The Hydra lives

Published November 2, 2013

When Baitullah Mehsud met a richly deserved fate at the robotic hands of a US drone, I remember feeling relief, joy and gratitude. At long last, the man who had brought so much death and suffering to Pakistan had been killed. At long last, there was a victory in the grim and debilitating struggle against the Pakistani Taliban. Predictions were made that the TTP would now sunder and splinter, leading to its eventual eradication.

That didn’t happen, and I fear it won’t happen now in the aftermath of Hakimullah’s killing. Decapitation operations such as this do not work in isolation. They did not work with Baitullah and nor did they work in the case of Nek Muhammad. Each time, the TTP regrouped, reformed and came back more vicious than ever.

It didn’t work in Iraq either. The killing of Al-Zarqawi in 2006, though heralded as a breakthrough at the time, has done nothing to curb the activities of al Qaeda in Iraq. They returned, more dangerous than ever, and fuelled by regional conflicts that seem to have no end.

The factors that fuel Pakistan’s own war against terror will not end either, and though it is human to feel a large degree of satisfaction at the death of the mass murdering Hakimullah Mehsud, that joy should be tempered with a very rational caution, a terrible feeling of foreboding.

That’s because the hydra that is the TTP cannot be defeated by cutting off a single head; its very body must be burned and we ourselves must carry the torch that does so. The fact that it takes a foreign power to remove our own enemies is a matter of shame indeed. Worse, it further muddies the waters to the extent that both the bait and the hook are invisible.

Thanks to the deceitful narrative the state has fed us on the drone program – another in a long series of own goals by the establishment – the possibility of a Pakistani military operation supported by drone strikes is impossible. Thanks largely to the anti-drone propaganda disseminated by the state, its proxies and many political parties, such an unlikely scenario would be the ultimate proof in many eyes of an unholy collaboration between Pakistan and the US, thus providing even more grist – and recruits – for the militant mills. Thus it does not matter if the attack was, as is speculated, coordinated by Pakistan’s own agencies. So long as the popular discourse on drones is not reset by the state, the end result will be the same: more fog, and more war.

The decision to talk or fight must be a Pakistani one. Whether we choose the long and painful route of military operations to rid ourselves of this menace, or we opt for the slow surrender of negotiations and legitimising an entity that craves complete dominance over us, it must be our own call. Whether we sink or swim in this sea of blood, it must be based on our own decisions. The death of Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone strike takes away that choice. Worse, it gives some very dangerous narratives room to breathe and spread.

For the record, I do not believe for a moment that the TTP will give up its operations if drone strikes end. To believe this is, in my opinion, incredibly foolish. But it is not what I believe that matters, but rather that a large number of Pakistanis do seem to buy into this narrative. This is why it was important that peace talks be held, if only to fail in full public view, so that the final obscurantist fig leaf could be removed, and that erroneous worldview could stand naked and exposed before all.

But haven’t talks failed enough times in the past, one could ask? The answer is yes, however, the fact remains that a great deal of people, newly christened into their (albeit flawed) political awareness, remain unaware of those failures or simply refuse to believe them. Painful as it may be, they need to see the failure with their own eyes so that they can see that the blame lies with the TTP itself. Hakimullah’s killing negates that possibility.

This Hydra is more than capable of growing back even more vicious heads. By all accounts, the new TTP chief is considered even more brutal, even more bloodthirsty than Hakimullah. That’s saying something, considering that his predecessors would make the most prolific of serial killers look tame. There is, of course the hopeful view that ‘Sajna’ will not be able to exert the kind of control that Hakimullah did, that he will not be able to browbeat those factions that are, or so we hear, amenable to dialogue. This is perhaps wishful thinking, as the same was said when Baitullah was killed. Much is made of reports, however dubious, that there is infighting among the various TTP groups but to date, these cracks, if they even exist, have made no tangible difference and it is unlikely that they will do so now. After all, what guarantee can Pakistan, which could not even protect the Maliks and Lashkars that took up arms against the TTP, give to a breakaway faction in case of retaliation? None at all.

In any case, one must understand that the only difference between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Taliban is that the good ones will kill you last.

What is more likely now is that the TTP will more closely embrace its more extreme allies: al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Chechens. What is likely now is that they will seek even more support from those foreign powers hostile to Pakistan and happy to fish in these troubled waters, and there is no shortage of those.

If the death of Hakimullah is used as a jumping-off point for a comprehensive action against the Taliban – one that would include the use of force and propaganda aimed at splintering these networks – then we may see some progress. If our approach will, as in the past, be limited to hedging our bets and praying the monster under the bed will disappear then that will only lead to disaster. I hope for the best, but I fear the worst. You should too.

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