Taliban's Mullah Nazir death spells trouble for Pakistan

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

image captionMullah Nazir rose from the ranks of the Taliban in 2007

The killing of Taliban commander Mullah Nazir in a drone strike comes at a time of important changes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

When he came to prominence in the spring of 2007, American forces were keeping troop levels in Afghanistan to a minimum, as their energies were focused on the war in Iraq.

The Pakistani military was then consolidating a string of peace agreements it had signed with militant groups in the Waziristan region, as part of a strategy that appeared to barter internal peace for a safe Taliban haven on the Pakistani border with Afghanistan.

Today, the Americans have largely withdrawn from Iraq and have managed a troop surge in Afghanistan. They are now planning a drawdown of troops there in just over a year's time.

The Pakistanis are releasing Taliban leaders from custody to facilitate peace negotiations with the Afghan government, in an apparent bid to avoid the looming risk of political and economic isolation.

All this while the Pakistanis have resisted growing international pressure to launch a military operation against what many call its "assets", including Mullah Nazir's faction, in the Waziristan region.

So in a way the killing of Mullah Nazir is viewed by some as a dent in the Pakistani strategy to prepare for the Afghan endgame in a smooth, calibrated fashion.

For the Americans, he is a prized catch.

He was the head of one of the three major militant groups in the Waziristan region that focused their attacks on the Western troops in Afghanistan.

The other groups are the Haqqani network and the faction led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur.

Mullah Nazir is also one of only three top level Pakistani Taliban commanders to have been killed by a drone, the others being Nek Mohammad and Baitullah Mehsud.

'Double blessings'

Mullah Nazir's emergence as a leader in the Wana region had the blessings of both the Pakistanis and the Afghan Taliban.

In March 2007, Pakistani forces based in the Wana region backed Mullah Nazir's offensive against ethnic Uzbek fighters, who not only fought the Pakistanis, but were blamed for the killing of more than 200 elders of the native Wazir tribe.

His subsequent appointment as a Taliban commander by Mullah Omar, the Taliban supremo, also brought to an end a power struggle within the Wazir tribe that broke out after the 2004 killing of Nek Mohammad.

This, coupled with his soft approach towards religion, helped him consolidate his support among the tribesmen, and put in place a more or less stable system of tribal governance, which continued for almost six years.

During this period, Mullah Nazir has presided over a militant sanctuary that played a significant role in training and exporting fighters into Afghanistan to fight Western troops there.

In 2009 and 2010, he helped deploy hundreds of well-trained "Punjabi" Taliban of Pakistani origin inside Afghan territory to make the proposed withdrawal of the Western forces from there as bloody and troublesome as possible.

At the same time, he managed to keep Wana away from the media limelight, thanks mainly to an absence of reporters in the area.

His death is likely to create a power vacuum in the area, especially if reports that all of his main deputies were also killed in the drone strike are confirmed.

This may spark another round of intra-tribal rivalry in the region, leaving Pakistani forces to deal with the consequent instability.

Pakistanis have worked hard to maintain a crucial strategic balance in the Waziristan region by forging peace with three of the region's four major militant factions.

Many fear that Mullah Nazir's death may upset this balance, especially if the fourth faction in the region, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan group (TTP), is able to force an advantage in Wana region.

The TTP, which is linked to the Mehsud tribe in the region, has been attacking exclusively Pakistani targets since 2007.

In recent months, it has also carried out a number of attacks against their rival Wazir tribe in the Wana region, including a suicide bombing in November that injured Mullah Nazir.

Any instability in Wana region will also be a blow to the Afghan Taliban, who will need a fully intact militant network in one of their major sanctuaries if they are to negotiate peace with the Afghan government from a position of strength.