Tuesday, 15 January 2008

TALIBAN IN PAKISTAN

Baitullah Mehsud – The Taliban's New Leader in Pakistan

JAMESTOWN TERRORISM FOCUS

Baitullah Mehsud, the most feared and dangerous militant
commander in Pakistan's tribal region, has not only become
the public face of militancy in the country, but is now
also openly posing a serious threat to U.S. efforts to
bring stability to neighboring war-torn Afghanistan. Mehsud
leads the recently formed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan
(Taliban Movement of Pakistan), a joint group of various
local Taliban outfits sharing the common objectives of
implementing sharia (Islamic law) and waging jihad against
U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.

Mehsud—who is suspected of having close ties with
al-Qaeda—has been in the headlines of local newspapers for
more than three years now because of his prominent role in
spearheading the insurgency against Pakistan's armed
forces, who are currently hunting al-Qaeda and Taliban
militants in the tribal areas. Lately Mehsud has become a
menacing presence in Pakistan due to the widespread belief
of his involvement in the deadly wave of suicide
bombings—mostly targeted against security forces—that has
shaken the whole nation. A UN report released in September
last year blamed Mehsud for almost 80 percent of suicide
bombings in Afghanistan (Daily Times [Lahore], September
30, 2007). According to some reports, Mehsud has compiled
his own hit list of political leaders and high-profile
government officials, and has formed special squads for
carrying out such terrorist acts (Daily Times, May 31,
2007).

Already a household name in Pakistan, Mehsud rose to global
notoriety two weeks ago when officials named him as the
prime suspect and alleged mastermind behind the killing of
opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, which was the most
high-profile political assassination in the recent history
of the country. Pakistani authorities have released the
text of a Pashto-language telephone conversation allegedly
intercepted by Pakistan's Interior Ministry, in which
Mehsud congratulates "brave boys" for accomplishing a
"mission," which—according to officials—refers to the
assassination of Benazir Bhutto (English-language version
by Agence France Press, December 29, 2007).

At thirty four years old, Mehsud is a warlord based in the
restive South Waziristan tribal agency and is said to be
much revered by militants on both sides of the
Pakistani-Afghan border. Locals say that he has more than
20,000 fighters, mostly from his Mehsud clan. Officials as
well as his aides claim that he also has hundreds of
trained fidayeen (men of sacrifice) ready to lay down their
lives as suicide bombers upon his instructions.

According to his aides, Mehsud has taken an oath of
allegiance to the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad
Omar. Apart from sharing the same ideologies on sharia and
jihad, Mehsud also shares with his spiritual leader an
aversion to publicity and photographs. As a guerrilla
fighter, Mehsud sharpened his skills under the guidance of
legendary Pashtun commander Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani, who
is widely believed to have helped Osama bin Laden escape
targeted bombing by the United States in the Tora Bora
mountains of Afghanistan in early 2002.

Known as Amir (commander) among his followers, Mehsud was
an unknown figure on the tribal scene until late 2004, when
he filled the vacuum left by the famous tribal militant
leader, Nek Muhammad Wazir, who was killed in a missile
attack in June 2004. In February 2005, the Pakistani
government brokered a deal with Mehsud in a bid to bring
normalcy and peace to violence-stricken South Waziristan.
In return for amnesty, Mehsud promised not to attack
security posts or cross into Afghanistan for jihad, but
backed out of the deal in late August 2007 following the
Red Mosque military operation in Islamabad. Local
journalists from Waziristan say that the so-called peace
deal raised his stature and allowed him to further
strengthen his support base (author's interviews). As a
result, the government's writ is confined to the compounds
of its security forces while gun-brandishing fighters
control the countryside in the South Waziristan agency.
Mehsud had his moment of glory when the government conceded
to his demand to free militant prisoners in return for
releasing more than 250 Pakistani soldiers, seized by his
fighters and held hostage for two and half months. Among
the released militants were presumably a number of would-be
suicide bombers (Dawn [Karachi], December 31, 2007).

The rising popularity of this young and committed jihadi on
both sides of the border has made him a bridge linking the
Pakistani Taliban with the Afghan Taliban on the other side
of the frontier. Many believe that Mehsud has already been
involved in the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan by
dispatching his men to fight against the U.S.-led Coalition
forces. A close aide of Mehsud, Hakimullah Mehsud, was
captured by NATO forces in the border region while trying
to cross into Afghanistan with five foreign fighters (Dawn,
March 8, 2007).

Once described as a "soldier of peace" by a top Pakistani
military general, Mehsud is now not only defying Islamabad,
but has emerged as a major irritant in the global war on
terror. Some of the latest reports from the frontier may be
right in citing him as the new triggerman for al-Qaeda in
the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan—an area
which carries immense strategic importance for the
terrorist network.

Imtiaz Ali is a Pakistan-based journalist working as a
special correspondent for the Washington Post.

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