Miranshah (Pakistan) (AFP) – The Pakistani Taliban appointed a hardline cleric suspected of links to the attack on Malala Yousafzai as their new chief Thursday, throwing proposed peace talks with the government into serious doubt.
Maulana Fazlullah, elected by the Taliban ruling council, led the militants’ brutal two-year rule in Pakistan’s northwest valley of Swat in 2007-2009, before a military operation retook the area.
Announcing the new leader at a press conference in an undisclosed location in northwest Pakistan, caretaker chief Asmatullah Shaheen said the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) would not negotiate with the government “until it announces the complete enforcement of sharia”.
Nicknamed “Mullah Radio” for his fiery speeches over the airwaves, Fazlullah takes over leadership of the TTP after his predecessor Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a U.S. drone strike last Friday.
Pakistani intelligence believes Fazlullah is linked to the failed attempt to kill schoolgirl education activist Malala, who was shot in Swat in October 2012.
During Fazlullah’s rule in Swat, the Taliban enforced a rigorous version of Islamic law, publicly beheading and flogging wrongdoers and burning schools.
Fazlullah fled Swat, where he is from, when the army swept in to retake the valley, and is believed to have been in hiding in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Pakistan says he has directed attacks on its soil from across the border.
The decision to appoint him leader of the TTP was greeted with heavy celebratory gunfire in Miranshah, the main town in the North Waziristan tribal area.
Taliban ‘will be more brutal’
The killing of Mehsud on Friday came as government representatives prepared to meet the TTP with a view to opening peace talks.
It triggered an angry response from Islamabad, with Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar accusing Washington of sabotaging peace efforts.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was more measured, but said his government was committed to seeking peace through dialogue and stressing that an end to bloodshed could not be achieved “by unleashing senseless force”.
Sharif came to power in May partly on a pledge to hold talks to try to end the TTP’s bloody insurgency, which has fuelled instability in the nuclear-armed nation.
In September he won the backing of major political parties to begin overtures to the Taliban.
Imtiaz Gul, an author and expert on militancy in Pakistan, warned the choice of such an uncompromising candidate would spell problems for the embryonic peace process — and a bloodier campaign from the TTP.
“It means they are not serious about any talks with the government,” Gul told AFP.
“TTP will be more brutal now.”
No clear progress had been made in peace negotiations before the strike on Mehsud, and Shaheen dismissed the whole process as a sham.
“All the drama in the name of peace talks was staged to please America: on one side government wanted to talk to us and on the other side was talking to the Americans in Washington,” Shaheen said at the press conference attended by AFP.
“We will not talk to the Pakistani government until it announces the complete enforcement of sharia.”
The TTP, an umbrella organisation grouping numerous militant factions, has killed thousands of soldiers, police and civilians since 2007 in its campaign against the Pakistani state.
Retired brigadier Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for the tribal areas, said Fazlullah’s appointment had “completely changed dynamics of the Pakistani Taliban”.
“Fazlullah was ousted from Swat valley, his hometown, and he is living in Afghanistan. He is wanted by Pakistan, so can he run the organisation smoothly from other side of the Durand Line?” Shah said.
The Durand Line is the border with Afghanistan.
Fazlullah, believed to be about 39, is the first leader not to come from the Mehsud tribe which dominates the TTP, or even the tribal areas, and Shah said this would weaken the movement’s unity.
“There are other groups based in North Waziristan who were helping the Pakistani Taliban but they won’t help Fazlullah as he can’t even live among them,” he said.
The Taliban’s ruling council, or shura, took several days to reach a decision, indicating a lack of consensus about who should lead them, but Shaheen dismissed the idea of division.
“Media reports about differences in Taliban are wrong, we are one and united,” he said.
AFP Photo/Mohammad Rehman