After Drone Strike, Taliban In Pakistan To Choose New Leader

The Taliban in Pakistan are looking for a new tactical leader — the last one, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed in a drone strike in late October. For more on the group, Steve Inskeep talks to Sebastian Abbot, the Islamabad Bureau Chief for The Associated Press.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's go next to Pakistan where the Taliban of that country are looking for a new leader. They have no choice since the last leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed in a U.S. drone strike. Sebastian Abbot of the Associated Press has been tracking this group which has targeted Americans in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and has also attacked many civilians in Pakistan. He's on the line. Welcome to the program.

SEBASTIAN ABBOT: Thanks very much.

INSKEEP: So how big a blow was it to this group to lose their former leader Mehsud?

ABBOT: It was definitely a blow to the group but definitely not a death blow. I mean, after their previous leader Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a drone strike in 2009, you know, they had a period of infighting and it took several weeks for them to pick a new leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, and there were questions about, you know, how much the organization had been set back. But eventually there was a resurgence and they've carried out scores of attacks since then.

INSKEEP: And when you say scores of attacks since then, people have heard about a Pakistani teenager who was attacked, Malala Yousafzai. That's the Pakistan Taliban. An attack on a CIA station in 2009 in Afghanistan, that's the Pakistan Taliban. This is the group we're talking about, right?

ABBOT: Exactly. And actually, the commander who's blamed for the attack on Malala Yousafzai, the teenage activist, the guy who is believed to have planned the attack, Mullah Fazlullah, is actually one of the commanders who's in the running to be the next leader of the Pakistani Taliban.

INSKEEP: How do they choose a next leader? Do they have an election? Do they have a conclave of some kind?

ABBOT: They have a leadership council which is known as a shura that's been meeting almost every day since Hakimullah Mehsud was killed. It's made up of senior Taliban commanders in the group, and the two frontrunners are consider to be Mullah Fazlullah, the one who planned the attack against Malala Yousafzai, and then another commander named Khan Sayed who's the leader of the Pakistani Taliban in the South Waziristan tribal area. They just haven't been able to come to an agreement.

INSKEEP: So let me ask you, Mr. Abbott, because this is a group that has attacked the government of Pakistan for years, there's something that's happened that may mystify some people. Pakistanis were upset that the U.S. drone strike killed the Taliban's leader, the leader of this group that is targeting Pakistan. Why have Pakistanis been so upset that they even called in the U.S. ambassador to complain?

ABBOT: It does seem very counterintuitive. The reason Pakistani officials have said they're upset is because they've been pursuing peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban over the past few months and the drone attack that killed Hakimullah Mehsud actually came only a day before the government had planned to send a delegation of three clerics to North Waziristan to formally invite the Pakistani Taliban to participate in peace talks. And so from their view, the U.S. has sabotaged that process.

INSKEEP: Is it possible that this could set back the process for peace talks?

ABBOT: I think it's quite likely it would. The U.S. killed the Pakistani Taliban's deputy leader in May, and at that point the Pakistani Taliban pulled back from a previous offer to hold talks with the government. I wouldn't be surprised if a similar thing happened this time. And then also, if there's infighting within the group as they try to pick a new leader, that could also make it more difficult to hold talks because you would worry that even if you came to a deal with, you know, one commander would he be able to enforce that peace agreement on the others?

INSKEEP: The Pakistan Taliban haven't ended their attacks while considering peace talks, have they?

ABBOT: No. The Pakistani Taliban have said very clearly that they, you know, will continue to carry out attacks. They feel that the war is on until a peace agreement is actually reached.

INSKEEP: Sebastian Abbot is the Islamabad, Pakistan bureau chief of the Associated Press. Thanks very much.

ABBOT: My pleasure. Thanks very much.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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