New boss, new rules: Taliban says talks are off in Pakistan

A spokesman for the Pakistan Taliban said they would launch revenge attacks against Prime Minister Sharif's government in retaliation for the death of their former leader by US drone strike.

AP Photo via AP Video
In this image made from video broadcast on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, undated footage of Mullah Fazlullah is shown on a projector in Pakistan. Fazlullah was chosen Thursday as the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, nearly a week after a US drone strike killed the previous chief.

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The Pakistan Taliban – after electing a hardline leader yesterday – has issued new threats against the Pakistani government and denounced peace talks in the latest domestic snarl to emerge after a US drone strike killed the previous Pakistan Taliban leader last week.

A spokesman for the Pakistan Taliban (TTP) said they would launch revenge attacks against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government in retaliation for the death of former leader Hakimullah Mehsud.

“All areas will come under attack, but Punjab [Pakistan’s most populous province] will come first,” TTP member Asmatullah Shaheen told CNN. Mr. Shaheen also told the broadcaster that Mr. Sharif had turned Pakistan into a “colony” of the United States.

Shaheen said that proposed peace talks with the government are now off the table. There were never truly talks between the two sides, he said, and there never will be.

Mullah Fazlullah, the TTP’s new leader, has yet to make a public statement since his election Thursday. A cleric and former radio show host, Mr. Fazlullah is known for staging dramatic publicity stunts and for his leadership of the Taliban faction responsible for shooting schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai.

The election of Fazlullah – who is widely believed to have been hiding in Afghanistan and to have ties to Afghan militants – and the furious response from domestic politicians to the drone strike threaten to complicate already thorny relations between US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan ahead of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan next year.

Daniel Markey, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad” wrote in The Washington Post yesterday that the decision to eliminate Mehsud represents "a possible turning point," but only if it is carefully managed:

In fact, the political and strategic circumstances of Mehsud’s killing are a lot more complicated. His death is a possible turning point. Yet it is not clear that Washington will use it to advance greater U.S. purposes in Pakistan. Handled poorly, this narrow counterterrorism success will come at a cost in bilateral relations, regional counterterrorism operations and the endgame of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

Arif Rafiq asked in Foreign Policy whether the killing of Mehsud was “A bad time to kill a bad man” because it has made the civilian government “already under severe criticism for its handling of the economy and terrorism, look impotent.”

The Christian Science Monitor's correspondent Saba Imtiaz reported from Pakistan last week on how much rhetoric has changed in Pakistan over the past few years:

When the Pakistani Taliban head Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a drone strike in 2009, Pakistan’s influential Dawn newspaper headlined the story as "Good riddance, killed Baitullah." But much has changed in the years since.

The Pakistani Taliban's insurgency in the country's northwest has claimed tens of thousands of lives and Pakistan's military has battled the group in places like North Waziristan and the Swat Valley for years. But a nationalist backlash against the US involvement in killing Taliban figures has been building and the government has said it wants to come to an accord with the movement.

The rhetoric emanating from Islamabad in the wake of Hakimullah Mehsud’s death shows how much has changed. Rather than trumpeting the death of a man whose movement has waged a brutal campaign against the government (including the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto), complaints instead are made that the US has derailed peace talks with the TTP.

Yet, as Ms. Imtiaz explains, the process for peace talks was never clear to begin with.

But there has been little clarity on the process of negotiating with the TTP. Earlier this week Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg that Pakistan had started peace talks, but there appears to be no actual work on the ground. It is also unclear what the terms for the talks are, which of the many militant groups under the TTP’s umbrella the government plans to talk to, and what it is prepared to compromise on.

A key player to watch will be the Pakistani Army, who was never entirely on board with peace talks, according to Foreign Policy:

The military has chafed at the prospect of peace talks with the TTP, and for much of this year the Pakistani army has, in fact, expressed its discomfort with the conciliatory, if not apologetic, approach of center-right and Islamist politicians toward the TTP. ...

In August, [the now-outgoing army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani,] had said that "bowing down" to militants is no solution to terrorism. And in September, after the TTP killed a major general and threatened to kill Kayani next, the army chief said that, though giving the dialogue process with militants a chance was "understandable," there should be no "misgivings that we would let terrorists coerce us into accepting their terms."

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