For Pakistani Taliban, What Difference Does A New Leader Make?

The conflict between Islamist militants and the Pakistani state has claimed tens of thousands of lives in the last few years. Recent moves toward peace negotiations were extinguished by a CIA missile that killed the head of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud. He's been replaced by a man notorious for his propaganda skills and ruthlessness, Mullah Fazlullah, also known as the "Radio Mullah."

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In Pakistan, the army chief is considered the most powerful man in the land. Now, there's a new one. General Raheel Sharif was appointed today. He has the tough task of responding to an Islamist insurgency that's cost thousands of lives. That involves taking on Pakistan's Taliban militants. And they also have a new leader, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: A big argument is going on in Pakistan. It began a few weeks ago with an assassination. Hakimullah Mehsud was in the mountain wilderness bordering Afghanistan when he was killed by a missile fired from an American drone. Pakistanis were outraged. Mehsud was head of the umbrella group in charge of the Pakistani Taliban and its allies.

Pakistani officials said he was killed just as their government was about to open negotiations with him. Few here now think that peacemaking stands a chance, not least because of the man the militants selected to replace Mehsud.

MULLAH FAZLULLAH: (Speaking foreign language)

REEVES: This is him, Mullah Fazlullah, or as many here call him, the Radio Mullah. Fazlullah got that nickname while he was running the Taliban on his home territory, the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan. It's because he used to broadcast his own sermons on an illegal mobile FM radio station.

MOHAMMED: (Through translator) He indoctrinated people. He brainwashed people through his radio FM.

REEVES: Mohammed is from the same village in Swat as Fazlullah. He won't give his full name, as discussing the Taliban can be dangerous. Mohammed says he saw Fazlullah close-up during a rally in his village.

MOHAMMED: (Through translator) He was really a charismatic personality. I have seen him. The way he spoke, it was excellent. He would interpret the Quran in a way that people really found fascinating.

REEVES: Fazlullah has a reputation as a hardliner, even by Taliban standards. The attack on Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was by Fazlullah's men. In 2007, Fazlullah seized control of much of Swat Valley, remaining there until the Pakistani army drove him out about 18 months later. Both sides committed atrocities. Fazlullah's men executed police and government sympathizers, torched girls' schools and refused to allow women outside the house.

ATHAR ABBAS: He would use very brutal methods himself, as well as through his subordinates.

REEVES: Retired General Athar Abbas was Pakistan's military spokesman during Fazlullah's rule in Swat.

ABBAS: He would go into Swat Valley riding a horse, declaring himself something of who has been appointed by the prophet. And he would also hold the local courts.

REEVES: Abbas remembers how the Taliban in Swat frustrated the Pakistani military's attempts to silence the Radio Mullah.

ABBAS: For example, I mean, they would tape the entire FM radio station on a motorbike. I mean, it was amazing. And they had all the other transmitters on other motorbikes on certain peaks.

REEVES: The militants also strapped transmitters to donkeys and mules and led them around the mountains to escape the Pakistani army's jammers.

ABBAS: It was a nightmare. In fact, for that, the Americans tried to help us. Even with their jammers, somehow or other it could not be blocked entirely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REEVES: The Pakistani military eventually countered by opening its own radio station for Swat, playing the kind of music that the Taliban banned.

FAZLULLAH: (Speaking foreign language)

REEVES: On one occasion, Fazlullah actually phoned in to contradict a report about his operations. Despite Fazlullah's talent for propaganda, some here argue that the Pakistani Taliban may be weaker under his command. He's not from Pakistan's tribal belt or from the Mehsud tribe, who supplied the Pakistani Taliban's previous leaders. These days, Fazlullah's thought to be hiding out in Afghanistan. Some analysts say these factors may limit his authority.

As for entering peace talks, General Abbas doubts if the Radio Mullah, Fazlullah, would be willing to do so.

ABBAS: I don't think so. Since he has already declared that he's not interested, he will not go into any sort of negotiations with the government.

REEVES: Others are skeptical about the Pakistani government's claim that it was planning peace talks with the Taliban. They suspect this was all just talk designed to calm public anger over the Mehsud assassination. Muhammad Ziauddin is editor-in-chief of Pakistan's Express Tribune newspaper.

MUHAMMAD ZIAUDDIN: I never thought that there'll be a peace talk and there will never be a peace talk.

REEVES: For Farzana Bari, a civil society activist, the issue is clear-cut.

FARZANA BARI: I think negotiation with anyone of them is useless.

REEVES: Bari sees no difference between one leader of the Pakistani Taliban or another. Worrying about who's in charge is pointless, she says.

BARI: This is a mindset we are talking about. It's not an individual. All we need to tackle is this mindset, which is, of course, anti-democratic, anti-people, anti-religion.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

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