Guessing games over Taliban leader
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD - The ongoing confusion over whether Baitullah Mehsud, head of the
Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was killed in a US Predator drone attack in
the South Waziristan tribal area last Wednesday bears similarity to previous
incidents in which al-Qaeda and the Taliban faked a leader's death to buy
themselves some time.
Baitullah, who has a US$5 million bounty on his head in connection with
numerous acts of terror, has variously been described as "dead and buried",
"gravely ill" and "alive and well" following the drone attack on August 5 in
which his second wife
and more than a dozen militants have been confirmed as dead.
Hakimullah Mehsud, seen as a potential successor to Baitullah, has been
reported as killed in a shootout with another leader. Again, this has not been
In 2005, the Taliban commander of South Waziristan, Abdullah Mehsud,
unintentionally committed a blunder which sparked a major military operation
that posed a severe threat to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who were at that time
in a phase of regrouping
Abdullah Mehsud abducted two Chinese engineers involved in the construction of
the Gomal Zam Dam in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and in the subsequent
rescue attempt one of the hostages was killed.
Abdullah Mehsud's al-Qaeda patrons, as well as some top Pakistani militants,
were alarmed by the incident. Given Pakistan's friendship with China, they
realized Islamabad would have to send the army into the tribal areas.
They quickly agreed that Abdullah Mehsud, who was injured when the security
forces tried to rescue the engineers, would be declared dead. His comrades
issued statements to the media that he had been buried in Shawal in North
He laid low for several months and the army did not move into the tribal areas.
Abdullah Mehsud then continued his activities until he committed suicide last
year after being surrounding by the security forces in Balochistan province.
At present, the army is poised to move into Baitullah Mehsud's South Waziristan
tribal area on the border with Afghanistan following a 10-week campaign to
pacify the Swat area in NWFP. Apart from his other activities to destabilize
the Pakistani state, Baitullah is the main contributor of fighters to
southwestern Afghanistan in support of the Taliban-led insurgency.
Baitullah's TTP, which since the end of December 2007 has pulled together a
number of Taliban groups, has an estimated 5,000 fighters. It is a formidable
force, but it could never take on the military head-on.
In one of the world's most difficult terrains at the crossroads of South
Waziristan and North Waziristan, where al-Qaeda and Pakistani militant leaders
live, the militants keep the army engaged with hit-and-run tactics in an
elaborate game of hide-and-seek.
At the same time, they strike at Pakistan's soft underbelly in the cities. This
has resulted in numerous peace deals in the tribal areas, which are usually
broken when the United States puts pressure on Islamabad to crack down on
militants. This cycle went on for several years.
Then came the US's unmanned drones, capable of firing lethal missiles at
pin-point targets from high in the sky. They have killed scores of militants,
including several high-ranking al-Qaeda members.
They forced Baitullah and other leaders to keep a much lower profile. At the
same time, the authorities tried, with some success, to turn lower-ranking
Taliban commanders against Baitullah, who, suffering from diabetes, some months
ago tried to strike a deal with the security forces.
He wrote letters to army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, but his messenger,
Shah Abdul Aziz, a former member of parliament, was arrested and the offers
denied. Close comrades such as Ilyas Kashmiri and Abdul Jabbar, veteran jihadis
from the Kashmir struggle, could have told Baitullah as much.
The establishment regularly brands Baitullah as a spy for the US and for
Britain. This is par for the course for enemies of the state. But Baitullah was
also called an agent for India's Research and Analysis Wing, its leading
intelligence outfit. The message being sent was that Baitullah would be given
zero tolerance and his termination had been ordered.
In light of this, and with the drones buzzing around and the army almost on the
march against him, Baitullah might have decided to simply take the heat out of
the situation by disappearing, much as Abdullah Mehsud did.
Al-Qaeda used this tactic with Osama bin Laden when the US invested heavily all
around Pakistan and Afghanistan to catch him after he fled Afghanistan in late
2001. By 2005, several special forces operations were close on his trail. At
this point, he disappeared off the map, only leaving in his wake speculation
about whether he was dead or alive.
Another example involves Rashid Rauf, a dual citizen of Britain and Pakistan
who was arrested in Pakistan in connection with the trans-Atlantic aircraft
plot in August 2006. He escaped and went to North Waziristan. London was
incensed and turned the screws on Islamabad, which in turn rounded up scores of
Rauf's family and jihadi colleagues. In November 2008, news was leaked that he
had been killed in a drone attack and the pressure was off. Asia Times Online
is aware that Rauf is very much alive and kicking in North Waziristan.
Baitullah, too, could be alive and kicking, and he may have decided to lie low
for a while. If this is true - there is no evidence at this stage that this is
the case - he has taken something of a gamble.
He is a highly charismatic and ruthless man who through his drive and
commitment has made the TTP a major thorn in the side of the Pakistani state
while also lending invaluable support to the Taliban's struggle in Afghanistan.
This vital network could begin to unravel, and in the Tank and Dera Ismail Khan
areas the rival Bhitini tribe is already targeting his Mehsud tribesmen,
killing more than a dozen in the past few days.
On the other hand, his absence will take the heat out of the crackdown on
militancy - the Interior Ministry has already declared that this struggle is
"over". The military will also have good reason to further delay the ground
offensive in South Waziristan that it is reluctant to undertake; it would be a
very tough campaign and domestically highly unpopular.
Baitullah could simply be dead, although the same results would likely flow
from his demise.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at email@example.com