The Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) attack on Karachi airport is testament to the tangled web of alliances and enmities spanning Pakistan’s frontier badlands and stretching as far as Rawalpindi. The avowed reason for the attack, according to TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid — revenge for former chief Hakimullah Mehsud, killed in a US drone stroke in November last year — rings a little hollow. It could be a component, certainly, but the intervening gap half-a-year and events since Hakimullah’s successor Maulana Fazlullah’s rise to power suggest that the main motivation has more to do with the latter demonstrating his continued power in the face of internecine struggles and a change in the State’s policy initiated by the Pakistani military.
Fazlullah’s takeover of the TTP wasn’t an easy affair given the realities of tribal splits and power bases within the TTP. Both his predecessors, after the TTP formally announced itself in 2007, Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah, belonged to the powerful Mehsud tribe that supplies a large portion of the TTP’s manpower; Fazlullah himself, however, does not. Consequently, there have been months of deadly infighting between Fazlullah’s loyalists and the rival faction led by Khalid Mehsud, culminating at the end of May in a formal split between the two. The latter has led his faction out of the TTP entirely, accusing his rival of un-Islamic practices such as attacks in public spaces, extortion and kidnappings — a respectable cover for his thwarted leadership ambitions.
As if Fazlullah didn’t have enough on his plate already, the split has coincided with the army deciding that it does not, after all, care to follow the civilian leadership’s lead in dealing with the TTP; it is gearing up to launch an offensive and has initiated air and artillery strikes. Rawalpindi may have a point here. The peace talks of the past few months initiated by the Nawaz Sharif administration have had little chance of achieving anything concrete with the government delegation packed with hardliners and TTP sympathisers. And past precedent — whether it was the Shakai peace agreement of 2004, the Srarogha peace agreement, 2005 or the Swat agreement, 2008 — shows that negotiations with militants in the border regions are unlikely to be productive if not accompanied by a broader reorientation of State policy,
Little wonder that Fazlullah has felt the need to make a statement with the high-profile airport attack, showing that he remains a force to be reckoned with. A solution to the problem he presents depends on various variables. If Mullah Omar, leader of the Afghan Taliban, reportedly horrified at the infighting at a time when he is looking to a united TTP to aid him in Afghanistan given the looming US drawdown, succeeds in his attempts to reconcile the factions, it could change the scenario considerably. Conversely, the Khalid faction could forge a working relationship with the army and ISI. There is the powerful Haqqani clan to consider as well. Rawalpindi has close links with it, seeing it as a valuable asset in Afghanistan — but if it chooses to aid the TTP, it could make the army’s task in Pakistan far more difficult. And that, ultimately, is what it boils down to. As long as Rawalpindi continues to back militants it sees as integral to its strategic objectives in Afghanistan while attempting to take on other militants targeting the Pakistani State — all of whom are inextricably linked — attacks such as the one in Karachi will remain a constant threat.