Directorate of Security (NDS) of providing information for the drone attack. Khorasani also informed that Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, who had been chosen as deputy leader by Fazlullah in February after incumbent Khalid Mehsud was killed in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, had been elevated by the TTP’s shura to replace Fazlullah. Mufti Mazhim alias Mufti Hafizullah, was appointed as Mehsud’s deputy. 

Fazlullah, who became the third successive TTP chief to be killed in a US drone strike after Baitullah Mehsud in 2009 and Hakimullah Mehsud in 2013, had the reputation of being a brutal leader of the terrorist outfit. In addition to the widely-reported 2012 shooting of 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai for promoting education for girls, Fazlullah had also ordered the massacre of about 150 people, mostly children of an army school in Peshawar, in December 2014. His killing, therefore, was widely welcomed across Pakistan, including in his home district of Swat in which Fazlullah commanded over 4,500 militants in the mid-2000s. The Associated Press reported that in Mingora, Yousafzai's home town, the news of Fazlullah's death was hailed. Idrees Khan, a member of a local elders’ peace committee, told the news agency: "We witnessed the brutality of the Taliban in Swat when Fazlullah and his men were present here, and we are happy to know that he has gone to hell. People in Swat will feel safer after the killing of Fazlullah”

Fazlullah's successor, Noor Wali Mehsud alias Abu Mansoor Asim, belongs to the Mehsud tribe that inhabits South Waziristan in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghan provinces. Barring Fazlullah, all other TTP chiefs have been Mehsuds. Noor Wali had earlier been deputy to Baitullah Mehsud, and reportedly also fought against the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan alongside the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s. Now in his 40s, he claims to be a religious scholar and is known to have close ties to the Haqqani network. He was infamous for carrying out an extortion and kidnapping racket in the Pakistani city of Karachi in 2012-13. He recently released a book titled ‘Mehsud Revolution’ in which he claimed that the TTP had assassinated former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007. 

Noor Wali Mehsud takes over a considerably weakened TTP. Military operations by the Pakistani Army targeting the outfit, especially after the 2014 school carnage, have driven most TTP leaders and militants into Afghanistan, where they are frequent targets of US drone attacks. Since February this year at least four senior TTP leaders, including Khalid Mehsud and Fazlullah’s son Abdullah, as well as dozens of TTP militants have been killed in drone strikes in Afghanistan. Media reports quoted Muhammad Amir Rana, Director of the Islamabad-based think tank ‘Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies’, as saying that Noor Wali was never an influential TTP commander, adding that: “For its newly appointed chief, overcoming the internal differences within the group and increasing its operational capabilities will be greater challenges”

The US and Afghan actions against the TTP, that is primarily a threat to Pakistan, needs to be viewed in the context of, and contrasted against, the Pakistani military establishment’s decades-long support and shelter to the Afghan Taliban. This well-established and documented sustenance and refuge has proved to be the main stumbling block for the US and successive Afghan Governments in their efforts to defeat the Taliban militarily, or enter into negotiations with it. Thousands of US and Afghan citizens have been killed in the process. 

The Pakistan Army’s termed the killing of Fazlullah as a “positive development” that “gives relief to scores of Pakistani families who fell victims to TTP terror including the [school] massacre”. By itself, this position is rational and sound. What it dis-acknowledges, however, is the lack of adequate cognizance to the long litany of requests by the US and Afghanistan seeking action from Pakistan against the Afghan Taliban terrorists that are entrenched on Pakistani soil. These unheeded requests have engendered innumerable complaints, registered both publicly as well as in private, against the Pakistani military establishment for its duplicity in dealing with different terrorist entities. While it demands action from the Afghan Government and the US against anti-Pakistan outfits such as the TTP, the ‘bad’ terrorists, it applies a completely different yardstick to the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and other ‘good’ terrorist outfits that it itself created and now treats as its ‘strategic assets’. The Pakistan Army’s statement when seen in the backdrop of its unwillingness to heed requests from its neighbours to rein in its ‘strategic assets’ betrays this very dupery. It implicitly suggests that while action taken by neighbouring countries against Pakistan’s ‘bad’ terrorists was welcome, pressure on Pakistan to act against its ‘good’ terrorists was not. Hence, when Fazlullah is killed in a drone attack on Afghan territory it is a “positive development” but if Afghan Taliban leaders are killed by the very same drone strikes along the Durand Line vehement protests are lodged by the Pakistani establishment. Similarly, while the establishment expects that TTP militants unearthed on Afghan territory will be targeted by the US and Afghanistan, it simultaneously believes that the US should be left with no option but to launch a clandestine operation fraught with great risk to extricate or kill its most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, sheltering in a garrison town of the Pakistan Army. Further, the fact that the killing of innocent civilians in drone strikes, as sometimes happens and is truly objectionable and condemnable, does not elicit the same strong lashing out by the establishment reveals a lot about its outlook. 

The United Nations (UN), the US and the European Union (EU) had designated Fazlullah as a global terrorist in 2015, and the US had announced a $5 million bounty for him. Fazlullah was only one of the 139 Pakistan-based entries on the UN Security Council’s updated list of terrorists and militant groups released in April this year. The list is headed by Osama bin Laden’s successor as Al Qaeda chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and includes terrorists such as LeT chief Hafeez Saeed. Several of those that figure on the list, such as Hafeez Saeed who also has a $10 million US bounty on him, live freely and openly in the country, delivering vitriolic speeches at large public meetings in which they extol Jihad and violence. Many of the terrorist groups on the list not only operate with impunity targeting Pakistan’s neighbours from Pakistani soil but are also allegedly being supported by the Pakistani military establishment. Afrasiab Khattak, a former senator of Pakistan’s Awami National Party (ANP), was recently quoted in the media as saying that it was unfortunate that most of the 139 Pakistan-based entities declared by the UN as terrorists were carrying out business as usual. In such a situation, while the common Pakistani is fully justified in welcoming the neutralization of Fazlullah, the military establishment needs to introspect and put its own house in order. It must realize that it cannot celebrate the death of one of the listed terrorists while simultaneously fraternizing with the others. It is precisely because of this proclivity that US President Donald Trump in January this year cut more than $1.1 billion in military assistance to Pakistan, accusing it of providing safe havens to members of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network. 

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in a Twitter message confirmed the killing of Fazlullah, adding that he had informed Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Nasir-ul-Mulk and Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa of the development over telephone. He credited “tireless human intel led by Afghan security agencies” for the success. Nasir-ul-Mulk described Fazlullah’s killing as a “significant development in the fight against terrorism”. In the statement of 15 June in which the spokesman of the Pakistan Army Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor had termed Fazlullah’s killing as a “positive development”, he had gone on to say that the “Pakistan military leadership has always maintained that a cooperative and coordinated approach is the best response to the menace of terrorism”. The deceitful nature of this statement has bemused Pakistan watchers who have closely monitored Pakistan’s track record of promoting terrorist groups against both its eastern and western neighbours over the years. 

The US and Afghanistan are clear in their assessment that Pakistan can, if it so chooses, play a vital role in nudging the Afghan Taliban leaders towards holding peace talks. Ghani, in his tweet, underlined that in his telephone conversations with Nasir-ul-Mulk and Gen. Bajwa, he had urged them both "to take practical steps to bring Afghan Taliban residing in Pakistan to the negotiation table"

Ghani’s message was clear: "we have delivered what was important for you, it is about time you reciprocated". The seriousness that the Pakistani establishment accords to this message will not only influence the future trajectory of Pak-Afghan relations, but also of Pak-US ties, both of which are currently deeply strained. Given Pakistan’s dismal track record following the similar killings of Baitullah and Hakimullah Mehsud, as well as the subsequent elimination of a whole string of TTP leaders by US and Afghan forces in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that any gratitude that the establishment may have felt at Fazlullah’s killing would translate into efforts aimed at bringing the Afghan Taliban or the Haqqani network to the negotiating table, leave aside action on the ground against them.