The killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), one of Pakistan’s major militant groups, in an American drone strike on Friday has unleashed a wave of speculation about its implications for the TTP, Pakistan and beyond.
At the least, the TTP, one of Pakistan’s most important (and violent) insurgent organizations, now faces a succession challenge: Mehsud’s deputy, Abdullah Behar, was also killed in the strike, while another key figure, Latif Mehsud, was captured three weeks ago in Afghanistan by U.S. Special Forces.
Political scientists have increasingly turned to studying these so-called “decapitation strikes” and their effect on targeted organizations and war outcomes. As with any new literature, there is little consensus.
One study of 298 incidents of leadership targeting concludes that such efforts are generally ineffective and are especially unlikely to work against long-lived religious organizations (see also this study). Another study reaches the opposite conclusion, suggesting that successful decapitation shortens wars while also lowering their intensity (see also this study). My own research, based on evidence from Afghanistan, suggests that airstrikes (including drones) actually increase insurgent attacks — and that if these patterns hold in Pakistan, we should observe TTP retaliation in the coming days and weeks.
I’ve asked Paul Staniland, assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and a specialist on Pakistan and its insurgent groups, for his thoughts on Friday’s drone strike:
Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was killed by an American drone strike on Friday. We are now seeing the standard kabuki dance between the American and Pakistani governments over the strike, but the deeper question is what will now happen to the TTP. There had been vague hints about TTP negotiation with Nawaz Sharif’s government (leading the Pakistani Interior Minister to claim the U.S. strike was an effort to “sabotage” these talks). With Hakimullah dead, will the TTP escalate its war, decide to do business with the Pakistani state to avoid further punishment, or maintain the status quo?
The group’s structure will play an important role in determining its future. In my forthcoming book, Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse, I identify the TTP as a “parochial” insurgent group. Parochial groups lack a strong central command, and instead are made up of powerful factions based on local networks. Despite having prominent individual leaders like Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud, the TTP has acted more as a militarized coalition than a well-oiled war machine. Unlike in integrated groups like Hamas, there does not appear to be a coherent institutional command that can quickly recover from decapitation or create and implement strategy throughout the organization. As the TTP’s tumultuous 2009 leadership succession after Baitullah’s death showed, the death of a top leader in a parochial group opens the door for in-fighting and factional rivalry — but because the top leader has limited power, decapitation alone is unlikely to destroy these groups.
The TTP will experience a complicated succession process in coming weeks. In the longer term, it seems unlikely that there will be any unified organizational response to Hakimullah’s death. The autonomy of local factions in a parochial group may allow some to cut their own formal or de facto deals with the Pakistani state (as various armed actors already have along the Afghan-Pakistan border). Even if this occurs, however, it is no panacea. Pakistan’s deals with armed groups often create spheres of influence rather than consolidating state power. The terms of any deals with the TTP or individual factions will need to be carefully scrutinized to understand their actual impact.
At the same time, other factions may become more aggressive and intensify their attacks in revenge against the U.S. and its perceived proxies in the Pakistani government. The comparatively weak TTP central command means that local units are not devastated by leadership decapitation, leaving them able to keep up the fight if they so choose. Killing Mehsud alone will neither shatter nor unify the TTP. As a result of its structure, there will be different reactions across the various parts of the group, further complicating the battle space in northwestern Pakistan.