Pakistan draws a bead on Baitullah
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - He is reclusive like Taliban leader Mullah Omar and popular like
al-Qaeda's Osama bin Laden, and he pledges his allegiance to both.
This is Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, whom the Pakistani security
agencies have tried their best to engage, but he remains defiant, so much so
that he is even suspected of being an agent for India's Research and Analysis
Baitullah, who operates in the South Waziristan tribal area on the border with
Afghanistan, has frequently fallen out with the Afghan
Taliban for directing his jihadis against the Pakistani security forces rather
than sending them to Afghanistan.
Initially, this pleased American and European intelligence agencies as he
turned the tide from the Afghan battlefield to Pakistan. But now Baitullah is
viewed with extreme suspicion as he has proved to be a man who always achieves
what he sets out to do, and jihadis from around the world are flooding into his
camps to be trained for global jihad. This in turn has allayed the fears of the
Afghan Taliban, who realize they will be ensured a smooth supply of fighters to
For these reasons, Baitullah is now a marked man.
Over the past few months, Pakistani security agencies and coalition leaders
from Afghanistan have shared intelligence in an attempt to track down Baitullah
and pinpoint where he gets his resources, but he remains elusive.
All the same, this has not diminished his effectiveness.
Last week, for instance, security forces were sent to the Hangu district of
North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) after the government announced it was
reneging on peace deals and launching an all-out offensive against militants in
Mehsud called a meeting in South Waziristan of all powerful commanders from the
Pakistani tribal agencies and announced that the minute any attack was mounted
anywhere against militants, offensives would be launched against the Pakistani
security forces in the tribal areas as well as on the federal capital,
Islamabad, and on the leadership and allies of the leading party in the ruling
coalition, the Pakistan People's Party.
Further, President Pervez Musharraf and his associates and anyone connected
with the storming in Islamabad last year of the radical Lal Masjid (Red
Mosque), which was pro-Taliban, would also be targeted.
Subsequently, the Pakistani security agencies advised the government to
immediately withdraw the forces. The reasoning was that Pakistan could
withstand pressure from the United States to act against militants, but it
could not win a showdown with Baitullah. A high-level meeting presided over by
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani agreed.
The problem now is to hunt down Baitullah, who is also wanted in connection
with the assassination last year of former premier Benazir Bhutto and other
Using Baitullah's differences with some regional commanders - Baitullah comes
from the Mehsud - Pakistan tried to erect a web of opposition around him, but
none survived. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) also tried to
sow seeds of enmity against Baitullah, without success.
Haji Omar, once a powerful chief of the Taliban in South Waziristan and also a
Wazir, tried to challenge Baitullah's command, but he now lives in exile in
North Waziristan, without forces or resources.
Haji Nazeer, another Wazir, who runs the biggest Pakistani Taliban fighting
network in Afghanistan, also tried to confront Baitullah, at the behest of the
security forces, but he failed. Last month, Baitullah drove out all tribes
related to Haji Nazeer from South Waziristan.
Now that Baitullah is unchallenged in South Waziristan, he aims to broaden his
network. He has raised his presence in neighboring North Waziristan and the
biggest network of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Haqqani faction, has no
choice but to side with Baitullah.
The Swat Valley's Mullah Fazlullah has also announced Baitullah as his chief
mentor, and after wiping out the ISI-backed Shah group from Mohmand Agency,
Baitullah's men are calling the shots in Orakzai Agency, Mohamand Agency and
Darra Adam Khail in NWFP.
With each consolidation of Baitullah's power, Islamabad, along with its Western
allies, becomes all the more convinced that he has to be eliminated, otherwise
there can never be any sustained military operations against militants in the
tribal areas. His demise would also lead to the disintegration of the Taliban's
and al-Qaeda's networks in the tribal areas, leaving only weakened stand-alone
Baitullah is well aware that he is now public enemy number one. A senior
Pakistani affiliate of al-Qaeda, now close to Baitullah, told Asia Times
Online, "It is not Baitullah Mehsud's style to hide when people sniff around
him. He will open the floodgates of offensives and if there is a conspiracy
between Islamabad and the political and military leadership, they will taste
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at[email protected]