On January 2, 2013, a U.S. drone strike killed Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan Agency in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).[1] Nazir, a senior Taliban commander, was closely aligned with the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, and the Hafiz Gul Bahadur Taliban faction, yet he had an antagonistic relationship with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).[2] Nazir was the leader of one of four major militant factions in FATA, and he was accused of sending fighters to neighboring Afghanistan to attack NATO and Afghan troops.[3] Yet unlike the TTP, Nazir was opposed to attacking targets inside Pakistan.[4] His refusal to attack Pakistan allowed the country’s military to forge a non-aggression pact with his faction, which served Pakistan’s strategy of isolating the TTP.[5]

Although Nazir’s death will likely hurt the Afghan Taliban, it marks a positive development for the TTP. Nazir led one of the few militias willing to challenge the TTP, and his fighters engaged in occasional skirmishes with the group. The TTP even reportedly tried to assassinate Nazir in November 2012.[6] Unless Nazir’s successor is able to project strength quickly, the TTP may be emboldened by the loss of this rival leader. This might place more pressure on Pakistan’s security forces if Nazir’s death enables the TTP to focus more resources against the Pakistani state.

This article examines Nazir’s significance in Pakistan and Afghanistan, assesses the overall implications of his death for the United States and Pakistan, as well as provides a short profile of his successor, Bahawal Khan.

Maulvi Nazir’s Significance
Maulvi Nazir was born in 1975 in Birmel, a town in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province, located only five-and-a-half miles from the Pakistan border.[7] He belonged to the Kakakhel tribe, a sub-clan of the Ahmedzai Wazir.[8] As is typical in the region, his family lived on both sides of the Durand Line separating Afghanistan and Pakistan.[9] While in Birmel, Nazir reportedly studied at a religious seminary.[10] He later expanded on his studies as a student of Maulana Noor Muhammad at Darul Uloom Waziristan, located in Wana, South Waziristan Agency.[11]

He joined the Taliban movement in 1996 and fought against the Northern Alliance.[12] After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, Nazir returned to Wana and became actively involved in supporting al-Qa`ida and Taliban activities in South Waziristan.[13] He was arrested by Pakistan’s security forces in 2004, but was later released under the Shakai peace deal that was signed between Taliban commander Nek Muhammad and the Pakistan Army.[14]

After his release, Nazir moved back to Wana, where he became the top militant leader in the area by 2006-2007.[15] His network stretched into southwestern Afghanistan, to include Paktika, Zabul, Helmand and up to Kandahar.[16] His fighters primarily consisted of members of the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe, who inhabit the western and southern areas of South Waziristan.[17] The modern guerrilla techniques employed by al-Qa`ida fighters inspired Nazir, who also worked on improving the skills of his own fighters.[18] In an interview, Nazir said that “al-Qa`ida and the Taliban are one and the same. At an operational level, we might have different strategies, but at the policy level, we are one and the same.”[19] A number of key al-Qa`ida leaders—such as Ilyas Kashmiri, Abu Khabab al-Masri, Osama al-Kini, Shaykh Ahmad Salim Swedan, and Abu Zaid al-Iraqi—were killed in U.S. drone strikes while reportedly under Nazir’s protection.[20]

Nazir became the top militant leader in the Wana area after he successfully challenged local militant leaders Haji Sharif, Maulana Abbas and Haji Omar—all considered key supporters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).[21] After establishing control in these areas in 2007, Nazir confronted the foreign Uzbek militant presence, accusing them of robbing and killing Ahmadzai Wazir tribesmen and imposing their self-styled Shari`a on local inhabitants.[22]

With the support of his Ahmedzai Wazir tribe and the assistance of Pakistan’s military, Nazir successfully flushed the Uzbek militants from Wana in 2007, an action that angered the TTP. Baitullah Mehsud had a long relationship with the IMU, even before he created the TTP. IMU leader Tahir Yuldashev offered his fighters to Baitullah when the latter decided to attack the Pakistani state.[23] The TTP provided sanctuary for the IMU in exchange for its assistance in fighting Pakistani security forces.[24] As these local commanders and their allied Uzbek militants left the area, Nazir became the sole Taliban leader around Wana.[25]

Nazir’s attack on the Uzbeks, as well as his disagreement with the TTP over attacking the Pakistani state, eventually caused conflict between Nazir’s Taliban faction and the TTP.[26] In January 2008, fighting broke out between the two groups in South Waziristan.[27] Periodic skirmishes continue through the present day.[28] In November 2012, Nazir barely avoided death after a suicide bomber—thought to be from the TTP—tried to assassinate him.[29] Yet his life was ultimately ended by a U.S. drone on January 2, 2013.

Implications for the United States and Pakistan
U.S. officials and security analysts argue that Nazir’s death will benefit the United States because he headed one of the three major militant groups in the Waziristan region that focus attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, as well as provide protection for al-Qa`ida fighters.[30] In 2009 and 2010, Nazir reportedly helped deploy hundreds of well-trained “Punjabi” Taliban militants of Pakistani origin inside Afghan territory to pressure U.S. and coalition forces ahead of their withdrawal.[31] One U.S. official told the New York Times that “while it is too soon to tell, the death of Nazir, along with some of his deputies, could push his network into disarray, degrading Al Qaeda’s access to South Waziristan as a result.”[32]

For Pakistan, however, Nazir’s death is more complicated. Pakistan’s military and Nazir’s faction were operating under a non-aggression pact, and violent incidents between the two were rare. Nazir was also at war with the TTP, the latter of which is Pakistan’s primary domestic security threat.[33] Pakistan even offered support to Nazir’s faction against the TTP.[34] Nazir’s death could mean that the TTP can free up resources to attack Pakistani targets.[35]

Through the pro-government Nazir faction, Pakistan’s military was trying to instigate a tribal uprising against the TTP in South Waziristan and flush out the TTP’s Mehsud militants from the territory, as well as increase disunity among all the Taliban groups.[36] The government has encouraged local tribesmen to form lashkars (tribal militias) to eliminate “hard-core al-Qa`ida elements and their affiliates especially the TTP,” who have increasingly challenged the writ of the state by mounting deadly terrorist attacks inside Pakistan.[37] Forging good relations with Nazir’s successor is likely Pakistan’s top priority so that peace can continue with the Ahmedzai Wazir of South Waziristan.

Nazir’s Successor: Bahawal Khan
After Nazir’s killing, Bahawal Khan (also known as Salahuddin Ayubi) was announced as the new chief of Wana’s Taliban militants. Khan is reportedly a 34-year-old illiterate former bus driver.[38] He has long been a close associate of Nazir, as the two men fought together with the Taliban in Afghanistan before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.[39] He was the Taliban commander for the Speen area of South Waziristan.[40] Although Qari Ziaur Rahman was Maulvi Nazir’s deputy, the council of Wana-based militants agreed to nominate Khan because he is a veteran jihadist commander who remained close to Nazir. Khan initially refused to accept the leadership position, but agreed after elders and militant commanders in the area insisted he should become the new chief.[41]

Analysts describe Khan as more hot tempered than Nazir.[42] Nevertheless, some believe that Khan will be able to maintain cohesion within the ranks.[43] Others argue that Khan may prove less operationally or strategically important as Nazir, as he will have to live under constant threat of drone strikes.[44]

In the wake of Nazir’s killing, some analysts say his successor and followers may now turn their guns on civilian and military targets in Pakistan because they suspect that Pakistan’s security establishment is consenting to drone attacks.[45] According to this theory, one negative outcome from Nazir’s death is that the peace agreement between the Pakistani government and Nazir’s faction will collapse, and followers of Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan will join together with the TTP.[46] Such a development would be dangerous for Pakistan, although there is no evidence that this has occurred.[47]

Others argue that Nazir’s killing will weaken his faction dramatically, and allow the TTP to take advantage in Wana.[48] Pakistan’s military has struggled to maintain a strategic balance in the Waziristan region by entering into peace deals with some of the area’s militant factions—with the goal of isolating the TTP. The loss of Nazir means that there will be less pressure from this group on the TTP, providing it with opportunities to strengthen and expand its presence and influence back into the Wana area of South Waziristan, which was previously dominated by Nazir.[49]

Nazir’s death is a loss to the insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan, and it could also hurt the Afghan Taliban’s sanctuaries in the Pakistani tribal region. For the United States, Nazir’s death might weaken the insurgency in Afghanistan and also possibly damage Pakistan’s strategy of negotiating with militant groups friendly to its interests.[50]

Nazir’s death could be a contentious issue between Washington and Islamabad since the Pakistani military views commanders such as Nazir as useful in keeping the peace domestically. His death may now create a power vacuum, and possibly spark a tribal war that will leave Pakistan to deal with the consequent instability.

Zia Ur Rehman is a journalist and researcher who covers militancy in Pakistan. He has written for The Friday Times, The Jamestown Foundation, The News International, The National and has contributed to the New York Times.

[1] “Two Attacks Leave 12 Dead: ‘Good Taliban’ Maulvi Nazir Killed by Drone,” Dawn, January 3, 2013.

[2] “Pakistan Militant Mullah Nazir Killed ‘in Drone Attack,’” BBC, January 3, 2013.

[3]  These factions are the Haqqani network, the Hafiz Gul Bahadar faction, the TTP, and Maulvi Nazir’s faction.

[4] He was closely allied with Hafiz Gul Bahadar, whose territory is in North Waziristan Agency. Bahadar’s faction shares Maulvi Nazir’s targeting selection, as they both choose to concentrate attacks in Afghanistan and not in Pakistan.

[5]  Personal interview, Ahmed Wali Mujeeb, a Pashtun journalist who has covered militancy in the region, January 5, 2013.

[6]  Amir Mir, “Key Taliban Coalition Falling Apart After Nazir Attack,” The News International, December 5, 2012.

[7] Chris Harnish, “Question Mark of South Waziristan: Biography and Analysis of Maulvi Nazir Ahmad,” Critical Threats Project, July 17, 2009; “Profile: The ‘Good’ Taliban Leader,” Express Tribune, January 4, 2012.

[8]  Zulfiqar Ali, “Mullah Nazir’s Death: New Taliban Chief Named in South Waziristan,” Express Tribune, January 5, 2012.

[9]  Ibid.

[10] “Profile: The ‘Good’ Taliban Leader.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Rahimullah Yusufzai, “Eviction or Safe Passage?” Newsline, May 10, 2007.

[13]  Personal interview, Wana-based journalist, January 5, 2013.

[14] “Profile: The ‘Good’ Taliban Leader.”

[15] Personal interview, Ahmed Wali Mujeeb, a Pashtun journalist who has covered militancy in the region, January 5, 2013.

[16]  Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Taliban and al-Qaeda: Friends in Arms,” Asia Times Online, May 5, 2011.

[17]  Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Amir Mir, “Maulvi Nazir’s Death Irks Security Establishment,” The News International, January 4, 2013.

[21] Mansoor Khan Mahsud, “The Battle for Pakistan: Militancy and Conflict in South Waziristan,” New America Foundation, April 2010.

[22]  Adil Shahzeb, “The Mullah and the Military,” The Friday Times, January 11, 2013.

[23]  Amir Mir, “TTP Using Uzbeks to Conduct Terrorist Attacks,” The News International, December 18, 2012.

[24]  Ibid.

[25] Personal interview, Ahmed Wali Mujeeb, a Pashtun journalist who has covered militancy in the region, January 5, 2013.

[26] Iqbal Khattak, “Wazir Tribes Ratify New Militant Bloc,” Daily Times, July 9, 2008; personal interview, Pir Zubair Shah, a former New York Times reporter who is from South Waziristan, November 28, 2012.

[27]  Harnish.

[28] See, for example, “Hakimullah’s Men Clash with Nazir Group; Three Killed,” Dawn, August 19, 2010; “Clash Between Militants Groups Claimed Five People,” FATA Research Center, August 6, 2012.

[29] Zia Ur Rehman, “Waziristan After Maulvi Nazir,” The Friday Times, January 11, 2013; Mir, “Key Taliban Coalition Falling Apart After Nazir Attack.”

[30]  The Pentagon said that Nazir’s death would represent a “major development.” See Salman Masood and Ismail Khan, “Drone Kills a Pakistani Militant Behind Attacks on U.S. Forces,” New York Times, January 3, 2013; “Mullah Nazir’s Death a ‘Major Development’: US,” Express Tribune, January 4, 2013.

[31]  M. Ilyas Khan, “Taliban’s Mullah Nazir Death Spells Trouble for Pakistan,” BBC, January 3, 2013.

[32]  Masood and Khan.

[33]  Mir, “Maulvi Nazir’s Death Irks Security Establishment.”

[34]  Ibid.

[35]  Personal interview, a Wana-based journalist, January 5, 2013.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Zia Ur Rehman, “Tribal Militias are Double-edged Weapon,” The Friday Times, September 30, 2011.

[38] “Bahawal Khan to Succeed Pakistan Militant Leader Mullah Nazir,” BBC, January 4, 2013.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Mushtaq Yusufzai, “Shops, Markets in Wana Remain Closed Amid Tense Calm,” The News International, January 5, 2013.

[41] Irfan Burki and Mushtaq Yousafzai, “Maulvi Nazir Among 10 Killed in Drone Strikes,” The News International, January 4, 2013.

[42]  Personal interview, Ijaz Khan, a Peshawar-based security analyst, January 12, 2013.

[43]  “Bahawal Khan to Succeed Pakistan Militant Leader Mullah Nazir.”

[44]  Shahzeb.

[45] Taha Siddiqui, “Good Taliban, Bad Taliban? Pakistani Commander’s Killing Exposes Blurry Lines,” Christian Science Monitor, January 5, 2013.

[46]  Shamim Shahid, “Luck Runs Out for Mullah Nazir,” Pakistan Today, January 4, 2013.

[47]  Ibid.

[48]  Personal interview, Ijaz Khan, a Peshawar-based security analyst, January 12, 2013.

[49]  Personal interview, Ahmed Wali Mujeeb, a Pashtun journalist who has covered militancy in the region, January 5, 2013.

[50]  Personal interview, a retired Pakistani military officer, January 5, 2013.

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