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    South Asia
     Aug 11, 2009
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 conclusively proved.

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 Waziristan.

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 saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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