Pakistani Taliban’s new chief:more ambitious, more ruthless?

August 30, 2009

The first big suicide bombing in Pakistan this week since the slaying of Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud in a U.S.-missile strike had a particularly nasty edge to it.

The attack in Torkham, a post on the main route for moving supplies to NATO and American forces in Afghanistan, took place just before dusk, as a group of tribal police officers prepared to break the Ramadan fast on the lawn outside their barracks.

Because the attacker, who by most accounts appeared to be a teenager, offered food, he was welcomed to join the gathering, in accordance with local traditions during the fasting month, the New York Times reported, citing one of the police officers who was there at the time.

So the attacker walked in and detonated his explosives among the policemen, killing 22 people.

A militant group affiliated with the Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing, which came two days after the Taliban confirmed Baitullah’s death, after weeks of denials, and announced the appointment of one-time aide Hakimullah Mehsud, as his successor.

The question being asked is whether this is the face of a more ruthless and vicious Taliban under Hakimullah,  who, by all accounts, appears to be a young, battle-hardened ambitious leader.

Time magazine in a piece on Hakimullah said it would appear that by removing Baitullah, “Pakistan and its ally, the U.S. may have rid themselves of one problem; only to gain another.”

Hakimullah, according to journalists’ accounts who have met him, comes across as a fiercely ambitious young commander, keen to show his skills with a range of weapons as well as high-speed mountain driving.

A BBC reporter recalls a particularly bone-chilling ride he had with Hakimullah on his pickup about two years ago.

“To demonstrate his skill with the vehicle, he drove like a man possessed, manoeuvring around razor sharp bends at impossible speeds,” the reporter said.  Hakimullah finished the demonstration by braking inches short of a several hundred foot drop.

“While the rest of us sat in stunned silence, he just laughed chillingly and stuck the car in reverse to smoothly continue the journey.”

Another journalist said one of the first things that struck him about Hakimullah during a meeting last year was his ambition and desire to be in a leadership position.

In fact the whole trip for television journalists to the Orakzai tribal agency, partly controlled by Hakimullah, was aimed at introducing the fiery Taliban fighter and to air his views on religion and politics and his ambition to take the movement beyond the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to mainland Pakistan, the journalist recalls in this piece for The Dawn.

One of the first things the new amir of the Taliban will do is to identify the moles within the group who are believed to be giving information to Pakistani and U.S. forces which is largely responsible for the high success rates of drone strikes, according to Indian intelligence expert B.Raman.

[Photograph of Taliban commander Hakimullah Mehsud and a suicide bombing at Torkham on the Afghan-Pakistan border]

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